Rainfall dynamics in Barbuda during the Little Ice Age

Summary of our new research paper on effective rainfall in Barbuda, Lesser Antilles

The coring team in Barbuda
The coring team in Barbuda

Established palaeoclimate records (E.g. Haug et al., 2001; Hodell et al., 2005; Lane et al., 2011) suggest that aridity was widespread across the Caribbean during the Little Ice Age (ca. 1400 – 1850 CE). Such dry conditions are hypothesised to result from cooler tropical sea surface temperatures and a southward migration of the Atlantic ITCZ. To determine whether arid conditions were present in the northeastern Caribbean during this period, we developed a new sediment-based reconstruction of effective rainfall from Freshwater Pond in Barbuda.

Freshwater Pond, Barbuda
Freshwater Pond, Barbuda

Freshwater Pond (17°36′05″N, 61°47′28″W; ~ 6 m a.s.l.) is a permanent inland fresh- to brackish-water lake which is closed hydrologically and situated on the Codrington Limestone Group. Its late-Holocene origin is thought to be the result of rising eustatic sea level that reached its present-day maximum level ca. 3000 yr BP (Fairbanks, 1989) and the subsequent development of a rainfall-derived freshwater lens, which rests above the underlying saltwater table (Brasier and Donahue, 1985). Consequently, the pond is very sensitive to precipitation variability (Stoddart et al., 1973).

Fig 3. Comparison of proxy-based evidence from the Freshwater Pond sediment record with AMO and ENSO indices. Source: Burn et al. (2016)
Fig 3. Comparison of proxy-based evidence from the Freshwater Pond sediment record with AMO and ENSO indices. Source: Burn et al. (2016)

Results of microfossil analyses from the sediment record at Freshwater Pond (Fig 3) challenge the occurence of uniformly-dry conditions across the Caribbean Region during the Little Ice Age. Comparisons between this proxy-evidence and tree-ring based indices of the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO) and El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) indicate that effective rainfall in Barbuda was highly variable at that time and appears to be influenced by the interplay between different Atlantic and Pacific modes of climate varibility.

Please visit the publishers website to access the paper or download a copy of the final accepted manuscript here.


Brasier M and Donahue J (1985) Barbuda – An emerging reef and lagoon complex on the edge of the Lesser Antilles island arc. Journal of the Geological Society 142: 1101–1117.

Burn MJ, Holmes JA, Kennedy LM et al. (2016) A sediment-based reconstruction of Caribbean effective precipitation during the ‘Little Ice Age’ from Freshwater Pond, Barbuda. The Holocene 26(8): 1237-1247.

Fairbanks RG (1989) A 17,000-year glacio-eustatic sea level record: Influence of glacial melting rates on the Younger Dryas event and deep-ocean circulation. Nature 342: 637–642.

Haug GH, Hughen KA, Sigman DM et al. (2001) Southward migration of the intertropical convergence zone through the Holocene. Science 293: 1304–1308.

Hodell DA, Brenner M, Curtis JH et al. (2005) Climate change on the Yucatan Peninsula during the Little Ice Age. Quaternary Research 63: 109–121.

Lane CS, Horn SP, Orvis KH et al. (2011) Oxygen isotope evidence of Little Ice Age aridity on the Caribbean slope of the Cordillera Central, Dominican Republic. Quaternary Research 75: 461–470.

Stoddart D, Bryan G and Gibbs P (1973) Inland mangroves and water chemistry, Barbuda, West Indies. Journal of Natural History 7: 33–46.

Caribbean Coral Reef Ecology Class @DBML

In April 2016 we ran a weekend field course at Discovery Bay Marine Lab for our final year Caribbean Coral Reef Ecology class #UWIMona #Jamaica

2016 Caribbean Coral Reef Ecology Class @DBML

For many years groups of international marine biology students have been visiting Discovery Bay Marine Lab, Jamaica for field courses. This year we wanted to get our class there too and so Dr. Suzanne Palmer and Dr. Dayne Buddo designed a weekend field trip for the final year undergraduate course Caribbean Coral Reefs (at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica through the Department of Life Sciences).

In April 2016 the whole class (41 students) spent four days working at the marine lab.

Class of 2016!

BIOL3409 Class 2016

Snorkel + GoPro to check out the coral reefs …

We had spent the previous few weeks of the semester doing field trips on the south coast of Jamaica from Port Royal Marine Laboratory out on the Port Royal Cays to learn about some of the basics in coral reef ecology plus training and practise in AGRRA surveying. Being based at Discovery Bay for the field course provided a great opportunity for the students to broaden their experience and check out their taxonomy skills across a north coast coral reef. In addition, they assessed the range of different coral nurseries implemented at Discovery Bay and viewed outcrops of the hybrid coral Acropora prolifera for the first time

Back to the lab…
Photo credit: Dexter Colquhoun
Photo credit: Dexter-Dean Colquhoun

Back at the lab the class were trained and got the opportunity for hands-on coral restoration techniques following the methods carried out by the curent Coral Reef Restoration Project, in addition to CPCe analyses for coral, reef, and coral nursery monitoring.

