Images document decline of coral reefs

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Thousands of scuba divers annually gasp in awe at Cayman’s reefs, still the envy of the Caribbean. But a series of photographs shows they are a pale shadow of their former selves. 

Vibrant, colourful coral reefs across the Caribbean have been reduced almost to rubble in a matter of decades. Disease, over fishing and pollution have contributed to a rapid decline, according to experts at the Cayman Islands Department of Environment. 

The demise of the region’s coral reefs is receiving international attention thanks to a series of “before and after” photographs showing how outcrops teeming with life have withered to barren patches of dead coral.  

Pictures taken by David Arnold, a journalist and photographer, replicating similar snaps shot many years before show vast, alarming discrepancies, with some giant hard corals having disappeared completely. 

The shots were taken at several locations in Jamaica, St. Croix, Tobago and Florida.  

But as images from photographer Courtney Platt and the Cayman Islands Department of Environment demonstrate, they could just as easily have been taken here. 

“In Cayman, we have also documented severe coral mortality. In the 1970s, coral cover was around 80 per cent. In the early 2000s, it was around 12 per cent on average,” said Laura Richardson, a research support officer with the DoE. 

Mr. Platt remembers diving in the early 1980s among fields of imposing elkhorn corals and gigantic barrel sponges. 

“It was just spectacular. It was like a garden of Eden compared to what we see now,” he said. 

Factors contributing to the decline include global environmental change, the warming of sea surface temperatures, coral bleaching and ocean acidification, as well as local stressors, such as pollution, fishing and sedimentation caused by coastal development. Mr. Platt believes storms, including Hurricane Ivan, also had a significant impact. 

Cayman has been ahead of the curve regionally. Authorities here introduced protected marine parks in 1986 and there is some evidence that Cayman’s reefs are healthier as a result. 

John Russell Turner, a professor of ocean sciences at Bangor University, who works with the DoE on the Darwin Initiative project on Cayman’s marine protected areas, said neighbouring Jamaica had seen far worse degradation of its coral reefs. 

He said reefs across the region were like a “sick patient” ill-equipped to cope with future threats because of the battering they had taken over the past few decades. He said more legislative protection was necessary. 

The DoE is still pushing for an expansion of Cayman’s marine parks in an effort to better protect the reef that remains. 

Ms Richardson added, “Given this precipitous decline in Cayman and around the Caribbean, preserving remaining coral reefs is of critical social and economic importance. 

“Research around the world has proven that no-take marine parks are effective, efficient and remain the best tool available to natural resource managers.” 

She said this was of vital importance to all Cayman residents. 

“The amount of live hard corals on Cayman’s reefs is of direct importance to anyone who lives within a mile of the coast due to the shoreline protection a live reef offers.  

“The amount of live coral is also of great importance to anyone who works in Cayman’s tourism industry, those who like to eat reef fish such as grouper, snapper, parrot fish, and grunt, those who like to go boating, fishing, snorkelling, scuba diving, and those who have heritage, or financial assets, invested in the Cayman Islands and their natural beauty,” Ms Richardson said. 

Photographer David Arnold, writing about his project in “Geographical” magazine, said human action was essential to save coral reefs. 

“Corals have fallen on very hard times, suffering death by 1,000 cuts. Without a serious human-initiated course correction, 90 per cent of all hard corals will be threatened by 2030 and they’ll be all but gone by 2050,” said Mr. Arnold. 

Hard corals, formed from tiny animals, produce the rock-like skeleton that gives the oceans their reefs. Mr. Arnold said, “Coral is the annual accretion of tiny animals building their homes. 

“Their aggregate castles can be 1,000 years old. We’re killing the animals and we’re wrecking their palaces.” 

“In the 1970s, coral cover was around 80 per cent. In the early 2000s, it was around 12 per cent on average.”
Laura Richardson, research officer, Department of Environment 

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This photograph taken in 2010 shows the growth of algae on the reef.

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The image, taken in 1974, shows a vibrant healthy reef. A similar scene, photographed in 2010, shows coral covered in algae.

1 COMMENT

  1. I have been diving Little Cayman’s glorious reefs since 1981, and there in no question that the reefs here have suffered severe mortality. The Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI) has documents a 40 % decrease in coral cover since 1998. But CCMI has also documented the reef is recovering in recent years with juvenile coral colonies showing a new strength in numbers. CCMI has also demonstrated the viability of growing coral in a farm. There is hope if we protect what we can and are proactive. Expanding the Marine Park system has proven to be beneficial to coral reef health in every case where a park has been legislated and enforced. Even the fishermen have come to agree with this idea. Protect the apex predators (i.e. grouper and shark) that are so vital to the ecological health of the reef. And teach our children why reefs are so important to our lives – socially, emotionally, and economically.

  2. This is our 2nd time in GCM (we’re from CANADA), we were here in Aug 2012 and Aug 2013. We made the east side of the island our home (away from the busy 7 mile beach)and regularly visited Rum Point where there is a protected marine park. What a difference a year makes! We’ve noticed SIGNIFICANT LESS MARINE LIFE aka FISH and abundant coral bleaching. At first, we thought it was just one area but as we traveled throughout your ‘protected’ marine parks, the reality sits in… your coral reefs are dying and the marine life is gone due to ‘over fishing’. I am sadden to see this natural wonder disappear and when it does, we won’t be back!

