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Caribbean coral crisis Mark Meredith Sunday, October 23rd 2005

Coral reefs across the¬ Caribbean are undergoing a mass bleaching event which threatens life below and above the water. These photographs were taken in Tobago on Thursday¬ afternoon. Photos by Dr Owen Day, Buccoo Reef Trust In the last month, coral reefs across the Caribbean have become affected by a sudden and life-threatening bleaching epidemic brought on by sea temperature rise; the same temperatures which have unleashed a record 12 hurricanes on the region this season. Should the affected corals not recover, the long-term consequences for the Caribbean could be far more "devastating" than any number of storms. Beneath Tobago's blue waters, out of sight and out of mind, death stalks the wondrous creations that are the island's coral reef systems. Marine cities more complex and beautiful than anything imagined on land, but which are essential to Tobago's terrestrial sustainability, are in the throes of a creeping, ghostly and possibly fatal plague-a White Death. "Tobago's coral reefs are¬ currently experiencing their worst mass bleaching event for many years and, according to some dive operators, the worst in living memory." That was the warning from Dr Owen Day of the Buccoo Reef Trust last week, a few days after he had issued an alert over the internet to conservation groups and individuals requesting help in monitoring the growing coral crisis along Tobago's leeward coast, from Speyside to Crown Point. Even more alarming was his revelation that bleaching is being reported over "the entire Caribbean region", affecting vast swathes of coral communities, including those in Panama, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Florida and Barbados. The Bajan situation was said to be "terrible". Dr Hazel Oxenford, Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies (CERMES) at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus in Barbados, told me: "We are seeing bleaching of almost all coral species on all reefs.¬ The values (affected areas) are around 65-70 per cent for our deep reefs and up to 86 per cent for shallow reefs.¬ Water temperatures are exceptionally high at depth and have been in excess of 30oC, even at 22 metres deep." Owen Day, who has been personally monitoring Tobago's sea temperatures and videoing horrific scenes of an alien transformation of the rainbow-hued coral sculptures, told me: "The sea surface temperatures have been about two degrees above average for the time of year. In the last 20 years, the dramatic increases in the reported incidences of mass coral bleaching events has been undisputable. I can't understand why the international media hasn't picked up on this," he said of the Caribbean's current crisis. In Tobago the bleaching started with fire corals losing their vibrant warning colours in early September. A few weeks later it spread to the brain corals and in October began crossing to new species, affecting many different varieties. Day said reefs on the Caribbean coast "seem¬ particularly badly affected", notably¬ Buccoo Reef, Mt Irvine, Arnos Vale, Culloden, Castara and Englishman's Bay.¬ The reefs at Speyside and south of Crown Point are also showing signs of bleaching, he added. Corals appear to be affected down to a depth of about 50 feet. When coral bleaches it does the same as your laundry and turns "brilliant white". It occurs because of environmental stress, said Day;¬ specifically, "high or low temperatures, sediment, excessive sunlight, exposure to air, freshwater or pollutants". Think of bleaching as the coral equivalent of HIV/AIDS: species weakened and highly vulnerable to stresses and infections. When the phenomenon happens, said Day, the corals expel their symbiotic microscopic algal cells (zooxanthellae) in response to the environmental stress. The condition turns coral colonies white as their calcium carbonate skeletons become visible through their unpigmented tissue (bleached).¬ Day explained that zooxanthellae typically provide the coral with around 90 per cent of the energy required for a healthy life, the remaining 10 per cent being obtained from mostly nocturnal filter feeding. But unlike today's terrestrial AIDS patients, there are no life-prolonging wonder drugs available for corals, only a death sentence once the sources of the stresses persist for more than about eight to ten weeks or so, said Day. The exact length of time it takes before they die is dependent on various factors, such as the severity of the bleaching, the type of coral species, and the depth at which they live. Corals can recover once favourable conditions return in time. Day pointed out that this week's heavy swells through the Caribbean will have resuspended the sediment in the seawater, brought there by unsustainable land practices. When corals are bleached they are unable to produce the mucous needed to clean themselves, and they die beneath their newly-settled, grainy blanket.¬ They also need sunlight to survive, but that becomes temporarily filtered out by swirling silt clouds in such conditions. Cloudy water through tidal action is also exacerbated by the rainy conditions that accompany weather systems: surging outflows of silt and polluted run-off from the land. The importance and fragility of coral reefs cannot be overstated: they cover just 0.02 per cent of our planet's entire ocean floor-but a quarter of all known marine species call them home.¬ A reason, no doubt, why Dr Oxenford was "very happy" someone was reporting this "Caribbean-wide mass bleaching event". She told me:¬ "It certainly will have some devastating consequences if the coral we are seeing bleached now, does not recover.