The Caribbean coral reef is dying, but coral gardeners are slowly rebuilding it

Ella Alexander
Photo credit: Courtesy of Jamaica Inn

From Harper's BAZAAR

Just off the coast of Jamaica, deep under the sea and atop the ocean bed, small fragments of staghorn coral reef sway with the current, dangling off rows of rope that look like washing lines. Other coral cuttings hang off makeshift trees made using PVC pipes, like an underwater vineyard. A diver painstakingly removes the algae, fireworms and snails that have come to either overcrowd or eat. He does this twice a week, working through the same meticulous, yet crucially delicate process. The attention to detail and devotion is no different to the care a gardener would tend to a precious rose bush above ground, but here in the Caribbean the stakes are higher.

The coral gardeners are part of a number of grass-roots organisations trying to save the coral reef. In 2014, it was predicted that the reefs, known as the rainforests of the sea due to their diverse ecosystems, will disappear in the next 20 years as a result of overfishing, climate change and pollution. In Jamaica, the issue is acute. Over the course of the Eighties and Nineties, the island lost 85 per cent of its coral reefs and fish catches plummeted to a sixth of what they had been in the Fifties, bringing families close to poverty. The demise of the coral reef cannot be underestimated.

Photo credit: Courtesy

“This reef basically surrounds the island and protects it from erosion,” says Belinda Morrow, who runs the White River Marine Association near Ocho Rios. She is also part of the family that owns luxury resort Jamaica Inn, which partnered with the association two years ago with the goal of increase the fish biomass by 500 per cent in five years. “The coral reef not only saves the island, but also our beaches which of course are a source of in tourism income – one of our biggest foreign income earners. It’s the habitat for the fish upon which most local fishermen depend.”

The demise of the coral reef has been caused by multiple factors. Climate change has caused more extreme weather, including serious storms, the worst of which was 1980’s Hurricane Allen which ripped apart the reef with its 40-foot waves. Then came Diadema, a black urchin sea disease, which wiped out the sea urchins needed to eat the algae that often smothers the coral.

While the rise in tourism generated money for Jamaica, the coastal development did the reef no favours - additional nutrients, river pollution, and sedimentation caused extra stress, as did over-fishing. The latter became a Catch 22 situation – as the coral reef fell apart and there was less algae for them to feast on, fishes went elsewhere. The local fishermen mined the local shorelines even more rigorously, and the fish population fell even further. When they did catch anything, it tended to be baby fish, who had not yet time to reproduce the millions of eggs needed to increase the population, and so it became a self-perpetuating cycle.

Photo credit: Glowimages - Getty Images

The issue looked grave both environmentally and for locals whose livelihoods depended on marine life. A number of local organisations rose up with the aim of saving the coral reef and to return it to its once-bountiful state, including White River Marine Association. This group of fishermen, hoteliers and local businesses have facilitated the planting of coral nurseries in a two-mile stretch of the north coast of Jamaica. Fishing is banned from the area, and – despite some initial reservations – most fishermen realised that a short-term ban on fishing was necessary in order for the fish to return at all.

“For two years we’ve held Monday meetings by the river discussing all aspects of the sanctuary,” says Morrow. “We treat it as a savings account: let the money grow and only take out the interest - conservation, the impact of continually killing juvenile fish and most importantly working together to make a positive change. The fishers will eventually have more and larger fish, closer in, which means they’ll earn more, save time and invest less because they won’t have to go so far out to sea which involves burning petrol, and time. For the spearshooters, they will not have to dive as deep, which is safer.”

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The sanctuary, which has been strongly supported by the Oracabessa sanctuary, a few miles along the coast near luxury resort Goldeneye, has also opened up new job opportunities via monthly cleaning and maintenance of the markers, the buoys and anchors, as well as the making of the nursery structures. The 16-hour daily patrol is manned by paid fishermen, while others have been trained to scuba dive, a skill they can use in other tourism jobs. Those working for the sanctuary have also been given literacy classes and trained in Team Jamaica - a tourism certification. Outreach education is available at local schools, and the continued bi-monthly meetings showcase informative videos and bring in speakers.

“The sanctuary has and will provide income opportunities and education,” says Morrow. “And education is a crucial aspect of making conservation work. We have a Patois saying that goes, ‘God made fish so fish cyan done’, which means 'God made fish so there will always be fish." The fishermen can use this as a defence, 'it's god's will to have fish so don't tell me I'm killing them off.' Only education can dispel some of these beliefs. Instead, we say, 'small fish Nuh fe de pon dish', which translates as 'small fish are juvenile so don’t eat them.' Let them mature and produce millions of eggs."

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In two years, the results of the coral gardeners and this labour-intensive process is paying off. When each coral cutting grows to the size of a hand, they are delicately transplanted to a reef to jumpstart the growth. It’s slow-going – even fast-growing coral species add just a few inches a year – but it’s working. The number of fish within the sanctuary has doubled and individual fish have grown larger – nearly tripling in length on average – a sure sign of health. What can tourists do to help?

“Dive with care,” says Morrow. “Try not to be clumsy or destructive; kayaks, sail boats and snorkellers often go over the reef and hit, touch and damage the reef. Also, don’t buy or take any shells or other marine souvenirs, such as dried starfish, blowfish and sand dollars.”

Photo credit: Cavan Images - Getty Images

Morrow says donations to respective groups are always welcomed and, while “volunteering is a good idea”, she is also keen to give as much work as possible to the fishermen so wouldn’t want to remove any income stream. Tourists can visit the reefs and see the work being done via glass bottom boat tours hosted at Jamaica Inn, as well as at Goldeneye who offer guests trips to Oracabessa Bay Fish Sanctuary.

“We are successful at what we are doing,” she says. “The fishermen, snorkellers all report seeing more fish and conchs. We have taken a negative and turned it into a positive, but we have a long way to go with a constant need for awareness, education and financial support.”

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