Damage caused to a Cayman Islands coral reef by Paul Allen’s mega-yacht is troubling and ironic, but it is far from the greatest threat facing the fragile ecosystem, according to the head of Little Cayman’s Central Caribbean Marine Institute.
An area of around 13,000 square feet – roughly the size of an Olympic swimming pool – was impacted by anchor damage from Mr. Allen’s yacht Tatoosh, with 80 percent of the coral in that area destroyed, according to a survey by Department of Environment divers.
The incident has grabbed world headlines and put the welfare of Cayman’s reefs in the global spotlight.
Carrie Manfrino, a coral ecologist who founded the Little Cayman research center, said it was terrible for a reef to be physically damaged.
She believes the incident should be investigated and better practices put in place to prevent something similar from happening again.
But she warns that damage from boat anchors is only one small part of the wider threat facing reefs in the Cayman Islands.
“I believe that our biggest issue in the Cayman Islands will be the impact of overfishing if it is not our biggest issue already,” she said.
Ms. Manfrino also highlights warming seas and ocean acidification, the loss of big fish in the open ocean and the “huge amount of pollution” that runs off into the near shore as significant issues that don’t get enough attention.
“These are all big issues that we can and should be making a very big deal over,” she said. “We can stop overfishing and we can reduce pollution.
“Controlling the types of fish we are allowed to remove from coral reefs could be the difference in coral reefs surviving other threats facing the ocean.”
Mr. Allen, a billionaire businessman who co-founded Microsoft, has not sought to deny that his yacht was responsible for damaging the reef on Jan. 14.
His company Vulcan Inc. released a statement saying the boat had moored in a position explicitly directed by the Port Authority. When the yacht’s crew were alerted by a diver that the anchor chain may have impacted coral in the area, they say they immediately relocated their position.
Vulcan Inc. has proposed a reef recovery scheme which is currently with the Department of Environment for review.
The company said in a statement last week, “As a global philanthropist and conservationist, Mr. Allen has developed programs and invested in solutions that protect and regenerate declining coral reefs, created the largest comprehensive data-collection and analysis of the world’s populations of reef sharks and rays, and is working to raise awareness and inspire action to address climate change and illegal fishing.
“Because of that commitment, the damage to the reef resonates particularly deeply with us and is why we supported swift action to help mitigate the impact and restore the reef as quickly as possible.”
Ms. Manfrino said it was clear that Mr. Allen supported an incredible amount of work that promised innovative solutions to some of the biggest problems in the world, including the decline of coral reefs.
“When I examine the research Paul Allen is supporting, it is clear to me that he is looking for solutions to the issue of declining reefs. The incident and his funding for research are not related and I doubt any would think that his funding mitigates this incident,” she said.
Ultimately, Ms. Manfrino believes a fair solution will be found to deal with the incident. But she believes concern for the welfare of Cayman’s corals needs more concerted long-term focus.
She said the significance of other threats, such as overfishing, was not always as clear because they occurred slowly over time, gradually degrading reefs over generations.
“My friends who are fishermen on Little Cayman tell me about the decline of fish on the island,” she said. “When they were young, they could throw a line in the water and catch a fish anywhere along the north shore of the island. This is no longer true. We forget, or we are too young to know what the reefs and waters around Cayman were like 40 or 50 years ago.”
In the Cayman Islands, CCMI charted a slow but dramatic loss of corals between 1998 and 2009, followed by three years of recovery.
“We have not reached a tipping point in the Cayman Islands yet, where the reefs don’t have fish or corals,” Ms. Manfrino said. “But, many of the reefs around the Caribbean are entirely degraded, corals are covered with algae. I don’t think this is fully appreciated.”