Today’s Editorial: Reefs survived

We should all be pleased to learn that a survey of Grand Cayman reefs by Ocean Futures Society has found no serious damage from Hurricane Ivan. The coral reefs of Grand Cayman were pummelled by powerful wave action during the September storm. We might have been faced with a devastated reef system. This would have meant the loss of an irreplaceable natural resource and a primary draw for tourists.

The survey team, headed by Jean-Michel Cousteau, found that most of the damage was superficial. The hard coral structure of the reefs held up well. The report compares hurricanes to forest fires on land. While devastating initially, forest fires do not usually destroy forests. A hurricane might blast the surface area of a coral reef but if the base structure survives, as ours appears to have, the ecosystem is likely to restore itself. The report goes further in stating that impacted reefs may even re-establish themselves with greater biodiversity.

Grand Cayman seems to have dodged a bullet beneath the surface last September. Imagine what our tourism product would be without beautiful reefs. Divers would not come. Snorkelers would not be impressed. Tourism figures surely would plummet rapidly. But while Ivan did not rob of us our underwater rainforests, we may end up doing the job ourselves. Grand Cayman’s often short-sighted development is destroying our reefs. The pace of the destruction is slower than that of a passing hurricane but it is far worse. The sediments and poisons we are allowing to flow into our waters are killing one of our greatest gifts.

Remember, we did not have to pay for this national treasure. Nature gave the coral reefs to us. Thousands of years of work by tiny animals provided us with a work of art we are able to enjoy, take pride in and cash in on. Our Marine Conservation laws are progressive and they work. But they are not enough. We need laws that apply on land to save what is in the ocean. Construction, deforestation, pollution and population are all land-based issues that have a direct impact on our reefs. Our government must make the connection between land and sea and act promptly with strong legislation that will protect our reefs. It does not matter if one appreciates the inspirational beauty of an underwater ecosystem or if one only cares about the economic payoff. Saving Grand Cayman’s reefs is an obvious priority. If we do not make an increased effort, they will be lost. Reefs worldwide face plenty of pressure already from global warming. Local threats cannot be excused.

Wouldn’t it be sad if we achieved through greed and ignorance what the powerful winds and waves of Hurricane Ivan could not?