Near the end of the field course we conducted an in-water coral identification test out on the reef with a marked course of tagged corals – logistically quite a challenge to set-up and execute!

What the students thought!
Despite having seemed daunting at the beginning of the course, the weekend trip to Discovery Bay Marine Lab has proven to be one of the milestone moments of my final year experience. 

The sessions were well organized and seamlessly executed. The in water examination went very well, seeing many different types of corals at one location for the first time in the water. I was very excited to have received experience in the water and on different marine environments. The presentation brought to light the major challenges and importance of coral reef restoration as well as the exciting Science behind it. 

The dolphins on Sunday were truly the best highlight of the trip, second only to the closeness and comradery felt among classmates. The actual experience was crucial to cementing course information and appreciating more of our natural Jamaican environment.

Gavin Campbell, BIOL3409 Course Representative
I truly enjoyed my experience at D-Bay Marine lab. It was a fascinating, enlightening and fun experience. The workload was heavy but I didn't mind because I believe it prepared me for the real world beyond undergraduate studies.

Over the weekend I learned a great deal about the history and threats to coral reefs in the Caribbean region. Also, I learned of the various methods employed to restore and prevent complete loss of coral reefs. I got the opportunity to try some of these restoration methods. It was great to get that hands on experience as it granted me a chance to see how some of the techniques and theories taught in class applied to real life.

In the end I left with a heightened interest for marine biology, greater confidence in the water, and deep respect for those already in the field who are working to save and restore our coral reefs. I hope to work alongside them one day.

Jason Champagnie, BIOL3409 Class 2016


A mammoth weekend and a wonderful team effort! Thank-you to all my colleagues in the Department of Life Sciences, PhD students Kimani and Dexter, and the staff at Discovery Bay Marine Laboratory who made this trip happen, and of course to BIOL3409 Class of 2016 for all your hard work and enthusiasm! A very rewarding course and we are looking forward to next year!



Atlantic hurricane activity during the last millennium

Summary of our new research paper published in Scientific Reports

Atlantic tropical cyclones are a persistent threat to Countries surrounding the tropical Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. The recent devastation on the Island of Dominica is a case in point where Tropical Storm Erica caused flooding and landslides and killed at least 20 people and left more than 50 missing. While these storms are often perceived as a threat to the economies of the Small Island Developing States of the Caribbean Region (primarily because of their potential devastating impacts on life, agricultural productivity and food security), hurricanes also contribute significantly to the water budget across the region by replenishing water reserves and buffering national economies from the threat of drought.

Despite recent advances in our understanding of how climatic change may control tropical cyclone activity on a global scale, there is still no consensus on the extent to which activity in the Atlantic basin is influenced by human activity. Indeed, the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC; Christensen et al. 2013) concluded that there is low confidence in region-specific projections of tropical cyclone activity and that it remains uncertain whether recent changes in Atlantic tropical cyclone activity lie outside the range of natural variability. In order to determine the long-term variability of hurricane activity over the last 1000 years, we have developed an index of long-term hurricane activity known as the Extended Hurricane Activity (EHA) index.

We present the new reconstruction of hurricane activity in a recent paper published by the Nature Publishing Group in the Open Access journal Scientific Reports and show that a strong correlation exists between the EHA index (developed from the published Jamaican lake level record), the Accumulated Cyclone Energy index (ACE) and sea surface temperature variability within the Main Development Region (MDR) of tropical cyclone activity for the modern historical period (Fig. 1).

When extended further back in time (Figure 4 (original article)) hurricane activity appears muted during the Medieval Climate Anomaly (~900–1350 CE) and becomes more variable (and extreme) during the so-called Little Ice Age (~1450–1850 CE), a period of cooler temperatures recorded in the Northern Hemisphere and thought to be associated with a combination of lower solar and enhanced volcanic activity. The index supports evidence for a gradual increase in Atlantic hurricane activity during the industrial period (ca. 1870-present), however, we show that contemporary activity has not exceeded its longer-term natural variability exhibited over last 1000 years.

Please visit the Scientific Reports Website for further details or alternatively download a pdf copy of our paper here.


