Thursday, April 11, 2013

An homage to San Salvador, Bahamas, circa 1990, and a warning about coral reefs in general

A blog of Bridge Environment, updated most Thursdays

I have discussed previously the environmental importance of the typical ways people react to uncertainty: denial and overreaction. Overreactions have earned environmentalists a reputation for being Chicken Little, constantly claiming that the sky is falling. There are many reasons why I believe that most environmental issues are better served by a calm rational consideration of problems and their potential solutions. One of the reasons I am against “the sky is falling” rhetoric is that it detracts from pleas when there really is a crisis. Even in a case like climate change, where the consequences may be dire, I urge calm and reasoned consideration of the relative risks, costs, and benefits. When it comes to coral reefs, though, the sky really is falling.

Living Acropora cervicornis, on San Andrés, Colombia
Numerous scientific surveys have evaluated the condition of coral reefs globally, and all are pretty depressing. Corals themselves have suffered an onslaught of stressors. In the 1980s, white band disease decimated the Caribbean populations of two branching corals, Acropora palmata and A. cervicornis, which had previously made major contributions to reef growth and the supply of shelter. We have seen patchy and modest recovery in recent years, yet many Caribbean reefs look dead to those of us who can recognize living coral. We see that the major source of structure is dead colonies that are gradually eroding. Also in the 1980s, the coral-eating crown-of-thorns-starfish, Acanthaster planci, began to show outbreaks around the tropical Pacific in which they ate their way through many reefs. Concurrently, coral bleaching, in which the energy suppliers for corals are ejected/leave as a result of stress, also became widespread world-wide. On top of these stressors, some fishing communities began to resort to destructive fishing practices such as the use of dynamite or harmful chemicals. Overfishing has also resulted, at least in places, in ecological imbalances that favor algal growth over coral. Though there remains uncertainty about the complex ecology of coral reefs and the specific causes of certain forms of degradation, there is no uncertainty about the status of reefs: they are in trouble.

In the 1980s, when I was a marine ecology student, most professors in the field avoided environmental issues. In fact, I was chastised by the faculty in my graduate program for my “applied” interests, and I used to joke with my friends that the key to success was finding the most irrelevant research topic possible. Now, many marine ecologists have made efforts to help with environmental issues. When I have asked them why they changed their attitude, the decimation of a favorite coral reef is often the answer.

Though it did not contribute to my motivation to work on environmental issues, I also saw favorite reefs become degraded. The story of the reefs around San Salvador serves as an example of the modern-day struggles of development. When I started working there, in 1990, the island was home to about 300 locals. One paved road circled the island, interrupted by a single major intersection—between the road and the airport runway—with a sign warning drivers to look for planes before crossing. Locals were poor. Few had jobs, and most traveled on foot or bicycle. Most, it seemed, got by on an extensive home garden, a goat, and a little government assistance. At that time, the island hosted a single small dive resort and a modest and lightly used marine field station. In contrast to the sparse simplicity of the human dimension of the island, the marine life set my standard for pristine. Reefs had live coral overgrowing live coral. Fish were a riot of color and activity, including particularly conspicuous populations of Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus) and a wide variety of sharks. In most of the Caribbean, Nassau grouper have been overfished, to the point that they were identified in 1996 as a threatened species by the World Conservation Union. These large striped and spotted brown fish were everywhere along San Salvador’s reef drops, and so unaffected by people that they would follow me around on my dives, ever curious to see what I was doing. Sharks were so plentiful that I’d see them more dives than not, and I stuck to land-based sources of exercise in lieu of my normal afternoon swim. In fact, the sharks had made such an impression on locals that virtually all of them were afraid to go in the water under any circumstances. There was a single full-time fisherman on the island, and another who reluctantly fished when festivals were coming up.

Columbus caught on live webcam, San Salvador, Bahamas, 1492
In 1990, change was in the air. San Salvador had already undergone some change. It had been called Watlings Island for years. In 1925, after studying Christopher Columbus’s journals with care, scholars decided that this island was where he first made landfall in the Americas. Columbus had christened it San Salvador and thus the name returned.

Given that he made that landfall in 1492, 1992 was a year of much pomp and circumstance. The Bahamian government issued new money, with pictures of Columbus’s voyage interspersed with pictures of endangered Bahamian wildlife. But the biggest change taking place was the construction of a Club Med. In an effort to capitalize on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landfall (and the pristine natural beauty), the Bahamian government and Club Med had made arrangements to build a large resort on the island. I can’t confirm this fact, but believe it has capacity for about 400 guests…on an island that had a population of about 300. As part of the effort to capitalize on Columbus’s legacy, they named the resort Columbus Isle, and many people now know San Salvador by that name.

I continued my fieldwork there while the resort was under construction. During that time, there were really depressing community meetings. The Bahamian government had sold the locals on the resort with the idea that it would result in cars and televisions for them. It had apparently not been so clear that the resort was going to require lots of local resources and only offer low-wage service sector employment for the locals. I heard many of them complaining about the hospitality classes that they were offered to groom them for work, comparing the lessons to teachings of how to be a servant.

Though many locals did not see it, the effects on marine environments were also dramatic. I had one gorgeous research site, a field of soft corals growing in a few feet of water just offshore. It went from literally sparkling in the sunlight to being covered in refuse overnight when the garbage emanating from the construction site finally drifted that far. In my final days there, representatives for Club Med came out for site visits and started recreationally fishing. Though I did not return after that trip, I got reports from others that the fish populations were never the same.

Is San Salvador still a beautiful place to visit? Apparently so. It still has a remarkably abundant fish population for a Caribbean coral reef according to my sources. However, it will never again be the pristine reef I saw back in 1990.

Next week I will discuss some reefs that are still wondrous, even to a jaded coral reef biologist such as myself. I will also go into more details about the threats they face and the challenges in addressing them. In the meantime, please keep in mind that reefs truly are in crisis.


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