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Surprise rescue of Jamaica coral reefs shows nature can heal

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By the Associated Press

OCHO RIOS, Jamaica — Everton Simpson squints at the Caribbean from his motorboat, scanning the dazzling bands of color for hints of what lies beneath. Emerald green indicates sandy bottoms. Sapphire blue lies above seagrass meadows. And deep indigo marks coral reefs. That’s where he’s headed.

Diver Lenford DaCosta cleans up lines of staghorn coral at an underwater coral nursery inside the Oracabessa Fish Sanctuary on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019, in Oracabessa, Jamaica. In Jamaica, more than a dozen grassroots-run coral nurseries and fish sanctuaries have sprung up in the past decade, supported by small grants from foundations, local businesses such as hotels and scuba clinics, and the Jamaican government. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip / MANILA BULLETIN)

Diver Lenford DaCosta cleans up lines of staghorn coral at an underwater coral nursery inside the Oracabessa Fish Sanctuary on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019, in Oracabessa, Jamaica. In Jamaica, more than a dozen grassroots-run coral nurseries and fish sanctuaries have sprung up in the past decade, supported by small grants from foundations, local businesses such as hotels and scuba clinics, and the Jamaican government. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip / MANILA BULLETIN)

He steers the boat to an unmarked spot that he knows as the “coral nursery.” ”It’s like a forest under the sea,” he says, strapping on blue flippers and fastening his oxygen tank before tipping backward into the azure waters. He swims straight down 25 feet carrying a pair of metal shears, fishing line and a plastic crate.

On the ocean floor, small coral fragments dangle from suspended ropes, like socks hung on a laundry line. Simpson and other divers tend to this underwater nursery as gardeners mind a flower bed — slowly and painstakingly plucking off snails and fireworms that feast on immature coral.

When each stub grows to about the size of a human hand, Simpson collects them in his crate to individually “transplant” onto a reef, a process akin to planting each blade of grass in a lawn separately.

Even fast-growing coral species add just a few inches a year. And it’s not possible to simply scatter seeds.

A few hours later, at a site called Dickie’s Reef, Simpson dives again and uses bits of fishing line to tie clusters of staghorn coral onto rocky outcroppings — a temporary binding until the coral’s limestone skeleton grows and fixes itself onto the rock. The goal is to jumpstart the natural growth of a coral reef. And so far, it’s working.

Almost everyone in Jamaica depends on the sea, including Simpson, who lives in a modest house he built himself near the island’s northern coast. The energetic 68-year-old has reinvented himself several times, but always made a living from the ocean.

Once a spear fisherman and later a scuba-diving instructor, Simpson started working as a “coral gardener” two years ago — part of grassroots efforts to bring Jamaica’s coral reefs back from the brink.

Coral reefs are often called “rainforests of the sea” for the astonishing diversity of life they shelter.

Just 2 percent of the ocean floor is filled with coral, but the branching structures — shaped like everything from reindeer antlers to human brains — sustain a quarter of all marine species. Clown fish, parrotfish, groupers and snappers lay eggs and hide from predators in the reef’s nooks and crannies, and their presence draws eels, sea snakes, octopuses and even sharks. In healthy reefs, jellyfish and sea turtles are regular visitors.

With fish and coral, it’s a codependent relationship — the fish rely upon the reef structure to evade danger and lay eggs, and they also eat up the coral’s rivals.

Life on the ocean floor is like a slow-motion competition for space, or an underwater game of musical chairs. Tropical fish and other marine animals, like black sea urchins, munch on fast-growing algae and seaweed that may otherwise outcompete the slow-growing coral for space. When too many fish disappear, the coral suffers — and vice-versa.

After a series of natural and man-made disasters in the 1980s and 1990s, Jamaica lost 85 percent of its once-bountiful coral reefs. Meanwhile, fish catches declined to a sixth of what they had been in the 1950s, pushing families that depend on seafood closer to poverty. Many scientists thought that most of Jamaica’s coral reef had been permanently replaced by seaweed, like jungle overtaking a ruined cathedral.

But today, the corals and tropical fish are slowly reappearing, thanks in part to a series of careful interventions.

The delicate labor of the coral gardener is only one part of restoring a reef — and for all its intricacy, it’s actually the most straightforward part. Convincing lifelong fishermen to curtail when and where they fish and controlling the surging waste dumped into the ocean are trickier endeavors.

Still, slowly, the comeback effort is gaining momentum.

“The coral are coming back; the fish are coming back,” says Stuart Sandin, a marine biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. “It’s probably some of the most vibrant coral reefs we’ve seen in Jamaica since the 1970s.”

“When you give nature a chance, she can repair herself,” he adds. “It’s not too late.”

Sandin is studying the health of coral reefs around the world as part of a research project called the “100 Island Challenge.” His starting assumption was that the most populated islands would have the most degraded habitats, but what he found instead is that humans can be either a blessing or a curse, depending on how they manage resources.

In Jamaica, more than a dozen grassroots-run coral nurseries and fish sanctuaries have sprung up in the past decade, supported by small grants from foundations, local businesses such as hotels and scuba clinics, and the Jamaican government.

At White River Fish Sanctuary, which is only about 2 years old and where Simpson works, the clearest proof of early success is the return of tropical fish that inhabit the reefs — as well as hungry pelicans, skimming the surface of the water to feed on them.

Jamaica’s coral reefs were once among the world’s most celebrated, with their golden branching structures and resident bright-colored fish drawing the attention of travelers from Christopher Columbus to Ian Fleming, who wrote most of his James Bond novels on the island nation’s northern coast in the 1950s and ’60s.

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