Coral gar­den­ers bring back Ja­maica’s reefs

Antelope Valley Press (Sunday) - - Valley Life - By CHRISTINA LAR­SON AP Sci­ence Writer

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.

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 tank be­fore tip­ping back­ward into the azure wa­ters. He swims 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% 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% 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 two 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.

In 1965, the coun­try be­came the site of the first global re­search hub for coral reefs, the Dis­cov­ery Bay Ma­rine Lab, now as­so­ci­ated with the Univer­sity of the West Indies. The path­break­ing ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist cou­ple Thomas and Nora Goreau com­pleted fun­da­men­tal re­search here, in­clud­ing de­scrib­ing the sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship be­tween coral and al­gae and pi­o­neer­ing the use of scuba equip­ment for ma­rine stud­ies.

The same lab also pro­vided a van­tage point as the coral dis­ap­peared.

Peter Gayle has been a ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist at Dis­cov­ery Bay since 1985. From the yard out­side his of­fice, he points to­ward the reef crest about 300 me­ters away — a thin brown line splashed with white waves. “Be­fore 1980, Ja­maica had healthy coral,” he notes. Then sev­eral dis­as­ters struck.

The first calamity was 1980’s Hur­ri­cane Allen, one of the most pow­er­ful cy­clones in recorded his­tory. “Its 40-foot waves crashed against the shore and ba­si­cally chewed up the reef,” Gayle says. Coral can grow back af­ter nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, but only when given a chance to re­cover — which it never got.

That same decade, a mys­te­ri­ous epi­demic killed more than 95% of the black sea urchins in the Caribbean, while over­fish­ing rav­aged fish pop­u­la­tions. And surg­ing waste from the is­land’s grow­ing hu­man pop­u­la­tion, which nearly dou­bled be­tween 1960 and 2010, re­leased chem­i­cals and nu­tri­ents into the wa­ter that spur faster al­gae growth. The re­sult: Sea­weed and al­gae took over.

As­so­ci­ated Press

Fish­er­man turned Ora­cabessa Fish Sanc­tu­ary war­den and dive mas­ter, Ian Dawson, looks for fish while spearfish­ing out­side the sanc­tu­ary’s no-take zone in Ora­cabessa, Ja­maica. “I do fish­ing for a liv­ing. And right now I’m rais­ing fish, rais­ing fish in the sanc­tu­ary,” said Dawson who only spearfishe­s on his free time now when he’s not work­ing at the sanc­tu­ary en­forc­ing the no-take zone. “If you don’t put in, you can’t take out, sim­ple.”

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