The Coral Reefs of the Portland Bight Protected Area are in “Reasonable Condition,” Scientists Say

When my father first went snorkeling in Jamaica many years ago, he compared the experience to peeping into a “wonderland” of glowing color. He was thrilled to bits.

What of the coral reefs in the Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA) – especially in the waters surrounding Goat Islands, where the Government of Jamaica (or rather, China Harbour Engineering Company) is threatening to create a transshipment port, dredging the seabed to create deeper channels for the huge ships expected to dock there? The reefs are facing some of the challenges other coral reefs around the world experience: the chemical makeup of the sea is changing (becoming more acid) and there are high levels of nutrients from agricultural runoff, sewage systems and so on. It’s climate change, and human activity, that threatens the corals.

Survey team during surface interval time at Pigeon Island, from left: Achsah Mitchell, Kimani Kitson-Walters, Suzanne Palmer, Ivana Kenny (Photo: caribbeanenvironments.com)
Survey team during surface interval time at Pigeon Island, from left: Achsah Mitchell, Kimani Kitson-Walters, Suzanne Palmer, Ivana Kenny (Photo: caribbeanenvironments.com)

That said, scientists at the University of the West Indies concluded recently that the PBPA reefs are not doing too badly, overall.

An endangered Green Turtle seen at Big Pelican Cay. (Photo: Twitter)
An endangered Green Turtle seen at Big Pelican Cay in the PBPA. A nice surprise. (Photo: Twitter)

On February 25 UWI’s Centre for Marine Sciences, in partnership with the Waitt Foundation, the Atlantic Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment (AGRRA) program and Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) presented the results of the 2014 (July to November) scientific survey of the coral reefs in the PBPA. Up until then no one had produced any evidence about the marine habitats and ecosystem services that would be impacted by the proposed transshipment port at Goat Islands in the PBPA. There had been no survey of all the coral reefs across the PBPA for about ten years, nor was there any data on fish stocks in its fish sanctuaries. You can find the assessment overview online at http://savegoatislands.org/wpcontent/uploads/2015/02/Waitt_UWI_PBPA_Coral_Reef_Assessment_Feb2015.pdf  By the way, JET’s savegoatislands.org is a great reference website that is regularly updated with a wealth of information – relevant documents, background information, videos and photos and press links.

In 2014 Dr. Suzanne Palmer, a lecturer in coral reef ecology at UWI, received funding from the Waitt Foundation to do the PBPA study, working in partnership with the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation (C-CAM), JET, and Dr. Judith Lang (AGRRA Scientific Coordinator). @CaribbeanEnv shared many enthusiastic tweets from their dives late last year. The “virtual dive” slide show was a great prelude to Dr. Palmer’s overview; we were mesmerized by the vivid underwater photographs.

virtual-dive

Dr. Palmer described coral reefs as “underwater cities,” complex 3-D structures with astonishing biodiversity – and coral itself is a living thing, let’s remember. The UWI team examined and assessed twelve individual reef sites, including around Little and Great Goat Islands, Pigeon Island, Big Pelican Cay, Tern Cay, Wreck Reef, Pigican Shoal and Morris Shoal. They also examined the mangrove prop roots in the fishing sanctuaries, including the sanctuary in Galleon Harbour near Goat Islands. They compared the data they gathered to a regional database and found the different sites varied considerably – but the reefs were fairly close to, slightly below or even above the regional average. Coral that had recently died was 1.1% (the benchmark for “stressed” reefs is 2%) and coral mortality from longer ago was below the regional mean. The reefs are generally in better condition than those in Mexico, Honduras or the Bahamas, Dr. Palmer suggested. However, there are “early warning” signs that we should pay heed to – and Jamaica needs to “aim higher” in protecting the reefs of the PBPA, she added.

Some examples of the coral seen by the UWI team. (Photo: Twitter)
Some examples of the coral seen in the PBPA by the UWI team. (Photo: Twitter)

So what does a healthy coral reef look like? It should include reef-building corals and algae that provide the “cement” for the coral; spaces where coral larvae can settle; complex structures that can withstand wave energy and provide good coastal protection; and plenty of those long-spined sea urchins grazing the algae that can swamp the coral. The PBPA’s coral cover is higher than average for the region, the survey notes; but it has too many elements (fleshy and coralline micro algae) that are harmful to the reef if left unchecked. The waters are generally shallow, and the reefs have flattened out, but there are some large coral outcrops.

Spotted moray eel in the PBPA (Photo: Twitter)
Spotted moray eel in the PBPA (Photo: Twitter)

And what of life on the reefs of the PBPA? Achsah Mitchell (a young environmentalist currently working on the Coral Gardening Initiative in Oracabessa Fish Sanctuary, who also received a Waitt Foundation grant) gave an excellent presentation on the fish and other marine life the team recorded. There were very few large fishes throughout the area – whether herbivores (parrotfish) or carnivores (yellow-tailed snapper, grunt). There were large shoals of very small fish (the striped parrotfish was most common) including many juveniles – so the fish are breeding in the sanctuaries, but larger fish have been greatly overfished. Snappers and jackfish (which eat smaller fish and invertebrates that feed on corals, keeping things in balance) were much rarer. However, in the dense mangroves around Goat Islands they did see at least 2,000 small fry and larvae – mostly grunts and snappers; and counted over 16,000 fish among the mangrove prop roots, as well as nurse sharks and spiny lobsters.

And lion fish? This notorious invasive species was happily pretty much absent!

Are there important endangered/critically endangered species in the PBPA? The team could only comment on what they observed, and there are probably more; but they saw these species, listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List: the Hawksbill Turtle; Staghorn Coral (colonies at Little Goat Island); and Elkhorn Coral – both important reef-builders. Endangered species they spotted were the Green Turtle and the Lobed Star Coral – the latter in “large, reasonably healthy colonies.” It should be noted that a lot of funding is going into restoration projects for these species, worldwide.

The scientists saw a whole family of nurse sharks (they are harmless by the way) near Tern Cay. (Photo: Twitter)
The scientists saw a whole family of nurse sharks (they are harmless by the way) near Tern Cay. (Photo: Twitter)

By the way, the U.S. Geological Survey scientists recently pointed out another strategy to save reefs: First save the mangroves. The PBPA comprises the largest area of mangroves in Jamaica and these have an annual estimated value of approx. US$45 million in terms of carbon “fixing.” Apart from that, the mangroves, seagrass beds and coral reefs of the PBPA are “functionally and ecologically linked,” the UWI scientists say. They depend on and support each other.

There is much more to say, and I will continue in a further blog post with the discussions and recommendations from the UWI team. But here is one comment from them, which I hope all the politicians and technocrats will bear in mind: “As the largest environmental conservation area in Jamaica, the PBPA is unquestionably a valuable national resource that must be preserved.”

That’s it, in a nutshell.

A shot of mangrove root in Galleon Harbour, near Goat Islands. (Photo: Twitter)
A shot of mangrove root in the fish sanctuary at Galleon Harbour, adjoining Goat Islands. (Photo: Twitter)
The PBPA's beautiful mangroves enhance the health of coral reefs, provide sheltered breeding grounds for fish and marine life and protect the coast from damaging storms. They prevent floods and store huge amounts of carbon. (Photo: Twitter)
The PBPA’s beautiful mangroves enhance the health of coral reefs, provide sheltered breeding grounds for fish and marine life and protect the coast from damaging storms. They prevent floods and store huge amounts of carbon. (Photo: Twitter)

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