¬ We are hoping against hope that it will, but the longer it remains bleached the greater the chance of widespread coral mortality. "Of course, if the living hard corals die, then the reef structures (built by living hard corals) will continue to erode without repair and will become less and less effective in protection of our coastlines, production of white sand for our beaches, and in harbouring a myriad of coral reef fish species, many of which are of commercial importance to fisheries," she said. "The economic consequences will be severe-with huge implications for tourism (loss of beaches, loss of quality snorkelling and diving); for coastal property owners (reduced natural protection, coastal erosion, loss of beach sand); and for fishers (loss of livelihood for coastal reef fishers).¬ There will also be a loss of recreational opportunity and aesthetic value; a huge loss in biodiversity and increased vulnerability to other impacts of climate change such as sea level rise and increased severity of storms,"she warned. Well before this bleaching event became evident, the stresses to Caribbean coral reefs had already become a wholly Caribbean-made epidemic through human activities; specifically, "land-based sources of pollution", often from the very tourism industry that profits from such attractions. The Washington-based World Resources Institute have a map of threatened Caribbean reefs. The threat levels are illustrated as orange for "high" and red for "very high". The overall impression is of a region with coastlines painted like sunsets. Two thirds of Caribbean coral reefs are under threat from humans, said the Institute in their 2004 publication "Reefs at Risk in the Caribbean". They advised: "Coral reefs are extremely important to the economies of Caribbean countries today, and they are the capital stock for future economic and political security ...¬ Ensuring the vitality of the coral reefs and their ability to continue providing benefits to society is critically important ." The Institute also warns of overfishing, leading to a change in the reefs' ecological balance; and of "poorly understood coral diseases that have spread rapidly throughout the region, devastating some of the main reef-building corals". Many scientists concur that the major cause of bleaching is not Caribbean-made at all. It is the global pandemic to end all pandemics-Climate Change-in this case abnormal sea temperatures. While Caribbean nations alone cannot halt Climate Change, they can lessen the chances of the AIDS-like bleaching condition from becoming terminal , preventing land-based sources of pollution. "Barbados is very aware of the importance of its reefs," said Oxenford. "It's put a great deal of effort (and money) over the last decade or so into mitigation of negative impacts on coastal water quality to ensure coral reef health.¬ This includes sewage treatment, strict coastal building practices, effluent standards, and watercourse/coastal zone management."¬ "Also, direct protection is given through fisheries legislation which makes coral harvesting illegal island wide, and forbids the use of destructive fishing practices such as dynamite and use of toxins. Other efforts include the installation of mooring buoys and designated anchoring areas to prevent physical damage. Like most islands, "improved agricultural practises to prevent soil erosion and pesticide contamination, and better drainage management to prevent land water runoff, needed attention", she added. In Tobago's case, the Buccoo Reef Trust (BRT) isn't prepared to wait for the life-enhancing, self-administered medicine the island needs to save itself. It has formed an alliance with UK-based Coral Cay Conservation (CCC), a non-profit organisation based in the UK with "extensive experience in coral reef monitoring worldwide". They have offered to send out a team of four experienced divers to Tobago in mid-October to help establish and implement a bleaching monitoring programme. Owen Day has sent a proposal to the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) for the monitoring programme called "Urgent Assistance for Monitoring of Coral Bleaching Event in Tobago", that BRT would coordinate.¬ The THA have agreed to assist by providing some of the¬ required¬ funding for the immediate surveys, and a collaborative project is now being planned. But, "additional assistance will be required to fully assess the medium and long-term mortality associated with¬ this bleaching event", Day said. BRT's project aims to provide stakeholders with the "relevant information for the management and protection of Tobago's coral reefs".¬ "In particular, the project will highlight the need to improve the management of Tobago's watersheds and coastal areas in order to reduce pollution and sedimentation - issues that are currently threatening the sustainability of the island's tourism industry," they say. They want to find out the extent and severity of the bleaching; what the prospects are of medium and long-term recovery of the corals; and the effects of additional stresses of sedimentation and sewage pollution. BRT say it is essential to improve awareness "among all stakeholders of coral bleaching and other issues related to the conservation of Tobago's coral reefs". As Day admitted, monitoring is all very well, but what really matters is action to reverse the human impacts. Deeds to defy the death sentence. The Caribbean bleaching event, he said, "is a dramatic¬ reminder of the mantra of the environmental movement-'Think Globally and Act Locally'."

