This is a beautiful, hope-inspiring article by Christina Larson (Associated Press) about efforts to replant and to jumpstart the natural growth of the coral reefs of Jamaica. [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for sharing!] Larson writes about divers who have become “coral gardeners” like Everton Simpson and Lenford DaCosta. Larson writes, “After a series of natural and man-made disasters in the 1980s and 1990s, Jamaica lost 85% of its once-bountiful coral reefs. [. . .] But today, the corals and tropical fish are slowly reappearing, thanks in part to a series of careful interventions.”
Everton Simpson squints at the Caribbean from his motorboat, scanning the dazzling bands of color for hints of what lies beneath. Emerald green indicates sandy bottoms. Sapphire blue lies above seagrass meadows. And deep indigo marks coral reefs. That’s where he’s headed.
He steers the boat to an unmarked spot that he knows as the “coral nursery.” ″It’s like a forest under the sea,” he says, strapping on blue flippers and fastening his oxygen tank before tipping backward into the azure waters. He swims down 25 feet carrying a pair of metal shears, fishing line and a plastic crate.
On the ocean floor, small coral fragments dangle from suspended ropes, like socks hung on a laundry line. Simpson and other divers tend to this underwater nursery as gardeners mind a flower bed – slowly and painstakingly plucking off snails and fireworms that feast on immature coral.
When each stub grows to about the size of a human hand, Simpson collects them in his crate to individually “transplant” onto a reef, a process akin to planting each blade of grass in a lawn separately. Even fast-growing coral species add just a few inches a year. And it’s not possible to simply scatter seeds. A few hours later, at a site called Dickie’s Reef, Simpson dives again and uses bits of fishing line to tie clusters of staghorn coral onto rocky outcroppings – a temporary binding until the coral’s limestone skeleton grows and fixes itself onto the rock. The goal is to jumpstart the natural growth of a coral reef. And so far, it’s working.
Almost everyone in Jamaica depends on the sea, including Simpson, who lives in a modest house he built himself near the island’s northern coast. The energetic 68-year-old has reinvented himself several times, but always made a living from the ocean. Once a spear fisherman and later a scuba-diving instructor, Simpson started working as a “coral gardener” two years ago – part of grassroots efforts to bring Jamaica’s coral reefs back from the brink.
Coral reefs are often called “rainforests of the sea” for the astonishing diversity of life they shelter. Just 2% of the ocean floor is filled with coral, but the branching structures – shaped like everything from reindeer antlers to human brains – sustain a quarter of all marine species. Clown fish, parrotfish, groupers and snappers lay eggs and hide from predators in the reef’s nooks and crannies, and their presence draws eels, sea snakes, octopuses and even sharks. In healthy reefs, jellyfish and sea turtles are regular visitors.
With fish and coral, it’s a codependent relationship – the fish rely upon the reef structure to evade danger and lay eggs, and they also eat up the coral’s rivals.
Life on the ocean floor is like a slow-motion competition for space, or an underwater game of musical chairs. Tropical fish and other marine animals, like black sea urchins, munch on fast-growing algae and seaweed that may otherwise outcompete the slow-growing coral for space. When too many fish disappear, the coral suffers – and vice-versa.
After a series of natural and man-made disasters in the 1980s and 1990s, Jamaica lost 85% of its once-bountiful coral reefs. Meanwhile, fish catches declined to a sixth of what they had been in the 1950s, pushing families that depend on seafood closer to poverty. Many scientists thought that most of Jamaica’s coral reef had been permanently replaced by seaweed, like jungle overtaking a ruined cathedral.
But today, the corals and tropical fish are slowly reappearing, thanks in part to a series of careful interventions.
The delicate labor of the coral gardener is only one part of restoring a reef – and for all its intricacy, it’s actually the most straightforward part. Convincing lifelong fishermen to curtail when and where they fish and controlling the surging waste dumped into the ocean are trickier endeavors.
Still, slowly, the comeback effort is gaining momentum.
“The coral are coming back; the fish are coming back,” says Stuart Sandin, a marine biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. “It’s probably some of the most vibrant coral reefs we’ve seen in Jamaica since the 1970s.”
“When you give nature a chance, she can repair herself,” he adds. “It’s not too late.” [. . .]
[Everton Simpson, right, sits on a boat in-between dives on the White River Fish Sanctuary with Mark Lobban, left, Monday, Feb. 11, 2019, in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. More than a dozen grassroots-run fish sanctuaries and coral nurseries have sprung up on the island in the past decade. (Photo: David J. Phillip, AP)]