Coral facing crisis

Grand Cayman’s coral reefs are facing a crisis unless positive steps are taken to address their decline, according to renowned local underwater photographer Cathy Church.

Orange Canyon

Gorgonian Gardens, Orange Canyon in West Bay back in 2000. Photo: Cathy Church

‘If we don’t take action now they’ll be in serious trouble,’ she told the Caymanian Compass.

Recent storm activity from Hurricanes Ivan and Wilma have caused damage, but increasing temperatures from global warming and coral diseases brought about by pollution are compounding the underwater landscape’s problems. Coral bleaching, she believes, is one effect of rising water temperatures from global warming.

Coral bleaching is where coral expel their symbiotic algae due to extreme stress, such as unusually hot water. The bleached corals die if the stress is extreme or prolonged.

Ms Church said, ‘Even in between the ice ages we’ve never had temperature changes happen so fast. This leaves the coral reefs with no time to adapt.’

The avid diver has seen large coral heads that have been badly hit by diseases. ‘Anything we know that hurts coral needs to be contained. We know that poisoning the waters kills things,’ she said, pointing out offenders that may include increased sewage, seeping groundwater from the unsealed landfill site, fertiliser run-off, detergent used to pump bilges and the destruction of mangroves.

‘We need to study water samples to find out what pollutants originate in Cayman that we can control,’ she said.

Ms Church first noticed coral diseases springing up back in the early ’90s. ‘We’re dealing with a reef under tremendous stress and any little thing we can do to reduce this is a help,’ she said.

She asserted that the proposed dolphin facility will also be problematic for the reefs because bacteria from the fish-eating mammals’ faeces has been linked to coral loss in other destinations. ‘It’s just another nail in the coffin,’ she said.

Recent Ministry of Tourism honouree for his contribution to the local dive industry, Peter Milburn believes that overall the coral reefs are in good shape. But some are becoming overwhelmed and suffocating, he said. Mr. Milburn, who has been diving here for 36 years, is convinced that a large part of this problem stems from algae blooms caused by too much fresh water and dirty water getting into the sea.

The reefs on the west side of Grand Cayman are undergoing most stress, and he estimates that about 75 per cent of the reefs on deeper dive sites in the West side of the island are in good shape, but the others, he believes, have been damaged by too many nutrients in the water caused by over development and urbanisation.

In the east and northern areas of the island the seas are rougher than in the west, which keeps the reefs healthy, he noted.

Mr. Milburn explains that in the old days when rain flooded the island, the water would gradually seep away back down through the earth and eventually into the sea, but now it is forced back down into the sea quickly through drains. He believes that this causes algae growth that is harmful to corals.

Mr. Milburn says that the shallow reefs tend to be healthy in one place, and not in another, similar to a landscape where trees grow in one field and won’t grow in the next. ‘There’s a lot of dead coral down there,’ he commented.

A lot of the shallow reef damage on the west side is caused by the high concentration of nutrients forced into the water from fertiliser and oil that is washed into drains by rain, he believes.

Ms Church said, ‘This porous little island cannot support high level development because everything we do ends up on the reef,’ explaining that the more development that happens, the more people come in, contributing to more cars, more sewage and more pollution. ‘Every little bit we do kills off a little more reef’.

Fish Life

Another change Ms Church has noticed underwater is that there are fewer varieties of fish. ‘There is fishing line on any dive site on this island, and it is fresh,’ she said, adding that no fishing is permitted on the coral walls.

She praised Marine Enforcement officers for their strong enforcement of the law with regard to illegal fishing, but said there needs to be stricter limitations on where to fish.

However, Mr. Milburn believes there is an abundance of fish life and this is a result of less fishing pressure because marine parks are working. Another strong belief of Mr. Milburn’s is that the whole island of Little Cayman must be given Marine Park Status in order to maintain its natural beauty and to keep certain marine species from becoming over-fished, and perhaps this island’s marine resources could be used for replenishment of Grand Cayman if need be in the future.

He suggested putting the gathering of conch, lobster, welks and some fish on hold for, say, five years and dropping the import duty on them so as to allow locals to continue to offer their snorkel trips with lunch by buying these items at cost price.

Healthy Coral

But Mr. Milburn asserts that there is a lot of beautiful healthy coral underwater still and Ms. Church says there is enough healthy coral out there to save the reefs, and there are dive sites that are interesting enough to keep the tourists, especially the new ones, interested.

Overseas Marine Biologist Alexander Mustard, who visited in September for coral spawning, said it is a good sign that the corals are spawning and the reefs have shown durability to Hurricane Ivan. He also noted several inches of new growth on the stumps of Elkhorn corals leveled by the storm, indicating that Cayman waters still provide good growing conditions for reefs.

Global Issue

The decline of coral reefs is happening on a global scale.

‘The Cayman Islands is not alone in underestimating the human impact on coral reefs. The problem is global and divers see it everywhere they go. I’d like to see Grand Cayman adequately protect its reefs so that they are not degraded as fast as other destinations’,’ said Ms. Church.

A recent article in The New York Times reported findings from a report by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network that said many Caribbean reefs have seen up to an 80 percent decline in coral cover, and that the marine life and vegetation that scuba divers and snorkellers see today pales in comparison to what they saw in the past.

Manager of Huntington Colonial Travel in New York Janet Clark said divers are aware of the decline in reefs in the Caribbean and globally from reading such articles. Many divers are going further away to Australia and to places like Belize she said.

Ms Church believes in developing Grand Cayman only after the landfill site has been sealed and once the sewage system has been improved. And as the reefs look like they are nearing crisis point, research must be done soon to determine what’s causing disease to them. ‘It’s cheaper to do the research now than in 10 years when the coral and the reef walls are degrading,’ she said.

Her fear is that if more coral dies, Cayman itself will start to disappear. ‘If the coral does not build up faster than it is destroyed, then the sea will erode away our island.’ she says.

‘We’re built on a coral reef. We’re not on a wide continental shelf. Our coral is not just a tourist attraction; it’s the basis of our existence.’

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