Mud and mismanagement By MARK MEREDITH : Sunday, December 19th 2004

Light brown silt can be seen hugging the inshore waters of Charlotteville and Man-O-War Bay a month after heavy rains caused landslides in the area, blocking the sunlight coral needs to survive. This is an example of the environmental damage caused by the On March 14, the Sunday Express reported on the Tobago House of Assembly's (THA) construction of the north coast link road between L'Anse Fourmi and Charlotteville. "The Missing Link" report detailed the environmental havoc being wreaked on the fringing coral reefs running below the road from silt pouring down quarried hillsides into the sea, the dangers to corals this type of pollution brings, and the threats to Tobago's dive tourism. On May 30, "The Road to Perdition" chronicled the mismanagement of the project. A European Union-funded North East Tobago Management Plan, requested by the THA, detailed "Environmental Mitigation Guidelines for the L'Anse Fourmi-Charlotteville Road". It was ignored, to the "disbelief" of its authors, the Oxford-based Environment and Development Group. The study warned of "the exceptional risks" of cutting and exposing embankments and indicated how to minimise risk to the marine environment. Subsequent advice offered by local specialists in marine and terrestrial ecology in May has not been followed. Nearly seven months later, MARK MEREDITH finds that environmental safeguards are still being ignored by all concerned. You don't need to drive on the THA's $40 million link road from Charlotteville to L'Anse Fourmi to detect its path. Take the road to the top of Flagstaff Hill above Charlotteville, past a few expensive houses cut high in the landslip-scarred mountain and stop shortly after the one which looks set to tumble into the road. Gaze out over Man-O-War Bay-where the palette of blues still has brown in the mix, weeks after the worst rainstorm in living memory -to Hermitage. A landslide tumbles into the sea below the community that lives there. Silt plumes into the water as if from a fountain, though the weather had been dry and sunny. Unlike the man on this side of the bay whose expensive house sits on a crumbling precipice of his own design and nature's reckoning, the folks in Hermitage have had the land cut beneath their very modest homes by the THA's contractor Raghunath Singh & Co-the same contractor in dispute with the THA over the Crown Point International Airport expansion project. As I discovered, at least two of these Hermitage homes could also end up as rubble covering the reefs. Which raised the question: what of the other homes and inhabitants along the path of the ravenous link road, those folks in Cambleton and Charlotteville? It was crawling towards them and was just around the corner. I watched it devouring mountainside with mechanical teeth and spitting the debris down the side of the mountain. I spoke to a few residents of Cambleton who live along the crumbling track-which serves as the only road up Cambleton Hill from Charlotteville, others in the area, and to the Vice-President of the Charlotteville Village Council, Dexter Hackett. No one had heard anything about the link road, from anyone. No one I spoke to had any idea what would happen when the current Cambleton road was widened to take the link road; whether people would be relocated, have a notice of compulsory acquisition for a "public purpose" served upon them, or receive compensation. No one has enquired, so no information has been forthcoming. I asked the THA representative for the area, the PNM's Aldington Spencer, to clarify the situation. What communication had taken place with the soon-to-be affected residents? Spencer told me he believed it was the contractors who had the "obligation" to speak with residents about the road. He thought "discussions" had taken place in the community among some parties. This was strongly denied by Charlotteville Village Council's Dexter Hackett, who was in the dark along with everyone else. I took a jeep to traverse the link road to L'Anse Fourmi, and to meet some of the community of Hermitage who have witnessed its hunger. Sheared mountainside and forest, tree stumps and landslides, slopes buried by bare earth, and spectacular ocean vistas through bulldozed vegetation are the characteristics of this road. It was busy with backhoes. Rounding Cambleton Point I was forced to wait and watch while they