In 2002, I started doing volunteer work on coral reefs in Roatan, Honduras. I have fond memories of the reefs there and a couple of years ago I visited Utila (an island near Roatan) and Roatan again. I was stunned at the condition of the reef and how it had changed in that time. Indeed, it was clear that both islands' economies were based almost entirely on dive tourism, yet the reefs weren't nearly as pristine as I had seen only 4 or 5 years earlier. However, the number of hotels, dive resorts, and fancy beach properties has skyrocketed. And with all of that came feces. More people, more bowels, more bowls, more feces. Wastewater treatment is rare in many of these places and so it all flushes to the sea with little processing. An increase in waste is an increase in nutrients, for the macroalgae. People come to see the reef, but as the reef becomes popular, the algae bloom and the coral die, taking away the reason that people come to the island. My guess is that many dive destinations are still popular because they have momentum -- people still think that they're great diving destinations and the businesses advertise as such.
Bonaire is odd in the Caribbean. Oh, there's plenty of waste-water and it's on the rise, while coral reefs throughout much of the Caribbean have been dying at an alarming rate, the reefs on Bonaire seem to be much more resilient and have stayed relatively constant over the past decade. These days, the average live-coral coverage on major reefs in the Caribbean is 26% or less (it was much, much higher in the past). In Bonaire, live-coral coverage is around 46%. The trend has been that reefs in the Caribbean have been going through a phase-shift from coral dominated ecosystems to macroalgae dominated systems. The macroaglae on the reef outcompete the coral for space and smother the adult coral, blocking sunlight. People don't travel to exotic locations to dive and see brownish algae growing on rocks. Well, very few people do that anyway.
As you'd expect, then, Bonaire is booming. It still is diver's paradise. It probably has the nicest reefs left in the Caribbean. With all of the nice reefs comes new building, expansions, condos etc. What's not being built (yet) is a wastwater treatment system. How long will Bonaire's reefs continue to be the pinnacle of Caribbean reef resilience? When will they be loved to death also? Or will our waste (along with other factors: global climate change, increasing ocean surface temperatures, high dissolved CO2, diseases, introduced species, and hurricanes) turn Bonaire into "A nice Place to see macroalgae."?
It's important to realize that if we lose the reef today (or soon), just like the reefs that have already had huge mortality, then we will not live long enough to see it fully recovered. It will be largely dead for the rest of our lives. Most likely, it would be many generations before it was back to normal and that's only if there was a massive effort to restore it. Reefs do not repair quickly. If you wanted to see pristine reefs in Jamaica someday, for example, then look into cryogenics or hydrogen sulfide (did I tell you about that!??) because you have a VERY, VERY long wait.
SO, what am I doing here?
I'm working with Stinapa Bonaire, a non-profit, NGO that manages the marine park of Bonaire.
What is this marine park anyway?
It's an odd organization. The Bonaire Marine Park, like many others in the Caribbean, was created by the dive companies on the island. They set up moorings, dive sites, etc. So it started with "buy in" from the businesses. In some sense, people established the park in order to protect themselves from themselves and each other. The park is not part of the government, but the government is a stakeholder. The park has a lot of different stakeholders: fishermen, the hotels, the tourism board, the salt company, dive companies, etc. In working with the government, the marine park rangers have some law enforcement capabilities. In the park's current form, rangers can levy fines against people even if they are part of the shareholder group. In fact, those are the people that are likely to be fined.
The marine park manager I'm working with is Ramon de Leon. He's from Uruguay and for many years he managed a dive shop on Bonaire. He has a degree in marine biology and has worked for universities doing marine research. He has a good combination of skills for a job like this. He's an insider. That is, he knows everybody here. Managing a marine park is about managing people (i.e., the stakeholders). Ramon is very good with people. He let me sit in on a meeting with one of the stakeholders, Cargill, who runs the salt company on Bonaire (don't worry I'll put pictures of it up later). It was fascinating. I can't share details from the meeting, but several things became apparent: 1)Everybody on Bonaire affects the reef to some extent; 2) Everybody knows that the reef is the most important thing on this island; and 3) Nobody wants to be the one that's hurting the reef most, or perhaps, nobody wants to be the one that people think is hurting the reef the most. If any dive company, hotel, business, etc. is categorized as a major contributor to reef degredation, then that business could have a very hard time living that down. From what I can tell, people want the reef to be in good shape and are interested in doing their part to keep it that way. It seems to me that one force that helps drive compliance with the regulations established by the marine park is peer pressure and potential for bad press. These sticks have a lot of weight. If most people come here to dive and they know that some company is ruining their reason for coming here, then that's a big deal.
Yeah, but what am I DOING?
My job here is to monitor what the reefs are like right now. The marine park has data from previous years, but each year it is important to know what reef's health in order to determine if a plan of action needs to be formed. (I will go through how I monitor the reefs in a later post.) For example, are diseases or macroalgae on the rise in a particular site? Is coral mortality up? Has coral coverage stayed about the same? The data that I'm collecting should get at some of those questions.
I better finish this post and copy the data that I collected off of my waterproof paper.