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    Coral Reef Protection, Part II: The Current Situation

    By Keith R | September 5, 2006

    Topics: Environmental Protection, Marine/Coastal Issues | 1 Comment »

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    In the first part of my primer series on coral reefs in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), I examined why it is important to protect coral reef systems, what sort of things threaten their survival.  Here in Part II, I look at what coral reefs LAC has, what condition they are in currently, and a brief overview of what currently is being done to protect and/or rebuild them.  In Part III I’ll provide “eco-tips” on how divers, snorkelers and the average reader can help.  Later blogs will look at individual groups working on the coral reef issue in LAC nations.

    The Hidden Cities

    In "The Hidden Cities", a brief video actor Ed Harris narrates for one of the several groups working on reef protection worldwide, he calls coral reefs “the hidden cities” because of their size, complexities and number of inhabitants.  The Caribbean Basin has a multitude of these “hidden cities” (see map), and there are also important reefs off the shores of Brazil and the Pacific coastlines of Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and much of Central America. The 4 Basic Types of Reef

    There are four basic kinds of coral reefs: (1) fringing, which is always connected to the shore, no matter how far out to sea it extends; (2) bank/barrier, separated from the mainland by a lagoon and usually only reachable by boat; (3) platform, flat-topped (as the name suggests) formations usually far offshore in sheltered waters; (4) atolls, circular or nearly circular rings of coral reefs sitting on top of submarine mountains formed by former volcanoes.  The Caribbean has mainly fringe, barrier and atoll.  South America has mainly bank/barrier and fringe.

    Where the Coral Reefs Are in the Caribbean Basin
    Source: "Reefs at Risk in the Caribbean" (2004)


    The amount of coastline involved varies considerably.  Some islands in the Caribbean Basin are nearly completely surrounded by coral reefs, whereas some of the South American nations have only small percentages of their coastline lined with coral reefs.  Colombia, for example, has 1,700 km of coastline (both Pacific and Caribbean), but less than 150 km of that has coral reefs. Where LAC Reefs Rank Among Those at Risk Worldwide

    The Temas tool section has a listing of links to coral reef maps for many individual LAC nations at this link.

    Assessment of the Current Risks to LAC Reef Health

    As part of recent joint efforts by several organizations such as the World Resources Institute (WRI), World Conservation Union (IUCN), International Coral Reef Initiative , ReefBase and Reef Check to map coral reef health worldwide, and specific program for the Caribbean run by the UN Environment Programme's (UNEP) Caribbean Environment Programme (CEP), and other efforts supported by UNESCO and the World Bank, some initial assessments of the health of LAC coral reefs and threats thereto are available.*

    The news, overall, is not good.  Among the 97 nations and territories worldwide with coral reefs assessed by Reefbase (see table), 29 are in the LAC region.  In fact, 16 of the 28 nations/territories with 100% of their reefs at risk are in the Caribbean Basin, followed closely by Jamaica, St. Vincent and Costa Rica.  Only seven LAC nations have less than half of their coral reefs at risk.

    There is clearly much work to be done.

    Some of the ones in decent condition tend to be far offshore or fall within coastal/marine protected areas (MPAs) created by law.  But so far being in an MPA is no guarantee of protection: LAC has many of them already.  Mexico has 28 protected areas that contain coral reefs, Central America and Panama 36, the Eastern Caribbean (mostly Lesser Antilles) 63, non-US "Northern Caribbean" (Bahamas, Caymans, Cuba, DR, Jamaica, Turks & Caicos) 70, and South America 20.  But many of these are not well monitored, patroled and enforced, and many are seriously over-fished or threatened by irresponsible tourism practices.

    The main threats vary subregion to subregion, country to country, reef to reef, of course.  In 2004 report "Reefs at Risk in the Caribbean," WRI ranks threats in four main categories:

    a.     poorly planned and/or managed coastal development — not only from mass tourism, dredging, pier and port construction, but also from new communities sprouting up along the coastline without proper waste management and sanitation services.  Also affecting coral reefs is construction allowed in the sensitive mangrove and wetland areas that serve as natural sediment traps; without them, increased sediment and algae growth due to nutrient run-off smother coral reefs.

    b.     sedimentation and pollution from inland sources.  While this can include several sources, experts suggest that the main culprits are poor agricultural practices and deforestation.

    c.     marine-based pollution (ships, oil rigs, etc.).

    d.     overfishing and poor or illegal fishing practices.

    The leading "high" threat to the Southern Caribbean zone is overfishing, whereas in the "Continental Southwestern Caribbean" zone it is sedimentation.  If one combines "medium" and "high" risks, in the Southern Caribbean there is a tie between overfishing and coastal development at about 45%, whereas in the SW Caribbean it is roughly a tie between overfishing and sedimentation at around 70%.

    What Is and Isn't Being Done Already

    There are a number of positive steps that have been taken to help LAC reefs, but as in so many environment issues facing the region, it seems that for every positive there is a caveat or counterbalancing force — a sort of Good News, Bad News situation:

    Coral Disease ObservedWhat the Experts Tend to Recommend

    Just as the challenges each reef vary, so do the recommended policy responses.  But generally speaking, experts tend to recommend the following set of actions:

    — Keith R

    *Lauretta Burke and Jon Maidens.  Reefs at Risk in the Caribbean. 2004. Published by World Resources Institute (WRI).

    D. Linton et al., "Status of Coral Reefs in the Northern Caribbean and Atlantic Node of the GCRMN," in Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2002 . C. Wilkinson, ed. (Townsville: Australian Institute of Marine Science, 2002).

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    One Response to “Coral Reef Protection, Part II: The Current Situation”

    1. Spencer Says:

      Coral reef protection is so important for the continuation of Caribbean tourism. I actually believe the hotels and airlines have a major part to play in education their guest and passengers as to the dangers it faces. Hopefully the message will get through sooner rather than later.

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