blocked my way, widening the road by scraping earth from the mountainside and dumping the debris down the slope. Earth ran down the sides of the mountainside disappearing under a blanket of bush and broken trees. Approaching Hermitage, alongside the river, a comprehensive staging area with road-building machinery, equipment and piles of gravel had been established. I met some of Hermitage's residents below a hillside that had been torn away beneath their homes by the contractors, above the same landslide that dropped to the sea that I had seen from Flagstaff Hill. One of the residents told me the slope below his home used to be covered with trees. Now it was starkly bare. Rubble and boulders cascaded onto the side of the road. He pointed to another dwelling which was now within a few feet of a sheer new precipice. He is worried that the house his grandmother lived in could tumble onto the road and on into the sea. He and the others say they have been told nothing of possible compensation or what will happen should the land below them slip. They told me they had previously never been able to see the sea below the road because of the concealing forest, and led me to the edge. Earth and broken trees cascaded steeply downwards below my feet. It was a strange sensation standing there, like hovering over the ocean. Pale clouds of silt drifted outwards on the placid blue surface beneath, like cream colouring a giant cup of coffee. I pressed onwards, past gangs of workers and more backhoes biting mountains, scraping and pushing earth onto the slopes and down gullies fed by streams above. At its highest elevations the road offers extravagant views of the distant St Giles Islands, and The Brothers and The Sisters dive sites below. This is because an enormous chunk of mountain has been cut away in massive terraces for the road, flattening a great swathe of forest below it. Gravel has been put down along part of the road near L'Anse Fourmi. In the same area, a hill has been used for quarrying, scythed in half, a scalp of trees overhanging what remains of its featureless face. Originally, the European Union (EU), under its 8th European Development Fund, was looking at financing the construction of Tobago's link road and did a study of its feasibility. But in 2000 they concluded it was economically and environmentally infeasible, the impacts to the environment being too great, and wrote to the T&T government telling them so, finally signing off the project in 2002. Instead, money from the EU's development fund was used, at the THA's request, to finance a comprehensive environmental study of north east Tobago, with a special section on how to safely build a road which would pass across mountainous coastal terrain above fragile coral reefs. The "Environmental Mitigation Guidelines for the L'Anse Fourmi-Charlotteville Road" was produced by the Oxford-based Environment and Development Group (EDG) in conjunction with local consultants Kairi, and was featured in the Sunday Express in May. One of EDG's team, Keith Lindsay, told me they had been "quite a bit disappointed about the handling" of the road project. They found it "hard to understand" why the recommendations which "the THA requested and the EU funded were not taken up in the contract terms of the building contractors". He added it was "equally puzzling" that the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE) had "not been monitoring the straightforward indicators that our report outlined". He said that if the guidelines were not included in the contract by the Department of Infrastructure, the DNRE would have had no mandate. I reached the head of the DNRE, Ray Sandy, on a cellphone-somewhere "abroad", he told me. I asked him if he'd visited the link road recently, but he declined to answer any questions. THA Secretary of Infrastructure, Hilton Sandy, was more forthcoming, expressing the THA's dissatisfaction with the contractors Raghunath Singh & Co. The THA was unable to "fire" them, he said, due to contractual complications which would have meant the road sitting idle and unattended. He complained that the bridge for Bloody Bay was sitting in Trinidad when it should be straddling the river. As to the environmental impacts highlighted twice in this newspaper, Sandy said he read another newspaper and hadn't seen it. Sandy must also have missed the viewing in April by the THA's top brass of video shot by the Buccoo