Burn, M.J. and Palmer, S.E. (2015): Atlantic hurricane activity during the last millennium. Scientfic Reports 5, 12838; doi: 10.1038/srep12838

Christensen, J. H. et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (eds. Stocker, T.F., Qin, D., Plattner, G.-K., Tignor, M., Allen, S.K., Boschung, J., Nauels, A., Xia, Y., V., B. & P. M., M.) (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 2013) Chapter 14.

2015 Annual Fisherman’s Day Conference

Suzanne, Achsah and Kimani present at the 2015 Jamaica International Fisherman’s Day Conference

Fishermans conference - program cover

On Wednesday 1st July 2015, Dr Suzanne Palmer, Kimani Kitson-Walters, and Achsah Mitchell presented at The Annual Jamaica International Fisherman’s Day Conference. The meeting was hosted by the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation (C-CAM), The Jamaica Fishermen Cooperative Union Limited, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and held in Clarendon.

C-CAM reported that over 160 people registered, of which there were 131 fishermen and women from 15 different fishing beaches across Jamaica.


Theme of the Conference – “the Future of Fisheries is in our Hands”

The conference was chaired by Ms Ingrid Parchment (Executive Director of CCAM) with a panel that included Mr Andre Kong, Director, Fisheries Division, Mr Dermon Spence (Chief Technical Director, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries), Shawn Taylor (Chairman, Jamaica Fisherman Coop Union), and Sydney Francis (Chairman, The All Island Fisheries Development Alliance) (see photo below).

Fishermans conference 2015_3

The conference gave the opportunity for fishermen and women to ask questions or make comments to the panel – this was not about presenting and defending science like many conferences but people discussing and defending their livelihoods. The many questions that were fired at the panel (and Suzanne!) revealed their knowledgeable insight into Jamaica’s Fisheries. They expressed passionate often aggravated concern that their standpoint should form and influence the decisions and policies underpinning Fisheries Management in Jamaica.

Our Presentation and Discussion – reef health and possible solutions (PBPA and Jamaica)

cover slide

Fishermans conference 2015
Suzanne at the Fisherman’s Conference (Photo: CCAM)

Suzanne was invited to present at the Conference to share the findings of the 2014 coral reef assessment of the Portland Bight Protected Area (south coast of Jamaica) which was funded by a Waitt Foundation Rapid Ocean Conservation Grant.  Previous presentations of this recent assessment have focused on presenting the science, and providing extensive scientific evidence as to why the PBPA is an important marine area and needs to continue to be protected and not developed as a transhipment hub/port. However, here there was the opportunity to discuss the importance of the findings to fishermen and their livelihoods, and how the results can be used to inform Fisheries Management in Jamaica.

The Achilles heel in Jamaica’s reef fisheries?

Some of our key findings highlighted the extremely low fish biomass that is characteristic of many Jamaican reefs – continuing as we are is clearly not sustainable. Parrotfish and surgeonfish graze on algae and therefore have an important role on the reef by helping to maintain the balance between coral and algae. The targeted overfishing of parrotfish and surgeonfish has been identified as a key issue in the decline off Caribbean coral reef health, and over the last couple of years many countries in the region have implemented fishing bans and policies on the catch of parrotfish.

What about Jamaica? Well, Jamaican’s love to eat parrotfish! Our suggestions to enforce the catch of parrotfish (anything from bans, to size of catch, to zoning, etc.) proved controversial and were met with strong resistance. Two key issues: (1) If they don’t catch parrotfish what do they catch? (2) The strong market demand for parrotfish. A fishermen at the Conference commented that recent rough seas resulted in less parrot and so they only caught snapper, however he seriously struggled to sell them as people only wanted parrot.

Kimani Kitson Walters (PhD candidate in Marine Biology and Biotechnology at The University of the West Indies), describes his thoughts & experience:

“Attending the 2015 International Fisherman’s Conference in May Pen, Clarendon for me was an eye opening experience. It provided a journey into the mind of a Jamaican fisherman and their perception on the future of the Jamaican Fishing Industry. I found them to be very passionate with an immense desire to improve their financial situation. They are very protective of their livelihood but aren’t willing to recognize that fish populations and consequently their source of income are under threat due to the lack of suitable habitat. The Fishermen are all for implementing practices that secure sustainable fishing however those methods which they are not able to comprehend or interfere with their potential income such as the banning of the the fishing of Parrotfish is met with a lot of resistance. If they are made to fully understand the reasons for implementing these methods which have been proven to work, we are a lot closer to restoring our reefs habitats and mature fish populations. Doing it holistically and not just from one perspective.”

This was an excellent opportunity for us to share our findings of the PBPA reef assessment, but we also hope that they offered food for thought and a different perspective to thinking about some of the serious challenges that Jamaica’s Fisheries are experiencing. In doing so we are playing our part in strengthening the link between science, fisheries livelihoods, and fisheries management/policy in Jamaica.

