I went snorkeling in Belize with a lifelong resident of Caye Caulker. This guy, who actually screened people before allowing them on his boat and denied the trip to anyone he deemed unworthy, had an uncanny relationship with the sea creatures of the Caribbean. He once rescued a baby shark that got too close to shore, and said that shark would visit him frequently when he dove. I didn’t believe him until I saw it — he slipped into the water and sharks flocked to him. He wrestled with them as though they were dogs; he put a stingray on his stomach and floated on his back. He had photos of fish he saw again and again, who he referred to as his family. No water experience I’ve ever had, including scuba diving, has held a candle to that one. While on the boat headed toward shore, he lamented about the state of the reefs. In his 70 years diving in the Caribbean, he said he’d noticed a drastic change in the coral reefs — they were bleached and dying, and he was terrified about what would happen to the whole ecosystem. He had reason to worry — recent surveys indicate that 80% of the Caribbean’s coral reef cover has died over the past 50 years. A new report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says that only 1/6th of the coral cover remains in the Caribbean, and that those are likely to disappear in the next 20 years.
Climate change, overfishing, and pollution are major culprits of the degradation of the reefs, and experts predict that sea creatures that help keep coral reefs healthy by eating algae, such as parrotfish and sea urchins, will die off in high numbers, largely due to fishing, which will contribute to the problem over the next couple of decades. I was sad to see that the recent report cited tourism as another cause of the reefs’ decline, but I can’t say I’m surprised. While diving and snorkeling instructors always tell visitors to be careful, especially with their flippers, it’s pretty tough to avoid accidentally kicking a chunk of coral here and there.
But all is not necessarily lost. The report suggests solutions that might help prevent the loss of the rest of the reefs, largely by banning fishing for parrotfish and helping to restore their populations. It turns out that while climate change does have a significant negative impact on the reefs, pollution, overfishing, and tourism are even worse threats. Laws can be passed against pollution and overfishing, though enforcing them can be tough. Restricting tourism is tougher, given that countries on the Caribbean rely on tourism, especially snorkeling and diving, for revenue. But if the reefs are to have a chance at surviving climate change, these other factors need to be addressed.
The Caribbean is home to just under 10% of all the coral reefs in the world, so their demise is a harbinger of what’s to come. While the loss of tourism dollars would undoubtedly be tough on these countries, the loss of the reefs would be worse. As fortunate as I am to have had a chance to see and have my mind blown by the reefs, I would rather they live on than provide entertainment.