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Climate Change Threatens Caribbean Coral Reefs

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, Feb 14 2013 (IPS) - Scientists and researchers are working together in a new initiative to collect data that will help determine the effects of climate change on coral in the Caribbean Sea.

“We want to know how climate change will impact our corals. So we will measure variables that would impact corals due to climate change,” said Mark Bynoe, senior research economist at the Belize-based Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCCC).

Bynoe told IPS that the idea behind the project is to be able to able to monitor parameters that can affect corals from a climatological standpoint, such as increased acidification, sea temperature, and water quality.

The CCCCC has awarded the Florida-based global company, YSI Integrated Systems and Services, a contract for five marine monitoring buoys that will collect high-quality data for researchers studying climate change in the Caribbean Sea.

“Our waters are the bread basket for the region, and we must be diligent in protecting and sustaining them,” Kenrick Leslie, executive director of the CCCCC, said.

The CCCCC has said that climate change is already profoundly affecting the region’s biological and socioeconomic systems. Belize, for example, has substantial natural capital along its cost, including the largest coral reef ecosystem in the Americas, mangrove areas, tropic forests and inland wetlands. The coral reefs are extremely important economically and environmentally.

But since the 1970s, Belize’s coral reefs have felt the impact of a warmer sea. “Live coral cover on shallow patch reefs has decreased from 80 percent in 1971 to 20 percent in 1996, with a further decline from the 20 percent in 1996 to 13 percent in 1999,” the CCCCC noted.

A critical resource

In an address to graduating students of the University of Belize late last month, Leslie described how climate change has affected the country. “We have seen serious degradation in our coral reef system due to warmer sea temperatures, mechanical damage from tropical cyclones, and sedimentation caused by more frequent and intense flooding,” he said.

“These conditions can only be further exacerbated by the further warming of the atmosphere and oceans,” he said, adding that the private sector “would be advised to start thinking about their assets and how climate change may impact them”.

Coral reefs also play an extremely important role in the Caribbean tourism economy, as well as in food production and food security, but they have been adversely affected by rising sea temperatures and pollution.

“There are threats from land based sources, from agrochemicals, pollutants from the tourism sector, threats from the fishing industry where guys moor the boats and drop them on corals as well as the cruise ships. There are also threats from nature,” Bynoe added.

Monitoring environmental conditions in the Caribbean will help researchers track the health of the reefs. This monitoring mirrors similar systems already installed at key reef sites in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The data gathered will help develop climate models and ecological forecasting for coral reefs.

The CCCCC said that the customized buoys will measure, record, and transmit in real-time meteorological and water quality data as the key components of five Coral Reef Early Warning Systems (CREWS). The data gathered will be used by researchers, scientists and non-governmental organisations.

The CCCCC will work with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and YSI to install and operate this network beginning in the spring of 2013.

Regional impact

“The Caribbean is a closed basin, so what happens in Trinidad and Tobago could affect what happens in Cuba,” said Bynoe. “The five stations that we are installing is a contribution to a regional network. These five we believe will capture the variability within the basin. We are basically covering the area necessary…. areas with the most significant corals.”

At the Twelvth International Coral Reef Symposium in Cairns, Australia last year, researchers noted that fast-blooming seaweed is the main reason why the Caribbean’s coral reefs take longer to recover from stress than Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in Australia and those in the Indo-Pacific region.

“Indo-Pacific reefs have less seaweed than the Caribbean Sea,” explained George Roff of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Australia, in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution. The ARC is a leading research centre on coral reefs. One of its studies includes survey data from the Indo-Pacific and Caribbean reefs from 1965 to 2010.

“Many of the doom and gloom stories have emanated from the Caribbean, which has deteriorated rapidly in the last 30 years,” said Peter Mumby, professor at the University of Queensland, Australia. “We now appreciate that the Indo-Pacific and Caribbean are far more different than we thought.”

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