Many thanks to Achsah and Kimani for their excellent presentation at the Conference, and their commitment and dedication as team members throughout this project.


Marine conference in Curaçao – AMLC2015

Last month Suzanne attended the Association of Caribbean Marine Laboratories (AMLC) 37th Scientific Meeting in Curaçao to present the results of the 2014 coral reef assessment in the Portland Bight Protected Area, Jamaica

Last month Suzanne (Palmer) attended the Association of Caribbean Marine LaboratoriesAMLC (AMLC) 37th Scientific Meeting which was held at the Carmabi Research Station in Curaçao. Curaçao is one of the three islands that form the Netherland Antilles (the other two being Bonaire and Aruba).

Conference presentation: Suzanne had the opportunity to present the results of the 2014 coral reef assessment of the Portland Bight Protected Area (south coast of Jamaica) which was funded by a Waitt Foundation Rapid Ocean Conservation Grant.  There was a good response to the talk and surprise over some of the results, for example, the reasonable condition of the corals and relatively high density of fish, but extremely low fish biomass when compared regionally. This was interesting to a number of coral reef scientists who have largely been based at  the Discovery Bay Marine Lab and so are more familiar with the reefs on the north coast of Jamaica. The conference offered the opportunity to inform international marine scientists on the importance of the Portland Bight Protected Area, the status and presence of the coral reefs in the PBPA, and why there needs to be continued  protection (and not developed as a transhipment hub/port).

Suzanne @AMLC2015
Suzanne @AMLC2015 (photo Denise Henry)

The conference provided an excellent opportunity to network with people working on coral reefs in the Caribbean Region and it is anticipated that a number of interesting collaborations have been created. Interestingly, ~50% of participants to the Association of Caribbean Marine Laboratories conference were in fact from the U.S., and so would like to hope that there are strong links between the US scientists and the Caribbean Region beyond fieldwork.

Stoplight parrotfish (photo Michael Burn)

Coral reefs around the Netherland Antilles

Diving around Curaçao and Bonaire was initially surprising after spending the past few years in Jamaica due to the size and number of reef fish. The parrotfish are enormous (compared to Jamaica) and the fish do not appear too bothered by divers so there is a real chance to observe their behavior! Bonaire’s coral reefs have some of the highest coral cover in the region (e.g. 2010 report) and often described as some of the last ‘healthy’ reefs in the region, however, like many other Caribbean reefs they are not without their problems and challenges (e.g. Report after 2010 coral bleaching event). Bonaire comprises mainly shore dives and is referred to as “Divers Paradise” – which is also written on the islands vehicle registration plates! You don’t see too many fishing boats like many other Caribbean islands, and tourism is extremely important to these small islands (Curacao and Bonaire are very small islands – together their total area represents ~7% of the area of Jamaica!).

Jolthead porgy (photo Michael Burn)

A couple of things we found interesting on our trip to Curaçao (after living in Jamaica 5+ years):

Multiple languages spoken

In Curaçao a number of languages are spoken with Dutch being the official language used for admin and legal use, and the most widely spoken being Papiamento which is a Portuguese creole language – it has a real Spanish/South American sound to it.

Curaçao’s Floating Market

The whole island reminded us of the Hellshire Hills dry limestone forest in Jamaica with lots of cactus & not too hospitable for growing fresh produce! The Floating Market in Willemstad comprises colorful boats from Venezuela and Columbia lined up providing fresh fruit and vegetables to the local market.

Iguana on patio!
Green iguana (photo Michael Burn)

Iguanas are everywhere

In Jamaica we are familiar hearing about the critically endangered Jamaican iguana and reading about the fantastic work of the various groups who have been fundamental in saving and protecting this species. So when we arrived in Curaçao and iguanas were strolling around the garden, across roads, and referred to as nuisances….and are on the menu (!), we were rather surprised!

Certainly an interesting trip and provided some insight into the cultural, economic, and environmental diversity between Caribbean islands.

Extending the multiproxy toolkit in Jamaica

Palaeoenvironmental projects in Jamaica – extending the multiproxy record

As some of you may have read in our recent blog post, Professor John Smol and Chris Grooms from the Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Lab, Queen’s University, Canada visited the University of the West Indies last month.

Lecture by Professor John Smol: “The past matters: Using lake sediments to study the environmental effects of multiple stressors”

There was an excellent turnout from students of the Department of Geography and Geology who found the lecture very insightful. The lecture was followed by numerous questions from the students which led to interesting discussions on the various paleolimnological techniques that Professor Smol uses and the case studies he presented from his work in the Arctic and Canada. We thank Professor Smol for giving a superb lecture!

