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Caribbean Economy Highly Dependent Upon Coral Reef Health, Report Says

By Andrew Freedman, Greenwire reporter

23 September 2004
Copyright © 2004 E&E Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. 

Degradation of Caribbean coral reefs threatens to diminish the vitality of the region's key fishing and tourism industries, according to a new assessment by the World Resources Institute.

As part of its "Reefs at Risk" project, WRI, other academic research institutions, the United Nations and environmental monitoring organizations analyzed the health of 26,000 square kilometers of Caribbean coral reefs, including offshore areas of the Florida Keys, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The researchers developed an integrated index of overall pressure on Caribbean reefs and found nearly two-thirds of them are at being put at risk of being damaged by human activities such as overfishing, sediment runoff and coastal development.

The study found about 10 percent of the Caribbean, including the Florida Keys, have already experienced coral reef degradation or are likely to see reduced live coral cover within the next five to 10 years. The health of about one-third of Caribbean coral reefs is being put at risk by sediment and pollution from land-based sources, the report found.

The authors cite a lack of long-term planning when making land-use decisions as an example of how societal management contributes to coral reef degradation. Agricultural soils can erode into the ocean and block out light necessary for photosynthesis, and according to the report, such "smothering" of coral reefs is rarely considered when making land-use decisions.

The report found the network of 285 Marine Protected Areas that covers portions of the Caribbean fails to provide a consistent level of protection for corals. Author Lauretta Burke said about 20 percent of coral reefs are located inside of MPAs but only 4 percent of those reefs are inside MPAs rated as effectively managed by the assessment project. Overall, the authors rated only 6 percent of MPAs as being well managed, about 13 percent as partially effective, and the rest were cited as inadequate or unknown.

"This analysis of MPAs as a management tool is an indicator of the inadequacy of current efforts to manage coastal resources and protect coral reefs," the study states.

The authors recommend future MPAs be located in regions with reefs that are likely to be resistant to bleaching, such as those found in deep water, and calls for the administrative costs to be covered by "a diverse revenue structure" that could include a mixture of public and private sector financing.

The report projects coral reef degradation could cost the Caribbean region between $350 million and $870 million annually due to its effects on tourism, fisheries and shoreline protection.

The report projects annual fisheries production could decline by up to 45 percent from the estimated maximum catch on healthy reefs by the year 2015. According to the report, there were about 120,000 full-time fishers who exported about $1.9 billion worth of seafood in 2000. The authors state gross fisheries revenue from healthy Caribbean reefs are about $625 million per year. Coral reef health is essential to the continued productivity of many fisheries since they help support a wide variety of fish species and are considered by many to be the foundation of healthy marine ecosystems.

"The loss of millions of dollars worth of annual net benefits from fisheries could have significant consequences for local areas and national economies that rely on fishing to provide livelihoods, meet nutritional needs, and generate export earnings," the report states.

Degradation of Caribbean coral reefs also is likely to affect the area's tourism industry. According to the report, one out of every six Caribbean workers is employed in tourism, which contributes a total of nearly $105 billion to the Caribbean economy annually.

The report states scuba divers spend more tourist dollars than other Caribbean visitors, and a decline in the health of coral reefs could significantly diminish the economic benefits derived from diving. The report predicts scuba dive tourism will continue to grow, but coral reef degradation could dampen net economic benefits by about 2 to 5 percent by 2015 than would be seen without a decline in reef health.

The report predicts some regions will suffer greater losses than others as diving activity clusters around remaining healthy reefs. "The local revenue losses associated with shifts in tourism toward healthy reef areas could be particularly harmful to specific communities and national economies with reefs at high threat of degradation," the report states.

In addition to the more obvious benefits of tourist dollars and fishing benefits, coral reefs also help to dissipate wave energy, shielding coastal communities from beach erosion and providing some protection during storms such as hurricanes. The study estimates healthy coral reefs provide annual shoreline protection benefits of between $740 million and $2.2 billion per year. By 2050, more than 15,000 kilometers of shoreline could loose 10 to 20 percent of current shoreline protection services, the report states.

"Reefs take a battering from hurricanes, which is a natural occurrence, but the threat increases if they become more frequent," said co-author Jon Maidens in a statement. Recently hurricanes such as Ivan, which reached ferocious Category Five intensity as it passed near Jamaica, have churned the waters inhabited by coral reefs, causing an unknown amount of damage. Burke is traveling to Jamaica next week to present her results to a U.N. meeting and will see firsthand what damage Ivan wrought when it blasted the coastal waters more than a week ago.

Because of scientific uncertainty and a lack of data, the study did not take into account coral bleaching events due to high water temperatures or the spread of coral diseases, which Burke said have been more prevalent in the region. "The combined threats to coral reefs in the Caribbean are quite high," Burke said. Burke said she was surprised to find that the overall threat in the Caribbean is as great or greater than Southeast Asia, which WRI analyzed in 2002.

The report recommends that Caribbean residents be educated about the benefits provided by their coral reef ecosystems and calls for the economic value of coral reef goods and services to be incorporated into decisionmaking processes. Better understanding, the authors state, "will further support and underpin the necessary changes in management and will strengthen political and societal support for these changes."

The authors state overall governance structures need to be streamlined to provide effective coral reef management to cope with the multiple threats. It also states fishing needs to be reduced to more sustainable levels, with better managed MPAs.

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