“The rate at which the Caribbean corals have been declining is truly alarming…They are a major oceanic ecosystem, this is a tragedy that must be reversed,” says Carl Gustaf Lundin, Director of IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme. But the study, Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012, “brings some very encouraging news: the fate of Caribbean corals is not beyond our control and there are some very concrete steps that we can take to help them recover.”
Most Caribbean coral reefs will disappear in 20 years if we don't restore the grazers that defend the corals from seaweed. This is a major message of the new report, "Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012," released on 2 July 2014. The report is the result of a three-year joint effort of the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP).
“The rate at which the Caribbean corals have been declining is truly alarming…They are a major oceanic ecosystem, this is a tragedy that must be reversed,” says Carl Gustaf Lundin, Director of IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme. “But this study brings some very encouraging news: the fate of Caribbean corals is not beyond our control and there are some very concrete steps that we can take to help them recover.”
The Caribbean is home to 9% of the world’s coral reefs, which are one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. Caribbean reefs, spanning a total of 38 countries, are vital to the region’s economy. They generate more than US$ 3 billion annually from tourism and fisheries and over a hundred times more in other goods and services, on which more than 43 million people depend.
In 1972, famed marine biologist Sylvia Earle said Caribbean coral reefs are, "almost devoid of conspicuous plants." Today the opposite is true -- reefs are dominated by conspicuous seaweeds overgrowing, smothering, and poisoning Caribbean corals.
The new report shows a more than fifty percent decline in living corals throughout the Caribbean over the past half century.
As the report says, “The decline is not uniform and correlates only weakly with local extreme heating events, instead being mainly attributed to the severity of local stressors, in particular tourism, overfishing and pollution.” Thus, “Whilst climate change has badly affected Caribbean corals and continues to be a major threat, well-managed reefs have bounced back suggesting that climate change is not the main determinant of current Caribbean coral health and that good management practices can save larger areas of reef if tough choices are made.”
Currently there are voices saying climate change has already doomed coral reefs but the report shows that loss of parrotfishes and other grazers has been far more important than climate change for Caribbean reef destruction so far. It finds that “Loss of the two main grazers, parrotfish and sea urchin, has been a key driver of coral decline in the region as it breaks the delicate balance of coral ecosystems and allows algae to smother reefs.”
While it is true that climate change poses an enormous risk for the future because of coral bleaching and more acid oceans, the fact is reefs protected from overfishing and excessive coastal pollution are more resilient to these stresses. “Even if we could somehow make climate change disappear tomorrow," says Jeremy Jackson, lead author of the report, "these reefs would continue their decline. We must immediately address the grazing problem for the reefs to stand any chance of surviving future climate shifts.”
"The decline in corals began long before climate change began to affect reefs," says Terry Hughes, author of a 1994 study that predicted the current problems due to parrotfish removal.
Discoveries in Coral Reefs," a production by Horizon International, was filmed entirely in the waters off Bonaire by Oscar-winning underwater videographer Nick Caloyianis who captured moray eels with cleaner fish swimming in and out of their mouths, camouflaged poisonous rock fish emerging from their perches, sea horses gracefully slithering from coral branch to coral branch, and barracudas lurking about.
These "Resilient Reefs" have strong local protections that are strictly enforced and live coral cover is more than double or triple the average coral cover of 14% seen throughout the Caribbean. Most notable of these are the Flower Garden Banks (55% live coral cover), Bermuda (35%) and Bonaire (35%). All of these places prevent the fishing of parrotfish.
The Flower Gardens in the northern Gulf of Mexico are protected by their United States National Marine Sanctuary status, which prohibits the use of fish traps and parrot fishing. Bermuda has an even longer history of banning fish traps and spearfishing. And Bonaire, with an entirely tourist-based economy that is reliant on the health of their reefs, has long restricted fishing. A brief breakdown in these protections resulted in an immediate decline in the health of Bonaire’s reefs, which triggered a quick restitution of protections.