Manatee Bay, Jamaica

Manatee Bay, Jamaica

As part of their visit we took John and Chris to Manatee Bay, St. Catherine heading out from Old Harbour Fishing Beach with Mr Charles Moodie. We have been working at Manatee Bay for some years on an extensive sediment core record (15 cores) to reconstruct environmental conditions over the last millennium and investigating marine washover events. To do this we are using various proxy data including ostracods, benthic foraminifera, and micro-XRF sediment geochemistry.

Extending the multiproxy toolkit in Jamaica

As part of our research programme we are working on a number sediment cores from lakes and coastal lagoons around Jamaica. We will be working with the PEARL lab to increase the number of proxies that we use in order to improve our understanding of environmental and climatic change over the last millennium.

St. Georges Lake

St. George’s Lake, Jamaica

Chris Grooms at St. George's Lake, JamaicaMike joined Chris Grooms and Stefan Stewart (Founder and Head of the Jamaica Cave Association) on a field day around various lakes and ponds across Jamaica to carry out sampling of surface sediments and lake water. The PEARL lab have designed a special coring technique for recovering unconsolidated sediments at the surface-water interface. John and Chris will be looking for the presence of diatoms amongst other paleolimnological indicators, and we are going to have a look at the pollen, ostracods and any other critters we may come across!

We are looking forward to working with John, Chris and colleagues on new and existing palaeoenvironmental projects in Jamaica!

PBPA 2014 coral reef assessment in a nutshell

Overview of the public seminar & 2014 PBPA reef health results in a nutshell

Suzanne & AchsahOn Wednesday 25th February 2015 we launched the results of the 2014 coral reef assessment of the Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA). The Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) hosted the public seminar at the Knutsford Court Hotel, Kingston, Jamaica. Attendees included representatives from the Centre for Marine Sciences (the University of the West Indies), Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation (C-CAM) the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), Urban Development Corporation (UDC), Environmental Foundation of Jamaica (EFJ), University of Technology, Jamaica (UTECH), among others.

Virtual divePhotographs can say a thousand words so what better way to start the seminar with a ‘virtual dive’ slide show comprising many photographs that we had taken during the surveys. This was followed by presentations on the coral and reef health (Suzanne Palmer) and an excellent  discussion of the fish data by Achsah Mitchell (MPhil, primary project fish surveyor). After providing the national context to the PBPA reef health data and associated recommendations we heard from Mr Charles Moodie (Old Harbour Fishing Beach). Mr Moodie has been our invaluable field support and boatman throughout the project. His personal comments and thoughts on the project provided some local context to the scientific data and proved to be fascinating and insightful.

What did we find?

  • Reasonable live coral cover when compared regionally. Highly variable across individual coral reefs and often dominated by opportunistic coral species (e.g. Porites astreoides). Reefs with higher coral cover also have large colonies of framework building species (e.g. Orbicella complex). Overall reasonably healthy corals with levels of recent partial coral mortality not considered to be stressful.
  • Highly variable macroalgae cover (PBPA overall average fleshy macroalgae 19.4%; PBPA overall average calcareous macroalgae 12.9%).
  • Very low relief coral reefs – low structural complexity largely to due to dominance of low-lying opportunistic species and rubble-dominated substrate. Reefs do have small areas with large coral outcrops and larger framework building coral species.
  • The long spined sea urchin (Diadema sp.) occurs in reasonable densities, however more are needed for effective grazing given the amount of macroalgae.
  • Very low fish biomass but very high fish density. The PBPA reef fish are dominated by large shoals of small fish (parrotfishes and surgeonfishes, also grunt), a large proportion of which are juvenile and not of reproductive age. Large sized fish are typically absent reflecting fishing pressures.
Drawing comparisons to other coral reefs is often complicated, largely due to differences in how the data was collected, terminology used, and the variation between reef systems.
Blue tangs
Blue tangs, Pigeon Island (Suzanne Palmer)

Regional: We have compared all our data from the PBPA to a regional database1 of surveys that use the same methodology. Overall the coral reefs are in reasonable condition and near to regional averages (coral and benthos). The exceptions are for fish biomass and fish size which are extremely low across PBPA reefs – there are a lot of fish (very high fish density) but they are generally all small. Whilst not the healthiest in the Caribbean they fair reasonably and are clearly far from the worst.


