Death and resurrection on Caribbean reefs

03/18/04

Caribbean coral reefs are deteriorating rapidly, according to a new study published in the scientific journal Ecology Letters. Researchers from the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama and PBS&J, an engineering and environmental consulting firm in Florida, analyzed cores to reconstruct the ecological history of a reef system in Jamaica. They found that the decline of coral in recent decades was unprecedented in the last thousand years. Richard Aronson, a Senior Marine Scientist at the Sea Lab, was one of the authors of the study.

"Ecologists are now realizing the full extent of damage to Caribbean reefs, with estimates running as high as an 80 percent loss of coral throughout the region since 1980," says Aronson. "New coral diseases, hurricanes, overfishing of plant-eating fish, and several other kinds of disturbance combined to convert Jamaican reefs from vibrant communities to seaweed-covered coral graveyards, and this is the first time it's happened in at least a thousand years." The team collected their samples by scuba diving at Discovery Bay on the north coast of Jamaica.

They worked long aluminum pipes into the reefs by hand, then pulled out cores representing timelines of reef history. By identifying and analyzing the condition of the fossil corals, they were able to piece together the changes that occurred over the last millennium. Cheryl Wapnick analyzed the cores from Jamaica for her masters degree at the University of South Alabama. "Doing this study was a real eye-opener," says Wapnick.

"Because I didn't get to dive in Jamaica before the coral kill, the cores give me a perspective that most younger scuba divers don't have. They are thrilled when they dive on Caribbean reefs, but they should be horrified!" All is not lost, however. Team member William Precht of PBS&J, who has been working with Aronson on the Jamaican reefs since 1978, points to signs of new coral growth in some areas of the Caribbean, including sites in Jamaica. "We can't tell yet how far the reefs will recover or on what time scale," says Precht, "so it's very exciting but we'll just have to wait and see."

Source: Eurekalert & others

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