EDITORIAL — Getting serious about resource preservation

A diver explores a reef on Little Cayman. A visiting marine scientist says studying conditions on coral reefs in the Cayman Islands and the resilience of local species may provide clues for managing coral in other ocean environments. - Photo: Shutterstock

Without a dramatic course correction, 1 million species are at risk of extinction, according to a United Nations-backed panel of scientists.

The animals and plants at risk include many beloved to our Cayman Islands, including Hawksbill turtles, Nassau grouper, blue iguanas, parrot fish, eagle rays and sharks.

More than a third of all marine mammals around the world; more than 40% of amphibian species. The prospect is — or ought to be — unthinkable.

The idea is particularly jarring in Cayman, home to many rare and unique natural resources. In fact, the Department of Environment told the Compass last week that almost half of 415 endemic plant species are critically endangered – primarily because of human activities.

The decline in biodiversity on our small islands and around the world is serious business, and not only because tourists flock to our shores to experience our peaceful beaches and beautiful reefs. In many ways, Cayman provides the perfect microcosm of the global situation. Our population growth, and our struggles to find the ideal balance between development and preservation, are a case study in miniature of what the report’s authors observe. They point to overfishing, pollution, spread of invasive species and development all as contributors to the problem.

If the UN scientists are correct in their predictions, we must work now to steer in a more sustainable direction.

A healthy, diverse ecosystem provides innumerable benefits that we rarely consider until they are threatened. Ecologists call them ‘ecosystem services’ such as honeybees pollinating food crops, a ‘service’ estimated to be worth US$15 billion in the US economy, alone.

Take our reefs, which serve an even more vital purpose than providing beauty, supporting our fisheries and attracting tourists from around the world. They also protect us from the elements, breaking waves and diffusing their energy before they reach the shore.

Researcher Michael Beck has crunched the numbers and found that coral reefs around the United States provide that country with more than US$1.8 billion in flood protection benefits, as he explains in his column. Without reefs, he estimates the global cost of storm damage to coastlines around the world would double.

Beck’s analysis is, of course, just a model, but we are intrigued by his approach. Perhaps assigning dollar values to resources we once took for granted is not so farfetched an idea. It offers a different perspective; a ‘bottom-line’ analysis to back up many people’s belief that the natural environment and resources of the Cayman Islands should be used responsibly, ensuring that future generations inherit an environment that is clean and safe.

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