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