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October 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 35, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Caribbean Reefs

from the October, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

It’s taken less than 40 years for disease and global warming to destroy most of the staghorn and elkhorn corals that provided sanctuary for reef fish and other creatures in the Caribbean. New Scientist reports that UK researcher Jenny Gill analyzed 40 years of data from 500 surveys of 200 Caribbean reefs They discovered that in the late 1970s, white-band disease swept through the reefs, killing 90 per cent of the spectacular elkhorn and staghorn coral species In 1998, many remaining treelike corals were wiped out in a massive bleaching event, probably driven by global warming Large, weedy corals took over, out-competing the remaining treelike corals.

Flat reefs now cover 75 percent of the Caribbean, compared with just 20 percent in the 1970s. “It’s difficult to see how to reverse any of this,” says Gill The biggest problem, she says, is the sheer density of human population - stresses on the coral include pollution and tourism By contrast, reefs remain almost pristine across the Indian Pacific, where human habitation is sparse.

Belize is doing something to protect its reefs Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society at Glover’s Reef found that parrotfish are the most commonly caught fish and as a consequence, coral cover has declined in the area. At their urging, Belize passed new laws to protect the country’s extensive coral reefs. One law will protect parrotfish and other grazers, such as doctor and surgeonfish These herbivores keep algae growth in check, enabling corals to flourish In the past, fisherman did not target the grazing fish; rather, they caught mainly snappers and groupers. It was only when these species declined that they turned to the next tier of the food web, and parrotfish began to disappear.

The second set of regulations will protect Nassau grouper, an endangered species. The rules set a minimum and maximum size limit for fishermen. The third regulation bans spearfishing within marine reserves; it’s the main method by which locals catch groupers and has caused severe declines of these species. South Water Caye and Sapodilla Cayes marine reserves are now closed to fishing, and the Pelican Cayes—a hotspot for rare sponges and sea squirts—are also off-limits.

For more information about the efforts of WCS, visit

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