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Caribbean Coral Reef Leaders Complete Intensive Fellowship at the Great Barrier Reef

Credits: Environmental Graffiti

Photo Credit: Environmental Graffiti

Coral reefs in the Caribbean are amongst the most at risk globally. The loss of reefs is also a serious economic problem in the region, where large populations depend on fishing and tourism. Having lost 80% of its corals over the last half century, mainly due to a changing and variable climate, coastal development and pollution, the Caribbean is seeking to turn the tide through partnerships. A group of five coral reef managers from across the Caribbean recently participated in an intensive three week Coral Reef Management Fellowship programme at the Great Barrier Reef, Australia – the best managed reef in the world.

The Caribbean contingent was among a group of 12 fellows, including their peers from the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The Caribbean fellows are: Roland Baldeo (Grenada), Andrea Donaldson and Christine O’Sullivan (Jamaica), Michelle Kalamandeen (Guyana) and Andrew Lockhart (St. Vincent and the Grenadines).

The fellows visited government departments, research stations, farms, schools and other reef-associated operations. They experienced the Great Barrier Reef and many facets of catchment to reef management through direct interactions with a diversity of land and sea habitats, scientists, managers, farmers, educators, media, volunteers and industry leaders. The Fellowship also included home-stays with local marine scientists as part of a cultural exchange.

This was a rare and valuable experience as it brought together coral reef managers from diverse locations to gain and share expertise. Dr Kenrick Leslie, Executive Director of the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre, welcomed the successful completion of the fellowship, noting:

“This is an excellent programme to boost understanding of marine protected areas and the role it can play in sustainable development. It gives our people an opportunity to see how effective coral reef management is done in another community. Importantly, they are gaining insights from the major work being done to rectify some of the issues with the world’s longest barrier reef. It’s a unique experience.”

Citing the fellows’ exposure to an intensive leadership course at Orpheus Island Research Station, which included theory and exercises to plan, problem solve and teamwork, Dr Leslie urged the fellows to be agents of change across the Caribbean.

“At this point in our development it is important that we ensure that whatever we do, we do not make the assumption that resources are unlimited and that all our actions are resilient and our environment is protected,” Dr Leslie added.

The Caribbean and Pacific fellows are part of an Australia Awards Fellowship programme funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, titled Improving coral reef management for sustainable development in the Caribbean and Pacific. Australia Awards are prestigious international Scholarships and Fellowships funded by the Australian Government to build capacity and strengthen partnerships. The programme supports short-term study, research and professional development opportunities in Australia for mid-career professionals and emerging leaders.

The fellowship programme was organised and hosted by Reef Ecologic, an environmental consulting company with expertise on coral reef management, which was founded by former Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority employees Dr Adam Smith and Dr Paul Marshall.

“We have observed the decline of coral reefs globally and we recognized that training of future leaders is essential for turning the tide towards a more sustainable future. Australia is the world leader in coral reef conservation and marine resource management. This Fellowship is a chance to share Australia’s expertise with the world,” said Dr Marshall.

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The Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre coordinates the region’s response to climate change. Officially opened in August 2005, the Centre is the key node for information on climate change issues and the region’s response to managing and adapting to climate change. We maintain the Caribbean’s most extensive repository of information and data on climate change specific to the region, which in part enables us to provide climate change-related policy advice and guidelines to CARICOM member states through the CARICOM Secretariat. In this role, the Centre is recognized by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the United Nations Environment Programme, and other international agencies as the focal point for climate change issues in the Caribbean. The Centre is also a United Nations Institute for Training and Research recognised Centre of Excellence, one of an elite few. Learn more about how we’re working to make the Caribbean more climate resilient by perusing The Implementation Plan.

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Coral Reefs Report and Climate Change News

With only about one-sixth of the original coral cover left, most Caribbean coral reefs may disappear in the next 20 years, primarily due to the loss of grazers in the region, according to the latest report by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The report, Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012, is the most detailed and comprehensive study of its kind published to date – the result of the work of 90 experts over the course of three years. It contains the analysis of more than 35,000 surveys conducted at 90 Caribbean locations since 1970, including studies of corals, seaweeds, grazing sea urchins and fish.

The results show that the Caribbean corals have declined by more than 50% since the 1970s. But according to the authors, restoring parrotfish populations and improving other management strategies, such as protection from overfishing and excessive coastal pollution, could help the reefs recover and make them more resilient to future climate change impacts.

“The rate at which the Caribbean corals have been declining is truly alarming,” says Carl Gustaf Lundin, Director of IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme. “But this study brings some very encouraging news: the fate of Caribbean corals is not beyond our control and there are some very concrete steps that we can take to help them recover.”

Climate change has long been thought to be the main culprit in coral degradation. While it does pose a serious threat by making oceans more acidic and causing coral bleaching, the report shows that the loss of parrotfish and sea urchin – the area’s two main grazers – has, in fact, been the key driver of coral decline in the region. An unidentified disease led to a mass mortality of the sea urchin in 1983 and extreme fishing throughout the 20th century has brought the parrotfish population to the brink of extinction in some regions. The loss of these species breaks the delicate balance of coral ecosystems and allows algae, on which they feed, to smother the reefs.

Reefs protected from overfishing, as well as other threats such as excessive coastal pollution, tourism and coastal development, are more resilient to pressures from climate change, according to the authors.

“Even if we could somehow make climate change disappear tomorrow, these reefs would continue their decline,” says Jeremy Jackson, lead author of the report and IUCN’s senior advisor on coral reefs. “We must immediately address the grazing problem for the reefs to stand any chance of surviving future climate shifts.”

The report also shows that some of the healthiest Caribbean coral reefs are those that harbour vigorous populations of grazing parrotfish. These include the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the northern Gulf of Mexico, Bermuda and Bonaire, all of which have restricted or banned fishing practices that harm parrotfish, such as fish traps and spearfishing. Other countries are following suit.

“Barbuda is about to ban all catches of parrotfish and grazing sea urchins, and set aside one-third of its coastal waters as marine reserves,” says Ayana Johnson of the Waitt Institute’s Blue Halo Initiative which is collaborating with Barbuda in the development of its new management plan. “This is the kind of aggressive management that needs to be replicated regionally if we are going to increase the resilience of Caribbean reefs.”

Reefs where parrotfish are not protected have suffered tragic declines, including Jamaica, the entire Florida Reef Tract from Miami to Key West, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The Caribbean is home to 9% of the world’s coral reefs, which are one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. Caribbean reefs, spanning a total of 38 countries, are vital to the region’s economy. They generate more than US$ 3 billion annually from tourism and fisheries and over a hundred times more in other goods and services, on which more than 43 million people depend.

This video, featuring the report’s lead author Jeremy Jackson, explains the significance of the report:

Peruse the full report.

Credit: The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
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