Grassroots movement helping Caribbean reefs to recover

Published by Shane O'Reilly on

August 25th, 2017

In a rare piece of good news on the status of our coral reefs, a new report has documented the spectacular recovery of reefs in Belize thanks to a grassroots movement bringing together scientists, environmentalists, fishermen and tour operators.

The Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative (HRI) studied 300 sites along the world’s second largest barrier reef – the Mesoamerican Reef (MAR) – and monitored the success of planted reef nurseries over the past ten years.

The latest HRI report shows that of the 90,000 coral nurseries grown and planted, more than 90 per cent have survived pressures from human activity and a changing climate. This has resulted in reef cover increasing from 10 per cent to just under 18 per cent of the entire 700-mile MAR.

Caribbean reefs under pressure

Coral reefs are major marine ecosystems on Earth, however, many have come under pressure from human activity over the past decades. The MAR faces the same threats as most reefs, including poor water treatment and intensive coastal urban development.

Map Credit: 

In Belize, the reef system – a World Heritage site since 1996 – has suffered from pollution from agricultural run-off, overfishing, destruction of essential mangrove forests, development of hotels, resorts and private holiday homes and the influx of massive cruise liners.

The central problem, according to World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reef scientist Nadia Bood, is poor enforcement of existing environmental regulation.

“We’ve got some good laws, which aren’t implemented, and some very outdated ones, where fines for infractions are too low, and there is too much self-monitoring …to protect the Belize reef system the current development pattern has to change,” she said in a recent interview with The Guardian.

The pay-off

Reefs are essential spawning and feeding grounds for marine life and they are some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. They also provide essential structural protection for coastal areas and healthy coral systems reduce coastal erosion.

The MAR is composed of over 60 types of hard coral species and provides habitat for over 500 fish species, a variety of species of turtles, sharks and other large marine fauna.

The importance of the MAR for human livelihood and well-being cannot be overstated, with between one and two million people dependant on natural resources from the MAR.  Coral reefs also support local economies through tourism, with recent research estimating the actual value to tourism at about $36 billion annually.

Uncertain future for coral reefs globally

Unfortunately, this success story on its own will do little to stem the tide of global degradation of our coral reef ecosystems. Pollution and other local factors are enough to destroy reefs in any location. Arguably, however, it is runaway coral bleaching that is the major threat to tropical reefs around the world.

Pollution and other local factors are enough to destroy reefs in any location. Arguably, however, it is runaway coral bleaching that is the major threat to tropical reefs around the world.

Bleaching is a stress response by corals, whereby they expel crucial algae living symbiotically within their tissues. The primary stressor now is increasing ocean temperatures resulting from global climate change, something that local action and community efforts can probably do little to address.

Earlier this year, a research study showed that strict conservation and protection measures have failed to halt the destruction of coral reefs in the Hawaiin Islands. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is also reported to be in “terminal condition” as back-to-back coral bleaching along its 2250-kilometre length in 2016 and 2017 has impacted 70 per cent of the Reef.

Many corals need years to recover and increasing ocean temperatures and back-to-back bleaching events could spell the end for coral reefs within decades. The International Society for Reef Studies predicts that 90 per cent of coral reefs will be at risk of destruction by 2050.

Experts agree that it is now about preserving what we have and limiting change as much as possible. Returning many coral reefs to their previous grandeur is, in all likelihood, no longer an option.

We can hope that positive actions such as those that have brought about the 10-year recovery in parts of the MAR continue and receive the full backing of policymakers and legislators worldwide.

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Shane O'Reilly

Shane is a contributor to the Green News. He is an environmental research scientist, based in University College Dublin and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He earned his PhD in environmental chemistry from Dublin City University.