Orbicella annularis
Orbicella annularis, Pigeon Island

National: The PBPA reefs are typically patch to small fore reefs that grow within shallow waters (<11m, average 5.6m) with variable water clarity, and therefore differ to the extensive fringing coral reefs of the north coast in Jamaica. This is in part due to differences in geology and geography of the continental shelf around Jamaica – the PBPA reefs are located on the south coast where the continental shelf is wide. The PBPA reefs occur as patches or small fore reefs around cays and islands, whereas on the north coast the continental shelf is narrow and in places the reefs form deep reef walls. This results in differences, for example the types of reef, depth ranges, water clarity, and oceanographic currents. Differences aside, we compared the Porltand Bight reefs to 2013 NEPA2 survey data from selected marine parks around Jamaica (that used a modified Reef Check methodology, we used AGRRA) and found that they are comparable and in places fair better than some at the national level. The PBPA coral reefs are clearly important habitats to Jamaica and therefore it is crucial that they are protected and managed.

It is recommended that focus should be on: (1)    Maintaining and restoring coral reef habitats, and (2)    Restoring fish populations to ensure sustainable fisheries.

Click here for available resources. Full scientific report coming soon.

This project was made possible by a Waitt Foundation Rapid Ocean Conservation Grant to Dr Suzanne Palmer.
Contributions & Acknowledgments:
Scientific reef survey team: Dr Suzanne Palmer, Achsah Mitchell, Kimani Kitson-Walters, Ivana Kenny; Project planning & facilitation: Centre for Marine Sciences, UWI: Marcia Ford, Professor Dale Webber; Boat and field support: Charles Moodie (Old Harbour Fishing Beach); Dive survey volunteers: Loureene Jones, Monique Curtis, Kayla Blake, Sean Green, Yannique Ewers; Field support and dive gear hire: Port Royal Marine Laboratory; Scientific data analyses: Dr. Suzanne Palmer; Dr Judith Lang (AGRRA); Kenneth Marks (AGRRA); Scientific interpretation: Dr. Suzanne Palmer; Dr Judith Lang (AGRRA); Salt River trip & project discussions: C-CAM: Brandon Hay; Scientific communication: Dr Suzanne Palmer; Dr Judith Lang; Dr Patricia Kramer; Achsah Mitchell; Jamaica Environment Trust; Underwater photography: Ivana Kenny, Dr Suzanne Palmer, Dr Michael Burn.
1AGRRA regional database 2011-2014: Jamaica (Pedro Bank), the Bahamas, Belize, Columbia, Honduras, Navassa, Mexico, St. Kitts/Nevis.
2NEPA (2014) Coral Reefs of Jamaica, An Evaluation of Ecosystem Health: 2013. NEPA, 15pp.

Profs from Queen’s Uni, Canada – invite to guest lecture @UWI

Guest lecture next week – Using lake sediments to study the environmental effects of multiple stressors

We are very pleased to welcome Professor John Smol (OC, PhD, FRSC, Professor in Biology) and Chris Grooms from the Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Lab, Queen’s University, Canada. They will be visiting Jamaica next week and we will be discussing collaboration on various research projects relating to long-term environmental change in Jamaica.

As part of their visit, Prof Smol will be delivering a lecture at The University of the West Indies, Mona, entitled:

“The past matters: Using lake sediments to study the environmental effects of multiple stressors”

Location: Department of Geography and Geology, Lab 2

Date: Thursday 19th February 2015, 1pm

The lecture will provide fascinating insights into many of the hidden environmental secrets locked within lake sediment records. This will include discussion on (1) how seabirds may act as biovectors to transport nutrients and contaminants from marine environments back to terrestrial ecosystems, and (2) how paleolimnological approaches can be used to study the frequency and ecological effects of past marine flooding events on coastal ecosystems.

All are very welcome to attend, refreshments provided!

Updates from the field: coral reefs in the PBPA, Jamaica

Are development decisions within a marine protected area being made with heads entirely above water?

Since my last post we have managed to get out to survey the coral reefs in the Portland Bight Protected Area during what has been a very windy August. I am currently analysing all the data collected so far and look forward to sharing our findings on the PBPA coral reefs with the public and scientific community.

So what do we know about the coral reefs in the PBPA? NEPA have been carrying out ReefCheck surveys since 2004 on a number of the reefs in the PBPA and C-CAM also conduct various surveys, however, the last time that the PBPA was collectively surveyed, assessed and reported was ~10 years ago by the Jamaica Coral Reef Monitoring Network under the Centre for Marine Sciences/CDDC and facilitated by C-CAM. In light of the controversial and elusive development plans for a transhipment port and logistics hub at the Goat Islands in the Portland Bight Protected Area I have the following scientific questions which we intend to address:

What are the current characteristics and conditions of the PBPA reefs? Which, and how many, of the threatened and endangered coral, fish or other marine species live in the PBPA? What is at risk from the controversial proposed development of a transshipment hub in the area? Are development decisions within a marine protected area being made with heads entirely above water?

It is now September and we have surveyed 9 different sites across the PBPA using the AGRRA survey methodology, and are currently working up some of the preliminary results – watch this space! We are still surveying and wishing for some more calm weather! Since the first blog post we have surveyed Tern Cay, Pigeon Island and Pigican Shoal.

