Into the Deep End: The Survival of Coral Reef’s Post Maria

After a disaster it isn’t difficult to pinpoint and assess damage on the ground. What is challenging, and often goes unnoticed, is identifying damage under the sea and determining how destruction above the shore affects marine life.

Marine eco-systems are essential and provide a host of opportunities for communities and nations.  However, the notion for the preservation of aquatic life is often overshadowed by the need to restore what is most obvious– homes, among other things.

Certainly, the task at hand, to rebuild infrastructure and restore basic utility service island-wide, is daunting and is unfolding to be an extremely difficult process. Yet, the existence of Dominica’s delicate coral reefs cannot be ignored. So, it is a dilemma.

“It’s not an easy right and wrong,” said marine biologist, and founder of CLEAR Caribbean, Dr Owen Day. “You have, on one hand, a need to do things quickly and cheaply. And on the other hand, you need to be thinking long term: ‘how is this going to affect us in 10 years?’”

From all reports, the coral reefs assessed since the passage of Hurricane Maria in September 2017 faired out well. Immediately after the disaster, Niels Noteboom, owner of Buddy Dive, along with other local divers, evaluated the reefs in some of the most popular dive sites. The take away point: everything below 40ft was healthy and there was hardly any damage.

Some of the most popular reefs, located in the Soufriere Scott’s Head Marine Reserve (SSMR), received a satisfactory report.

From L-R: Tourism Cares official Yuri Horowitz, Marine reserve official Clem Johnson, Tourism Cares official and Dominican Ilene Gutierrez

Fast forward to January 2018, during Dr Day’s visit to conduct his own assessment, the news was still favourable.

“What’s interesting,” he said, “is that you see some big coral heads that have been knocked clean off. So, the force of the swell was evident. But, then you see, not too far from that some sponges intact […] there’s a lot of coral still alive – the fish life was very good.”

Weefers ‘Weefee’ Jules, a diver instructor and businessman from Soufriere added: “Even with snorkelling you can see the difference. After Maria it was dull and grey because of all the silt on the reef [but] it’s clearing up a bit, you can see more life and colour coming.”

As for the damaged and essentially dying coral, Dr Day and his team hopes to introduce new technology to assist with replenishing the reefs within the SSMR. One of the main reasons for his assessment he explained, was to determine the feasibility of setting up a coral nursery within the SSMR.

In the nursery, which is usually established in the sea, “we can propagate corals that are resilient – that seem to be strong and multiply them up in the nursery. So, you take very small pieces and put them in a nursery for coral. We grow them – they grow very quickly – they get lots of light they get no predators. It’s like gardening.”

When the corals are about a year old or less (depending on the species) they are then transferred from the nursery to the reef.

“Or even better you take a piece from the nursery, so the nursery keeps growing and you don’t have to get more to put in the nursery. The nursery then becomes a constant supply of material that you can put back on the reef. It’s quite simple,” Dr Day added.

Fisherfolk, residents and tourists, he added, could also benefit greatly from the initiative which has been successful in other Caribbean islands, like St. Lucia for example.

The challenge now is to allocate funding and other resources for the project, to establish a location for the nursery and to determine the type of nursery best suited for the area and objects of the idea.

Still, that is not to say the reef is completely out of harm’s way. Soil dumping along the coast poses a serious threat.

“What we have to be careful of now is that there isn’t too much sediment going into the sea and that is something that’s a big concern. [When] you’ve got so much mud that’s being shifted around – you’ll get sedimentation and you’ll get damage to the coral because they can’t get sunlight. And if they can’t get sunlight they can’t grow, and they can’t live or thrive,” one official indicated.

“The hurricane did a lot of damage, you don’t want the clean up to do even more damage,” the marine biologist advised and recommended establishing designated sites for soil dumping before a disaster, because “soil [is] what you grow food in. And if it’s been washed down from the mountain it’s actually valuable. So, we shouldn’t treat soil as garbage. You want to put it somewhere you can re-plant.”

According to Dr Day, preserving the reef isn’t just about fish, “it’s about food security and livelihoods of future generations.”

Not only is the reserve home to several world records and one of the most popular dive sites in the world but the communities of Soufriere and Scott’s head, after which the marine reserve is named, depends heavily on the reef to sustain livelihoods and the local economy which assists with local tourism initiatives that eventually contribute to national tourism product.


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