Paradise is in danger

Most Caribbean coral reefs may disappear in the next 20 years, according to a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Overfishing is the main culprit. But as Regine Reibling reports from Equador, these sensitive ecosystem could eventually recover if properly protected. Regine Reibling reports from Ecuador.

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An underwater paradise is becoming increasingly rare in the Caribbean. The colourful coral reefs are in danger, with only about one-sixth of the original coral cover left. Most Caribbean coral reefs may disappear in the next 20 years, according to the latest report by the International Union for Conversation of Nature (IUCN), published last week.

Overfishing is to blame

The marine scientists analysed data from 1970 to 2012 at 90 Caribbean locations. “The rate at which the Caribbean corals have been declined is truly alarming,” says Carl Gustaf Lundin, Direction of IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme. Caribbean corals have declined by more than 50 per cent in the past 40 years.

Overfishing is largely to blame, say the researchers. Previously, climate change had long been though to be the main culprit in coral degradation, by raising ocean temperatures and making oceans more acidic. Jeremy Jackson, lead author of the report and a scientific expert on coral reefs, makes very clear: “Even if we could somehow make climate change disappear tomorrow, these reefs would continue to decline.”

Disappearing parrotfish

The researchers discovered that the real driver of coral decline is being caused by the loss of parrotfish and sea urchins. Both species feed on algae, thereby cleaning the reefs. But extreme fishing throughout the 20th century has brought the parrotfish population to the brink of extinction, while sea urchins were killed en mass in the 1980s due to an identified disease.

The loss of these two species – so-called grazers – has meant that the algae has been allowed to grow out of control, completely smothering some reefs and leading to their collapse, Lundin told the BBC. Hard hit are reefs in Jamaica, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Florida Reef Tract.

Encouraging news

But the study also has some 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,” says Lundin. Reefs must have stronger protections that are strictly enforced.

The study shows, for instance, some of the healthiest Caribbean coral reefs are those that harbour protected parrotfish populations. According to the IUCN, these include the Gulf of Mexico, Bermuda and Bonaire. Other countries are paying attention: “Barbuda is about to ban all catches of parrotfish and grazing sea urchins, and set aside one-third of its coastal waters as marine reserves,” Ayana Johnson is quoted as saying in an IUCN news release.

The Caribbean is home to 9 per cent of the world’s coral reefs. They are also vital to the region’s 43 million residents because of their economic value. The IUCN estimates that the reefs generate more than 3 billion dollars annually from tourism and fisheries.

 

Photo credit: Phil’s 1stPix/Creative Commons).

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