Tern Cay

We have tried to survey Tern Cay many a time and had to abandon our plans due to rough seas – but this time we caught lucky and were able to spend a few hours underwater completing surveys of the benthos, fish and coral. Tern Cay is located ~1.5km south of Manatee Bay with fairly strong currents and is a great spot for sightings of turtles, rays, and nurse sharks.  To our delight we came across spotted eagle rays, turtles, and a 3-m long nurse shark and  juvenile – we were only able to catch a shot of the juvenile as were busy with heads down along our survey lines – better luck next time! Nurse sharks are slow-moving bottom-dwellers and are, for the most part, harmless to humans. Getting a bad rap in the media we need to remember the importance of sharks in our oceans and for coral reef ecosystems.

Tern Cay survey team, front row from left: Achsah Mitchell, Suzanne Palmer, Yannique Ewers; back row from left: Kimani Kitson-Walters, Ivana Kenny.
Extensive blankets of seaweed (Sargassum) offshore from Hellshire beach (Photo credit: Ivana Kenny)

Prior to surveying Tern Cay a week of stormy weather had churned up the shallow waters along the coastline producing these expanses of seaweed – not so great for the boat engines! The bad weather has delayed surveying here in Jamaica, however, we may be thankful for the strong winds or storms to cool off the waters and prevent coral bleaching. Recent reports (and USGS news) from the south Florida Keys indicate they haven’t been so lucky with extensive bleaching of massive and branching corals.

Juvenile nurse shark – Tern Cay (Photo credit: Ivana Kenny)


Pigeon Island

At last we have got to survey the most exposed part of the reef and what a treat – large shoals of fish hanging in the currents and manta rays on the move! Our fish surveyors were kept busy tallying away with all the large schools of fish across the reef! Coral and benthic surveyors focused on the area dominated by Orbicella annularis colonies. A couple of weeks ago the NOAA announced the addition of 20 new coral species added to the US Endangered Species Act list, 5 of which are Caribbean coral species and include Orbicella annularis.

In the sheltered back reef lagoon we also came across patches of Acropora cervicornis. The two branching species (Acropora palmata and Acropora cervicornis), formerly the most dominant reef-building Caribbean species, have been on the Endangered Species Act list since 2006. Our observations and data collection on threatened coral species in the PBPA is important – determining the location, density and current health of these threatened species will provide the basis for future monitoring, together with potential restoration and mitigation plans.

Clump of staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis), Pigeon Island (Photo credit: Ivana Kenny)

Data is also being collected on the fish communities of all the reefs in the PBPA – fish that are important for the reef ecology and commercially important fish. Fish surveyors have been collecting data on all fish species across the reefs to determine fish density, size classes, and estimates of total biomass of individual fish species.

Over the last couple of months Caribbean coral reefs have hit the world headlines with the latest release from the International Coral Reef Initiative: Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012 and a hard-hitting message that “Caribbean coral reefs will be lost within 20 years without protection”. They highlight overfishing of herbivores (particularly parrotfish) as a key problem that needs managing in addition to enforcing legislation and regulations to protect coral reefs from overfishing and coastal development. Not long after the release of the ICRI report and associated media was the announcement from the small island of Barbuda that the Barbuda Council had signed new laws for new ocean management regulations (coastal zoning, fisheries management and establishing a network of marine sanctuaries). Barbuda have become the 1st Caribbean island to prohibit the catching of important reef herbivores (parrotfish and sea urchins). Inspiring work from the Waitt Institute and the Barbuda Blue Halo project.

Shoal of Tomtate grunts (Haemulon aurolineatum), Pigeon Island (Photo credit: Ivana Kenny)


Pigican Shoal

This is a rather strange name don’t you think? Well even Mr Moodie our boat guy who knows the PBPA like the back of his hand did not know of the name. It turns out that previous surveyors have created the name based on where it is located – in between Pigeon Island and Big Pelican Cay = Pigican! Anyway, despite only being down to the absolute core survey team we were blessed with calm seas at this exposed shoal and spent the whole day getting all the surveys completed between us – go team!

Watch out – data, photos and more news coming soon!


Special thanks to the survey teams, particularly Kimani Kitson-Walters, Achsah Mitchell and Ivana Kenny for dedication and persevering with the early morning starts, and to Ivana for the excellent photos! Particular thanks to Dr Judith Lang and Dr Kenneth Marks who are providing scientific input, review and verification of all the data we are collecting.  Thank-you to Mr Charles Moodie, our excellent boatman and field support from Old Harbor. Our thanks are extended to Hugh Small and the Port Royal Marine Laboratory team for all their efforts in facilitating the trips. Thank-you to the Jamaica Environment Trust for disseminating the work we are doing. This project was made possible by the Waitt Foundation Rapid Ocean Conservation Grants Program.


