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!

Acknowledgements:

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.