1997 IS THE INTERNATIONAL YEAR OF THE REEF: HAVE WE INCREASED OUR AWARENESS?
by - Nancy Terrell
(reprinted from Conservation Magazine - 1997)
As most sailors know, this past year was one of tremendous importance as to the education of the general populace with regards to the state of coral reefs. For those of us lucky enough to live in the Caribbean, this is an extremely relevant concern. Every day we see more and more evidence that the coral reefs that make our islands so beautiful, are receiving increased injury. Damage that will upset not only the ecology of the Caribbean Sea but that will severely disintegrate our tourist industry.
As a part of this worldwide educational year, we have tried to educate the politicians of the Caribbean. Leaders are being faced with the facts that coral reefs in our area are being threatened by factors such as coastal development, runoff from agriculture and development, high-impact tourism, over-fishing and many other causes.
Recently diving and conservation enthusiasts in the BVI participated in Reef Check '97 - an international volunteer effort designed to survey the condition of the world's coral reefs and then use the results to raise public awareness.
The BVI survey was part of a world wide Reef Check which included more than 130 survey teams in 35 different countries. Although all of the results are not in, recent damage to the reefs in the BVI is a certainty as any local diver or snorkeler can tell you.
Coral reefs are home to over 25 percent of all marine life and are among the world's most fragile and endangered ecosystems. In the last few decades, mankind has destroyed over 35 million acres of coral reefs. Reefs off of 93 countries have been damaged by human activity. The BVI is one of them. If the present rate of destruction continues, 70% of the world's coral reefs will be killed within our lifetimes.
There is an enormous amount of development occurring in the British Virgin Islands. This development is happening so rapidly that the government has not had the time to instigate any types of control. As a result, these islands are losing a lot of their natural resources. Construction along the island's coastline has caused soil to erode and rush downstream into the Sir Francis Drake Channel and onto coral reefs. This dirt, silt, or sand makes the water cloudy or muddy and smothers the coral which can't get enough light to survive.
Mangrove trees and seagrasses in the BVI, which normally act as filters for sediment, are also being rapidly destroyed. This has led to an increase in the amount of sediment which reaches coral reefs. Both the reefs and the mangroves are in danger by unchecked activities such as the dredging of salt pond at Beef Island as well as the dredging Sea Cow's Bay for a new marina.
With no restraint for silt control, the rain goes onto the reef and kills it. The water then turns red from all of the soil that is going into it. This is very evident now at Fat Hogs Bay. Developers in the BVI should learn from their neighbors in Puerto Rico and the USVI who have lost some of their most vital reefs due to silt coming down. When this happens the reef is no longer protecting the beach so there is obviously beach erosion.
Development is now occurring on both Scrub and Beef Island where no ecological studies have been done. Both islands are major sites for turtle nestings. Turtles are endangered throughout the world yet in the BVI the killing of turtles is legal during the months of December through March.
Fertilizers and sewage dumped into Caribbean waters encourage rapid algae growth which chokes coral polyps and cuts off their supply of light and oxygen. Over-fishing makes this problem even worse because the fish that would normally eat the algae have been captured and killed.
We, living in the Caribbean, must think globally. It is not just our little islands that should concern us. All of us have to accept our part in the larger world. We globally criticize Brazil and their governmental and private destruction of the rain forests but we are doing to our reefs exactly what Brazil is doing to their rain forests.
However, one of the positive things that is happening in the BVI is a meeting of the minds that supposedly will take place during the later part of January. At that time the National Parks Trust, the Department of Conservation and Fisheries, the Marine Biologists at the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College and members of ARK and the community will meet to discuss possible legislation to protect the BVI reefs and mangroves.
Until legislation is passed all we can do is pray - that the developers of "Nature's Little Secret" will not awaken to see that the damage that has already occurred is irreversible and that it is obviously not a secret due to the worldwide publication of the Reef Check 97 Survey Results.