AGRRA Reef surveys in the Portland Bight Protected Area

Updates & photos from 2014 coral reef surveys in the PBPA funded by a Waitt Foundation ROC Grant

The plan to establish a transhipment port within the largest protected area in Jamaica is controversial, however, it is unclear which marine ecosystems could be threatened or lost by the potential development. This project aims to provide a scientific assessment of the status and condition of coral reefs within the Portland Bight Protected Area which is funded by the Waitt Foundation 2014 Rapid Ocean Conservation Grants Program.

Hover over photos for caption, click on photos to enlarge. Photos by Ivana Kenny.

The main reef sites can be seen in the map below. Across each reef we have multiple survey sites in order to fully represent the coral reef zones and subtypes. We are using the AGRRA method (http://www.agrra.org/) to determine coral reef condition. This includes taking detailed measurements of the corals species (e.g. size and condition), quantifying the main algal types, and determining the abundance and size of key fish species.

Image from Google Earth (click to enlarge)


Our first surveys: Wreck Reef

Earlier in June (08.06.14) we made it out to Wreck Reef for the 1st official AGRRA survey of the project. Heading out from Port Royal Marine Laboratory, Mark Golding and Terrence dropped us right on the reef.  The team headed off in their pairs to collect data with one pair performing fish surveys, another coral surveys, and a third benthic surveys. The weather had been blowing for a good few days so visibility was not great. Check out the photos below of the Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) and also the Boulder star coral (Montastraea annularis).  The Staghorn coral is an endangered species within the Caribbean region (see: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/invertebrates/staghorncoral.htm) and listed on the IUCN Red List of Endangered species http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/133381/0.

We had hoped to head out to Tern Cay but the weather was against us so we headed back to the marine lab and started data entry fueled by granola bars and bags of peanuts!


Weekend in Salt River – Pigeon Island and Big Pelican Cay

On Friday (13.06.14) evening we arrived at C-CAM’s base on the Gun Site in Salt River and were welcomed by Brandon Hay, CCAM’s Scientific Officer and the PBPA Fish Sanctuaries Manager. Brandon told us that the winds had been blowing strong and unfortunately they continued to blow throughout the night. 4am we were on the dock setting up our gear ready for an early start out to Pigeon Island. No time to Waitt for the weather! Joined by Mr Charles Moodie from Old Harbor we headed out to Pigeon Island. The following day we headed out from Old Harbor on fishing canoes to Big Pelican Cay, again the weather was not on our side so we carried out surveys across the sheltered back reef.


Best weather so far – revisiting Big Pelican Cay!

After so many rough days and cancellations I was pleased that we had a successful survey day on Sunday (29.06.14). We were on the water at 6am heading out from Old Harbor to Big Pelican Cay with Mr Charles Moodie and his friend on their fishing canoes. The reasonable weather allowed us to do surveys on the exposed shallow forereef (Big Pelican Cay East) and to the west of the cay (Big Pelican Cay West).

After refuelling with Bulla and water we headed off to Big Pelican West a narrow shallow spur where we came across numerous colonies of the Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata). In places there were over 10 Elkhorn coral colonies within a square area of 10 metres – not a particularly common sight in Jamaica. The Elkhorn coral was formerly one of the most dominant species found within shallow parts of Caribbean reefs (~1-5m water depth) providing a structural framework for invertebrates and fish, however, since the 1980’s there has been a reported loss of 90-95% of this species due to a multitude of factors including coral disease (see http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/invertebrates/elkhorncoral.htm). The species is listed as Endangered under the US Endangered Species Act and is currently listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red list of Threatened Species (http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/133006/0).

Over the next few weeks we’ll be out surveying whenever we have the weather windows. Look out for our next blog post to hear more about what we are finding.

Great job team, fingers crossed for good weather next weekend so we can get back to Pigeon Island!


Special thanks to the continued commitment and efforts of the survey teams, including Ivana Kenny for the excellent photos! Particular thanks to Dr Judith Lang for her constant support and guidance, not to mention providing a wealth of on-hand remote scientific expertise. Thank-you to Mr Charles Moodie and friend at Old Harbor who are our excellent boatmen and field support. Our thanks are extended to Hugh Small and the Port Royal Marine Laboratory team for all their efforts in facilitating the trips, and to Brandon Hay for helping to organise our Salt River trip. Thank-you to the Jamaican Environment Trust for disseminating the work we are doing which was made possible by the Waitt Foundation Rapid Ocean Conservation Grants Program.