  3. Thank you for excellent story. i am sure all is accurate and true, however i would like to add my observations. I do not scuba dive enough to comment on depths. i do swim and snorkel daily in Old Man Bay, Queens Highway area.
    Over ten yers many cahnges in the reef… after. IVAN the reef took a beating. I noticed algie growth and deformation on the beautiful brain coral heads, the elg horns shattered looking dead. However in the past. three years, coral growth and colorful purple and yellow coral is coming back like never before. there is more fish than i ever seen in the shallow reef, maybe they moved here from the crowded beaches. ???
    True, Rum Point used to be fantastic snorkel site, now there is not much to see, this also happend after Hurricane. Ivan, totally gone are. the fantastic snorkel sites in front of governor’s beach and cementary beach. It is clear that over exposure from us humans drive the marine life away. Lucky to live North Side! Not a day in the water without seeing an eagle ray, a fantastic formation of squid family, eels, lobsters, occational shark may swim by peacefully. with respect to the ocean and marine life. Love. Cayman.

  4. Dont wait ’till tomorrow to find out the best time to fix the problem was yesterday.

    Few realise that there is less and less dissolved oxygen in the waters as temperature rises and the water temperatures in Cayman are towards the limit where oxygen requiring aquatic life can be sustained.

    The result is that even small amounts of pollution will have a much more dramatic effect;- As it breaks down it removes oxygen from the ecosystem and because there is less to start with, this can effectively suffocate the reef!

    Cayman must take care not to follow regulations designed for the US or Europe where colder sea temperatures permit higher levels of pollution to be safely broken down with only a minor effect in oxygen levels.

    There are also other factors which may not seem to be connected at first glance;- Sharks have an effect on reef health and their numbers are in freefall – we have lost over 80% of global shark populations of some species over the last 2 decades!

    Fewer sharks can result in an excess of Barracuda and in turn a drop in Parrot Fish numbers. Without Parrot Fish eating the Algae, the reef is slowly smothered.

    We must applaud the vision of those who enacted the Cayman Marine Parks some 25 years ago, but also realise that decades are the timescale for effects to be noticeable – the next generation of conservation laws are on the table and we cannot stand by and watch them diluted at the whims of small but vocal groups with short term interests.

  5. First, a disclosure is in order: I am an MD, turned into what REEF (the organisation) calls fish and coral geek due to my contribution to the Kittiwake pre-sinking fish and coral surveys. Previous to that, I could only identify a handful of fish species and very few corals, but I was lucky enough to be invited to help, and found myself with the challenge of learning in matter of weeks, both coral and fish species, and several coral diseases too.

    In summary, I am not a Marine Biologist or expert of that level.

    In 2011 a team of experts of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) visited the Cayman Islands, and Marine Biologist, Doctor Scott Taylor, invited me to attend the seminars and meetings. The team was startled by both the good and dismal conditions of our corals. In comparison to other places, we were in better conditions, no doubt. And yet… not really. Whispers of ‘something’ out there, inducing coral decay, arose in the conversations. Why? The apparently superb water conditions and absence of extended agricultural practices did not correlate with the evidence of coral damage. A key invisible element, a ‘something’, could be inducing the changes.

    What could that ‘something’ be? Perhaps lixiviates from Mount Trashmore? Maybe oxybenzophenones and other endocrine disruptors, quite toxic to coral polyps, present in boat paint and sunscreens? The disposal of fuels chemicals, whether as a waste from dry cleaning, janitorial services or others?

    Almost a year ago, I dived at Utila, Honduras, whose reefs are, with minor differences, comparable to ours. In my qualitative assessment, and despite the omnipresence of sediment and debris in the water, the coral is in better health, both in the shallows and depths. I found the richness you could find here at Grand Cayman at 20 metres (65 feet), think of Lighthouse Point-Macabuca miniwalls, at barely 4 metres (13 feet).

    There is ‘something’ here.

    Hurricane Ivan made an undeniable impact. Good parts of the shallows at the East End still look like battlefields. And yet, at the beginning of May, Courtney Platt took us to dive in a wonderful spot close to Pedro Castle, entirely pristine (other than packed with lionfish). This spot, which I named ‘Courtney’s Pinnacles’ in my logbook, is no more than one kilometre in distance from the dismal battlefields addressed in this same paragraph.

    There is ‘something’ here.

    At the same time, while the invisible part of that nebulous ‘something’ may be addressed once research is done, some of its components are identifiable.

    Because while I have seen what Peter Hillenbrand mentions, as in an evident recolonization, and I have indeed witnessed and photographed coral precursors, whether novel or seizing the skeletons of big corals, I have also noticed the destruction of two Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmate) colonies, one formerly gorgeous and pretty massive, and currently totally blasted into almost totally dead pieces (pictures available). As if a conspiracy against the Acropora genus existed, in the same reef I found the ongoing destruction of a Staghorn coral due to the lethal combination of a plastic bag and a choppy sea (documented in Youtube as ‘Starghorn coral damaged by plastic bag’ ). As for fishing line, I joke that I could open a store with the amount of sinkers I have kept from the discarded/entangled fishing line I collect there and elsewhere.

    Lionfish has affected the coral balance in direct and indirect ways too. We know the direct effects, as in the decimation and maybe future termination of several fish species (have you paid attention to the Fairy Basslets?). But in the indirect way, we know that some cullers are quite eager to cull the invader. So eager, that they forget to consider the wellbeing of coral and sponges down there.

    While we solve the thoroughness of the ‘something’ component in the equation, let’s apply the ‘think globally, act locally’ paradigm. Better practices in swimming, snorkelling, freediving and diving; improvement of fishing practices; overall care of what we do, matter. Surely they will not solve the whole scenario of decay, but with certainty will contribute to make it less pervasive.

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