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Right: Corals showing various stages of bleaching, with healthy sea fan in background. Left: Common brain coral totally bleached, with some Christmas tree worms still alive
Right: Corals showing various stages of bleaching, with healthy sea fan in background. Left: Common brain coral totally bleached, with some Christmas tree worms still alive
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By Kimani Wiseman

The ocean is rich in abundance with marine life and in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the beautiful coral reefs and crystal clear water are a habitat for hundreds of marine animals that provide a livelihood for fisher folks and seafood rich in omega 3 fatty acids which is good for the heart and brain. 

However, our reefs are under threat and if not taken seriously, could cause a collapse of the marine ecosystem.

A coral reef is made up of millions of coral polyps. These are tiny animals, but they contain plants called algae. The algae convert sunlight into energy for the reef itself. The coral polyps make hard calcium carbonate which builds up over thousands of years to form reefs. Coral reefs protect our coasts from tropical cyclones by reducing the impact of large waves before they reach the shore. Coral reefs can effectively protect shorelines because of their ability to cause waves to break offshore, thus limiting the energy impacting the coastline. 

Climate change is causing stronger storms and hurricanes hence the reason why conservation of our reefs is important. Coral reefs play a major role in ecotourism, diving or snorkelling in the waters of SVG, and your eyes would be filled with marine life of all kinds that make you want to live under the water. Coral reefs are a habitat for parrot fish which is responsible for white sandy beaches. Research shows that parrotfish are responsible for about 70% of white sand on tropical beaches. 

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Parrot fish bite and scrape algae off of rocks and dead corals with their parrot-like beak, grind up the inedible calcium carbonate reef material made mostly of coral skeletons in their guts and excrete it as sand. They spend about 90% of their day eating algae off of corals and it is estimated that one parrot fish can produce 700 pounds of white sand in a year. 

Coral reefs in SVG are under threat from climate change, pollution, ocean acidification, sedimentation, lionfish, and Stoney Coral Tissue Loss Disease. The Ocean is getting much warmer as a result of climate change, as the ocean gets warmer, it causes “coral bleaching”. When corals are under stress, they expel the microscopic algae that live in their tissues. 

Without these algae, coral tissues become transparent, exposing their white skeleton. This is called “coral bleaching”. Bleached corals are not dead, but are more at risk of starvation and disease. According to Louise Mitchell, executive director, St. Vincent and the Grenadines Environment Fund, SVG witnessed an alarming change in coral reefs between August 2023 and October 2023, in the form of a massive bleaching event unprecedented in our lifetime.

SVG is blessed with fertile soil which is excellent for agriculture. However, farmers are addicted to synthetic fertilisers because they release nutrients extremely fast which would give them a quick income. Synthetic fertilisers are easily leach into streams and rivers which end up in the ocean. Synthetic fertilisers are rich in nitrogen and phosphorous, an excess of nutrients can lead to the growth of algae that blocks sunlight and consumes oxygen that coral need for respiration. Excess nutrients can also support growth of microorganisms, like bacteria and fungi that can be pathogenic to corals. 

The construction of pig pens close to river banks causes pig waste to wash into rivers which ends up in the ocean. Pig waste is rich in nitrogen which affects coral reefs. Sewage seeping into the ocean and grey water also releases nitrogen and phosphorous that can affect coral reefs. Pesticides from farmers can affect coral reproduction, growth, and other physiological process. Garbage such as plastic bags, bottles and discarded fishing gear (marine debris) that makes its way into the sea can snag on corals and block the sunlight needed for photosynthesis, or entangle and kill reef organisms and damage corals. 

Deforestation causes soil and sediments to be washed away into streams and rivers. Sediments deposited on coral reefs can smother them and interfere with their ability to feed, grow, and reproduce. Ocean acidification is the process in which seawater becomes more acidic because of the excess carbon dioxide it is absorbing from the atmosphere. An increase of carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere would cause an increase of ocean acidification. Ocean acidification threatens coral reefs by making it harder for corals to build their skeletons, leaving them more vulnerable to breaking. 

The lionfish is an invasive species. Lionfish eat other fish that clean the reefs of algae, an outbreak of algae on coral reefs would affect the health of coral reefs. Stoney Coral Tissue Loss Disease causes corals to lose living tissues which can cause corals to die. It is suspected that it is caused by a bacterial pathogen spreading through the water. According to a United Nations article, Stony Coral Tissue Loss is a rapidly spreading disease affecting over 20 species of hard corals in the Caribbean. The article further states that it was discovered first in the reefs of Florida in 2014 and has since then spread and been found in corals in parts of the Caribbean.

Here are some tips for the conservation of coral reefs in SVG:

  • Mitigation of climate change must take a collaborative effort from countries around the world. World leaders from around the world need to talk the talk and walk the walk about climate change. There is too much talking about climate change and less action from countries around the world.
  • Avoid littering at the beach and in rivers. More persons should get involved in beach cleanup and river cleanup. We must always remember pollution on land would affect the ocean and coral reefs.
  • Lionfish is a very delicious fish, once all the venomous spines are removed, it is prepared like other fish. Eating more lionfish would reduce their population which would make the reefs healthier.
  • Avoid deforestation which would prevent soil and sediments from washing into streams and rivers.
  • Do not construct pig pens too close to river banks.
  • Farmers can apply organic farming which would reduce the dependency on synthetic fertilisers. Biological control can be used for some pests on the farm which would reduce the use of pesticides.
  • Grey water can be treated and reused which can be used during a drought and also on the farm for irrigation.

Coral reefs are the backbone of the marine ecosystem and every effort should be made to conserve the beautiful coral reefs in SVG. Without coral reefs, there would not be a “blue economy”.

The opinions presented in this content belong to the author and may not necessarily reflect the perspectives or editorial stance of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].