Marine researchers say Caribbean coastlines are battered, but not beaten

By Nelson A. King

The Panama City-based Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) says that the Caribbean’s coastal environment is stressed out, but adds that there is hope, according to data from 25-year monitoring program.

Stating that 40 percent of the world’s 2.5 billion people live in coastal cities and towns, the STRI said on Thursday that a team of marine biologists, including some from STRI, has just released 25 years of data about the health of Caribbean coasts from the Caribbean Coastal Marine Productivity Program (CARICOMP).

The study provides new insights into the influence of both local and global stressors in the basin, and some hope that the observed changes can be reversed by local environmental management, STRI said.

The largest, longest program to monitor the health of the Caribbean coastal ecosystems, CARICOMP revealed that water quality decreased at 42 percent of the monitoring stations across the basin, according to the institute.

However, STRI said significant increases in water temperature, expected in the case of global warming, were not detected across sites.

“We’re seeing important changes in local conditions, like decreases in visibility associated with declining water quality and the increasing presence of people, but we’re not picking up global-scale changes, like climate warming,” said Iliana Chollett, post-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Marine Conservation Program in Fort Pierce, Fla.

“Our data set did not reveal significant increases in water temperature,” she added. “Satellites only measure temperature at the surface. Underwater temperatures are much more variable, and it may take decades of data to reveal a significant change. So, we’re not sure if this means that we just don’t have enough data to detect it yet.”

More than 25 years ago, in 1992, STRI said researchers at institutions across the Caribbean began to set up stations to gather environmental data on mangroves, seagrass beds and coral reefs at coastal sites.

STRI said researchers began to take weekly measurements of water temperature, salinity and visibility at stations placed to avoid direct interference from cities, towns and other direct human impacts.

The team gathered CARICOMP data from 29 sites in Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, Bonaire, Colombia, Costa Rica, Florida, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico, Saba and Venezuela, and organized it into a single data set. This includes data taken for periods from three years, at stations added to the network more recently, to 22 years, the institute said.

It said, despite attempts to locate monitoring sites in places not affected by human activities, the stations are picking up signals of human influence throughout the Caribbean basin.

“One positive implication of this report is people are capable of dealing with local change by regulating pollution and runoff,” said Rachel Collin, director of the Bocas del Toro Research Station at STRI, one of the participating marine-monitoring stations. “If people get their act together very soon, there is still hope of reversing some of these changes.”

STRI said the MacArthur Foundation, the Coral Reef Initiative of the US Department of State, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the U.S. National Science Foundation supported the CARICOMP network, as did the individual institutions that run the monitoring stations.

Institutions involved in the study included: the campuses of the University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica; Cave Hill, Barbados; and St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago; the Department of the Environment, Grand Cayman; the University of Trinidad and Tobago; and Bermuda Aquarium Museum and Zoo.

STRI, part of the Smithsonian Institution, furthers the understanding of tropical nature and its importance to human welfare, trains students to conduct research in the tropics, and promotes conservation by increasing public awareness of the beauty and importance of tropical ecosystems.