Surprise rescue of Jamaica coral reefs shows nature can heal

How do you bring coral reefs back from the brink? In Jamaica, divers tend to underwater coral nurseries and try to keep out illegal fishing.


How do you bring coral reefs back from the brink? In Jamaica, divers tend to underwater coral nurseries and try to keep out illegal fishing.

OCHO RIOS, Jamaica (AP) — 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....

OCHO RIOS, Jamaica (AP) — 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Still, slowly, the comeback effort is gaining momentum.

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.

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.

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.

“There was a tipping point in the 1980s, when it switched from being a coral-dominated system to being an algae-dominated system,” Gayle says. “Scientists call it a ‘phase shift.’”

Both men have lived and fished their whole lives in the community. Recently, they have come to believe that they need to protect the coral reefs that attract tropical fish, while setting limits on fishing to ensure the sea isn’t emptied too quickly.

On this morning, the men steer the boat just outside a row of orange buoys marked “No Fishing.” ″We are looking for violators,” Bailey says, his eyes trained on the rocky coast. “Sometimes you find spearmen. They think they’re smart. We try to beat them at their game.”

These are sometimes risky efforts. Two years ago, Jerlene Layne, a manager at nearby Boscobel Fish Sanctuary, landed in the hospital with a bruised leg after being attacked by a man she had reprimanded for fishing illegally in the sanctuary. “He used a stick to hit my leg because I was doing my job — telling him he cannot fish in the protected area,” she says.

She has pressed charges in court against repeat trespassers, typically resulting in a fine and equipment confiscation.

Back at the White River docking area, Rick Walker, a 35-year-old spearfisherman, is cleaning his motorboat. He remembers the early opposition to the fish sanctuary, with many people saying, ”‘No, they’re trying to stop our livelihood.’”

Oracabessa Bay Fish Sanctuary was the first of the grassroots-led efforts to revive Jamaica’s coral reefs. Its sanctuary was legally incorporated in 2010, and its approach of enlisting local fishermen as patrols became a model for other regions.

When fish populations began to collapse two decades ago, something had to change.

But once it became clear that a no-fishing zone actually helped nearby fish populations rebound, it became easier to build support. The number of fish in the sanctuary has doubled between 2011 and 2017, and the individual fish have grown larger — nearly tripling in length on average — according to annual surveys by Jamaica’s National Environment and Planning Agency. And that boosts catches in surrounding areas.

Belinda Morrow, a lifelong water-sports enthusiast often seen paddle-boarding with her dog Shadow, runs the White River Marine Association. She attends fishers’ meetings and raises small grants from the Jamaican government and other foundations to support equipment purchases and coral replanting campaigns.

Read more: The Associated Press

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