But reefs where parrotfish are unprotected have suffered tragic declines. These “Failure Reefs” are places where a variety of local human impacts have been allowed to run unchecked: not just by overfishing but also by overuse for recreation, excessive and destructive coastal development, and pollution. The worst of these include Jamaica, the entire Florida Reef Tract from Miami to Key West, and the US Virgin Islands.
“All too often, our fixation on the future threats of climate change has resulted in neglecting the things we can actually fix on a local basis,” says Carl Gustaf Lundin, Director of the IUCN Marine Programme and GCRMN Chairman. “We need to take a reef-by-reef, island-by-island, region-by-region approach to the local issues as we struggle to cope with the larger scale problem of curbing the use of fossil fuels.”
We can fix this problem of conserving Caribbean coral reefs. Fish are being destroyed despite their enormous economic and ecological value to the very survival of coral reefs and the goods and services provided by healthy reefs. The report strongly advocates banning all fish traps throughout the Caribbean, banning spearfishing (a practice that cannot be regulated at the level of fish species), and banning all other fisheries practices that harm parrotfish.
To achieve this goal, “we support the formation of a network of Caribbean nations working together for a unified response to the Caribbean coral reef crisis” says Jerker Tamelander, head of the UNEP coral reef unit.
Some countries are already taking new positive action. Barbuda is moving to ban all catches of parrotfish and grazing sea urchins while also planning to set aside one third of their coastal waters as marine reserves. “This is the kind of aggressive management that needs to be replicated regionally if we are going to increase the resilience of Caribbean reefs,” says Ayana Johnson of the Waitt Institute’s Blue Halo Initiative that is collaborating with Barbuda in the development of their new management plan.
Another problem discussed in the report is the “massive outbreak of coral diseases and mass die-off of sea urchin close to the Panama Canal…” The order-of-magnitude increase in bulk shipping in the 1960s and 1970s has introduced pathogens and invasive species that have since spread in the Caribbean.
Carl Lundin writes that, “Saving Caribbean coral reefs is a major challenge, but to quote the legendary Jamaican reggae star Jimmy Cliff, ‘You can get it if you really want, but you must try, try and try. You'll succeed at last.’ "
The new report confirms that a unifying attribute of the healthiest Caribbean coral reefs is vigorous populations of grazing parrotfish.
Summary of the Recommendations made in the report:
1. Adopt conservation and fisheries management strategies that lead to the restoration of parrotfish populations and so restore the balance between algae and coral that characterizes healthy coral reefs;
2. Maximize the effect of those management strategies by incorporating necessary resources for outreach, compliance, enforcement and the examination of alternative livelihoods for those that may be affected by restrictions on the take of parrotfish;
3. Consider listing the parrotfish in the Annex II and III of the SPAW Protocol (The Protocol Concerning Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife) in addition to highlighting the issue of reef herbivory in relevant Caribbean fisheries fora;
4. Engage with indigenous and local communities and other stakeholders to communicate the benefits of such strategies for coral reef ecosystems, the replenishment of fisheries stocks and communities’ economy.
The Report was published with the support from The International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI), the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, United States State Department, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Ministry of Economic Affairs of the Netherlands, Summit Foundation, McQuown Foundation and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. It is most detailed and comprehensive study of its kind published to date, according to IUCN: The result of the work of 90 experts over the course of three years. It contains the analysis of more than 35,000 surveys conducted at 90 Caribbean locations since 1970, including studies of corals, seaweeds, grazing sea urchins and fish.
This news is from IUCN with special thanks to contributions from Carl Gustaf Lundin, Director of IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme.
· Caribbean Coral Reefs - Status Report 1970-2012 (27.99MB)
· Résumé Executif Caribbean Status Report (4.60MB)
· Sumario Ejecutivo Caribbean Status Report (4.59MB)
Horizon International's oceans and coral reefs program website, Magic Porthole, at www.magicporthole.org, provides a window into coral reef life, presenting wonders of coral reefs and oceans, games, news, contests, exhibits and special features on dolphins, sharks, whales, sea otters and much more with contributions from aquariums, NOAA, and others.