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Let’s save Caribbean’s coral reefs

Published: 
Sunday, May 13, 2018

His Royal Highness (HRH), the Prince of Wales visited a coral cay named Lady Eliot Island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GBR) during the Commonwealth Games in April 2018. His connection with Australia started 50 years ago when he was a student at Geelong Grammar School. On this occasion, HRH wanted to learn how Australia was addressing the threats facing coral reefs and reef islands.

Anna Marsden of the GBR Foundation said that restoration of the reef’s most precious land and sea-scapes was a priority. She noted that ‘reef islands’ are a critical part of the whole GBR ecosystem and they play a key role in the life cycle of an amazing array of seabirds, turtles, manta rays, dolphins, sharks and corals. She aims to futureproof the ecosystem from the effects of climate change and the impacts of local threats through a series of ‘Arks’ to restore and protect the wildlife inhabiting the reef as well as the islands.

The project builds on the success of the Raine Island Recovery Project, which restored the world’s largest green turtle hatchery. The funding will be used to design a tailored programme for each island habitat in consultation with experts that will include developing detailed resilience and habitat maps for terrestrial spaces and the adjoining coral reefs, climate change impact modelling, piloting novel monitoring technologies such as acoustics, drones, under and above water automated vehicles, thermal imaging, and machine learning, on-ground adaptation and restoration activities, and carbon mitigation.

Over the past 11 years, BHP contributed almost $20 million to Great Barrier Reef projects and initiatives. Margaret Jackson AC, the chair of the Prince’s Trust Australia, said that the royal visit was a wonderful opportunity to highlight and explore what can still be done for coral reefs worldwide.

In 2005, the Caribbean region experienced a widespread coral bleaching episode. Local studies of the occurrence showed that an average of 66 per cent of the hard coral cover in Tobago was visibly affected, with levels over 85 per cent observed at many sites. The studies show that when sea surface temperatures rise above the normal high for the year it stresses corals, causing them to expel the colourful algae that live inside the corals’ tissue and which provide the corals with their brilliant colour and most of their energy needs. Bleached corals become weak. The longer they remain in this state, the more susceptible they become to infectious diseases and vulnerable to partial or complete mortality.

Sedimentation rates in Tobago have been found to be below levels considered harmful to corals, but a sediment accumulation profile that covers both the dry and rainy seasons would be necessary to capture the full range of sedimentation rates experienced at the different sites in Tobago. One study suggests that Tobago’s coral community is dominated by small colonies characterised by a shift towards more resilient weedy species. However, it is possible that these species may not grow at the rate, and in the structure, necessary to maintain the framework and function of the Buccoo Reef. The maintenance of reef-building taxa, like Orbicella annularis or boulder star coral, should, therefore, be a key conservation priority across Tobago’s reefs.

Prof David Solomon at Melbourne University is testing biodegradable surface films to limit damaging levels of heat and light from penetrating water and adversely affecting the Great Barrier Reef. This ‘reef sun shield’ is an innovative solution to combat coral bleaching.

On April 30, after the Prince of Wales returned to London to host the CHOGM, the Government of Australia pledged Aus$500 million to save its Great Barrier Reef. The Caribbean is home to nine per cent of the world’s coral reefs, but a mere one-sixth of the original coral cover remains. The reefs span numerous inhabited and uninhabited islands like the Prickly Pear Cays off Anguilla and Saint Barthélemy.

Cuba’s Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen) is a 367 square mile marine sanctuary known internationally as the Galápagos of the Caribbean.

Caribbean reefs and reef islands are vital to the region’s economy and generate more than US$3bn annually from tourism and fisheries and much more in other goods and services. Their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall once visited the four-acre site proposed for the Buccoo Reef Trust Tobago Marine Research Centre at the Bon Accord Development on March 6, 2008. Perhaps a research team with scientists from Trinidad and Tobago’s Institute of Marine Affairs, the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Australia, the Centre for Marine Sciences, UWI, Mona, Jamaica and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution can rekindle Royal attention to the reefs of Cuba, Jamaica and Tobago with the hope of building a network of Arks to preserve and conserve the flora and fauna of West Indian reef island ecosystems.

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