People and fish struggle to coexist

Slide1President Bush once said, as a candidate in 2000, “I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.” At least he got the grammar right.

This week, we have been examining the recent history of Caribbean reefs and their emerging fate. While the situation looks dire, the problems facing reefs suggest solutions.

This report summarizes more than 30,000 projects on Caribbean reefs.
This report summarizes more than 30,000 projects on Caribbean reefs.

Five problems account for most of the destruction, according to the report Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012, in this order:

1. Too Many People

2. Overfishing

3. Coastal Pollution

4. Ocean Warming

5. Invasive Species

The first problem is not just overpopulation; it is also over-popularity among tourists. Both issues contribute to overfishing and coastal pollution. One feasible solution to such people pressures is to create strict (no access) and larger Marine Protected Areas. These have worked, and more of them could build up the region’s immune system.

As for ocean warming, this problem is beyond local control. This effect and other issues related to climate change require social revolutions at the grandest of scales. Caribbean nations can certainly make noise and wave the flag.

Invasive species are lesser concerns except for the Pacific lionfish, which people should hunt relentlessly. The root of the invasion problem, however, based in international trade, seems intractable.

Cancun, Mexico, where the reefs are not far from shore.
Cancun, Mexico, where the reefs are not far from shore.

A weak system will succumb to disease, whereas a strong system can withstand multiple threats. The diagnosis for Caribbean reefs is clear and disturbing: this region is weak and susceptible to collapse. Collapse means death.

The region itself can do some things to build its resistance, but do not expect it to shut down tourism and fishing altogether. A major shift in today’s global society could buy time, but do not expect rich nations to sacrifice their privileges.

Headlines about the report have emphasized that Caribbean reefs have about 20 years left to survive. If true, their collective heartbeats would cease in the year 2034.

As a synopsis, here are a few highlights from the report:

  • Caribbean reef decline has a long history that parallels human population growth and use.
  • The reefs have lost the majority of their living coral within the past 40 years.
  • Large animals are missing in action, namely sharks, other large fishes, and turtles.
  • A few protected and isolated reefs are healthy, showing that good management can work.
  • Disease, mass tourism, and overfishing are the clearest culprits in reef decline.

Read the report’s Executive Summary to learn more about the state of Caribbean coral reefs.



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