Every year, thousands of tourists from around the world travel to Tobago to experience first-hand its pristine beaches, lush rainforest, and stunning coral reefs. For most of them, their first stop on the island is usually the Buccoo Reef.
In 2017 alone, the Tourism Ministry recorded 173,018 visitors to T&T.
Thousands of tourists flock to Tobago yearly. It is estimated that more than 90 per cent of people who visit the island go to the Buccoo Reef.
Declared a Ramsar site in 2005, the Buccoo Reef is recognised as Tobago’s major tourist attraction because it is easily accessed without diving gear as the area in which it is situated is not as deep as other scenic underwater spots. The reef is home to at least 119 species of fish and the critically endangered hawksbill turtle, making the Buccoo Reef a tourist’s paradise.
The Ramsar Convention, which T&T signed onto in 1993, makes provision for the protection and conservation of wetlands, including mangroves, reefs, and natural aquifers towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world.
Unfortunately, man-made pollutants, rising sea temperatures, and rough seas are taking their toll on this natural wonder.
Even the glass bottom boats and jet skis which have become popular with visitors have gotten a bad rap. Boat operators have been accused of adopting a “party” vibe when taking people out to the reef and are said to be contributing to the reef’s stresses.
“The tour operators are responding to the market that wants a party when they go out but the noise is keeping the fish life away, they won’t stay when there is all that noise out there. When tourists come, they usually don’t want that type of experience out on the water because they are usually more educated on the reef systems than our own people…but it is the Trini party lifestyle is encouraging it and it is now very popular,” said Alvin “Big Dougie” Douglas who owns a popular dive shop in Tobago.
Divers operating in the area for decades now fear that if the site is not protected, by the next 20 years, the Buccoo Reef will be nothing but a fond memory.
The reef is more than just a tourist attraction, in addition to sustaining fish life and contributing to the ecosystem, coral reefs also protect coastlines from damaging storm surges from the ocean.
Tobago’s Buccoo Reef borders and protects the popular Store Bay and Pigeon Point beaches but even with that protection, over the past ten years, both shorelines show signs of erosion.
In this sixth instalment of the Guardian Media series on global warming and climate change on T&T’s ecosystem, our news team visited Tobago, accompanied by a dive master and photographer Dave Elliot and Douglas, the owner of Frontier Divers.
During a visit to the Pigeon Point Heritage Park last weekend, our news team saw piles of broken, bleached coral along the shoreline.
Buccoo Reef is located on the southwestern coast of Tobago near Scarborough and fringes the Bon Accord Lagoon Complex, which is made up of several wetland types, such as the coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangrove forests.
In its Ramsar profile, the Buccoo Reef is said to be home to endangered and vulnerable species of coral such as Acropora palmata, Diploria labyrinthiformis, D strigosa, and Siderastrea siderea.
The white-sand beachfront of Pigeon Point is said to come from the waste of parrotfish: the fish bite and scrape algae off of rocks and dead corals with their parrot-like beaks, grind up the inedible calcium-carbonate reef material (made mostly of coral skeletons) grind it during digestion and then excrete it as sand.
Ramsar’s website also states that the site continues to be adversely affected by intense tourist activity and pollutant discharges.
“So far the restricted area status and existing management plan have been unable to prevent these impacts,” the profile states.
Big Dougie: The reef
is very stressed
Douglas discovered his love for diving at the age of 14, when a fisherman visited his classroom to talk about different species of fish found living in the reefs around the island.
Determined to see the wonders first-hand, Big Dougie went to the only dive shop on the island at the time and began doing odd jobs, cleaning equipment, and boats until he had enough money saved to get certified to dive.
Thirty-three years later, his dive shop, Frontier Divers is one of the most popular on the island and every week he takes dozens of tourists around the island to experience the beauty of the coral reefs.
He joined the Coast Guard when he became an adult and stayed in the service for 13 years before retiring to open Frontier.
Big Dougie said he has seen many changes in the Buccoo Reef over the years, most noticeably the disappearance of the wide range of fish life.
“Yes, there are a lot of changes in the conditions, what is happening is that the reef is a lot more stressed than it was before and the variety of fish life you used to see before, you don’t see any more, you don’t see a lot of barracudas, sharks anymore and it is because the reef is very stressed,” he said.
He said there are a number of factors causing stress to the reef, including changes in the weather, rough seas, and man-made pollutants.
“The reef could take some stress coming from the weather, it can take some from rough seas and it can take some pollutants but it cannot take all three at the same time. In my lifetime, I have seen so many changes in the Buccoo Reef that I feel in the next ten to 20 years, we will only be able to talk about the Buccoo Reef because we won’t have it anymore.”
He estimates that the reef draws 95 per cent of visitors to the island.
“Especially for Tobago this is our greatest resource, 95 per cent of visitors that come to Tobago go to the water, it is important we do something to reduce the stress on the reef. The Buccoo Reef is under a lot more stress than the other reef systems, to be frank, the variety of marine life you can see in other parts, you can’t see in the Buccoo Reef.”
He does not believe that those tasked with safeguarding the reef are capable of doing what needs to be done.
“It’s not so much the boat traffic but the pollutants that run off the land. It takes people with power because the forces right now are not able to manage it. I know personally they have had proposals on the table for management but you don’t see anything happening. They need to zone the reefs, in such a way that they can manage both the economy and the reef and reduce the number of jet skis that go into the area because of noise pollution.”
Douglas said although the reef was a protected area, the legislation alone is not enough.
“The current legislation is adequate so the issue is not putting more laws in place, the issue is enforcement and education. They have to police the area, people still illegally fish and hunt turtles, we can’t do anything about the rough seas but the things that we can do, we are neglecting it and if we don’t manage it properly we will lose it.”
He thinks part of the issue is that those charged with the reef’s protection don’t see the constant changes.
“Divers like myself who go into the water are the eyes and ears of the water, we are the people who see the destruction of the ecosystem first, the people who manage it on land don’t see.”
Douglas said the community of Castara has found the perfect balance between protecting and commercialising its reef and that needs to be done across the island.
“Castara has found a way to involve everybody who lives there for them to understand the importance of the reefs and for them to profit from it. If the entire island could do that, you wouldn’t have to police it. You have to educate the people, you have to be consistent, you have to start in schools, the community—they have to see the connection between the ecosystem and money in their pockets or they won’t care about preserving it.”
Englishwoman Victoria West told Guardian Media she has been diving since 2011 and has visited reefs all around the world.
West said this was her first visit to the island and she is already enchanted by Tobago.
“Generally the reefs looked quite good, I didn’t see any rubbish, they looked quite alive not too much dead coral which is always good compared to the Egyptian reefs which are not so bright and colourful—and they have loads of marine life around them,” she said. “I’ll definitely be visiting Tobago again because I love the island and I want to try to dive in different areas like Speyside just to have a mix of the experiences.”