Reef Trust of corals smothered in mud along the path of the link road. Instead, Sandy assured me that "the sea would clean itself". The silt would be "drawn back to land". The $40 million link road construction project was being overseen by the THA's chosen engineering consultants, Lee Young and Partners (LYP), he said. They held the purse-strings when it came to paying the contractor. LYP are a successful engineering firm and are specialists in marine projects affecting coastlines, such as reclamation and port building. I was directed to e-mail my questions to LYP director Joe Ramkissoon, former Caroni boss. I asked why LYP did not adopt the guidelines of the EU-funded environmental study; why the contractors are still cutting mountainside and dumping rubble down the mountains; why they haven't planted vegetative matter to bind loose soil after a professor from UWI was flown to the site to show them how; how much the contractors have been paid, and the fee for LYP; whether environmental penalties are included in the contract; and whether they have consulted any soon-to-be affected residents. I got no reply. Raghunath Singh's project director is Shazard Ali, the man in charge of the backhoes. He returned my call from his cell from "somewhere" in Tobago's countryside. I asked why he hadn't followed the environmental guidelines that were shown to him. He replied: "There are over 60 landslides right across here. What do you expect me to do about it?" And rang off. As if the link road's man-made landslides were not a serious environmental problem themselves, northern Tobago also faces the deadly legacy of landslides brought on by a combination of harmful land practices, Hurricane Ivan and recent record rainfall. And, in particular, their effect on Speyside and Charlotteville's famous, tourist-attracting coral reefs. Landslides become superhighways of silt to the sea every time it rains. The water in some inshore areas has remained muddy for weeks, settling silt on the shallow fringing reefs-Charlotteville's popular beachfront reef was pounded with debris during the storm and has been covered by silty seawater ever since. Divers told me of underwater landslides caused by the hurricane, damage to sponges and bleaching of some corals due to the lack of sunlight because of the continued cloudy inshore waters. Corals in deeper water such as Little Tobago and Goat Island were said to be unaffected. However, the THA, in its bid to remove mountains of mud from roads and villages in the area, is trucking much of it to Speyside and dumping it in huge piles next to the beach opposite Speyside High School. The mud is washing into Speyside's famous bay. The Buccoo Reef Trust have told the THA the mud should not be there; that the least they could do is cover it with tarpaulin in the meantime. As it is, Prickly Point Reef in Speyside-"a beautiful reef", I was told-is badly damaged with "lots of coral bleaching from the turbid conditions". Lindsay, of EDG in Oxford, told me that if sediment piles up on corals it can kill the polyps and that the "damage would take years, decades to recover from". I asked him how landslides could be repaired and he replied he wasn't aware of any simple ways they could be. Regarding the link road, he suggested retaining walls in steep terracing and repeated his study's advice on revegetating with quick-growing plants. He said "a lot more expenditure would be needed than for the original preventive measures", adding, "without any action, the siltation could continue for many years, whenever it rains, and especially during big storms". Told Tobago was in election mode, Lindsay had this comment: "I understand Tobago recently received a prestigious ecotourism award and is planning to go for Green and Clean status. "The lack of application of standard preventive measures during the (link) road construction, with no follow-up monitoring, would threaten the administration's credibility in its commitment to sound environmental management and its comparative advantage in the promotion of ecotourism." He added that EDG did not want to see Tobago fall behind in these areas, and that they would support the island's efforts to succeed. Which is something they have already done. - MARK MEREDITH is a freelance journalist and editor of SAMAAN magazine : Taken from Trinidad Express Newspaper dd Sunday Dec. 19th 2004

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