Thursday, August 25, 2016

The boy who nearly drowned

Anjani Ganase, Trinbagonian marine biologist, continues her exploration of marine Tobago. In this issue, she talks with marine scientist Jahson Alemu who is working to preserve the coral reefs of Tobago, which serve as coastal protection as well as habitats for species that support livelihoods in food and tourism.
Follow Anjani Ganase on twitter: @AnjGanase

“I wanted to be a marine biologist when I learned to SCUBA dive. But my connection to the ocean started well before that. I almost drowned once - my fault really - 11 year old + big waves + following friends + not knowing how to swim = problems. That was quite scary, so I learned to swim and in the process I got exposure to ocean exploration. But when I learned to SCUBA, it was a new world to discover. I wanted to know everything about everything underwater.”

Jahson prepares his dive gear. Photo by Mark Pierre

Following his near drowning, Jahson decided he would never be in that situation again. He joined 6th Trinidad Sea Scouts, learned to swim and developed skills that made him ocean aware. He would go camping on beaches and snorkel along the coast.

He learned to SCUBA dive when he was studying for his undergraduate degree (Biology) at the University of the West Indies. He would look for the small creatures that made their homes in the gaps and crevices of the reef. He was always intrigued by creatures with odd traits.

“There are lots of large and awesome things to see under the water, turtles, corals, fish, dolphins, sharks etc, but the odd creatures always stand out to me. They are usually small and hard to see, plus they make some of the best photo subjects. These oddities diverge from the typical archetype of what animals such as crabs, fish and coral should look like, and highlight the wide diversity of creatures both in form and function found under the sea. My personal favourite is the cuttlefish, the master of mimicry. I really don't like eels though, so I'm glad I didn't meet any of them when I was starting my career.”

He graduated in 2005 and went to work with a consultancy company carrying out marine environmental assessments on coral reefs in Antigua and Barbuda and the Tobago Cays in the Grenadines. There were plans to set up marine parks. This was the first time he saw other Caribbean coral reefs apart from those in Tobago. It was also when he became aware of the dreadful state of Caribbean coral reefs and the challenges that lay ahead. He decided to dedicate his career to not just researching the causes of this degradation; but to figuring out what is required to build the resilience of Caribbean coral reefs: behaviour change among humans might be the most important.

“ 99% of the battle is influencing human perceptions and behaviours, whether it's influencing the type or size of fish we catch, to how we treat land-based waste/pollution. All the behaviours impact the ocean – together - at the same time - reinforcing and exacerbating each individual impact…”

His deep interest led to the opportunity to do a Master of Science in Marine Biology at the University of Bangor in Wales. Jahson studied the marine ecosystems of Mauritius and Rodrigues in the Indian Ocean. He worked alongside the local communities to establish marine parks. This is where he saw what the heavy dependence on coral reefs can do to a reef. The initiative to set up marine parks was the desperate final attempt by the local fishermen, who were aware that their reefs were heavily overfished and needed marine management and law enforcement to allow for recovery of fish stocks. Jahson learned the importance of protecting crucial marine habitats that serve as important spawning or feeding grounds and the corridors that connect the ecosystems that fish move through.

When he returned home in October 2008, Jahson moved to Tobago to start working on the coral reefs of his home country. He worked for the Buccoo Reef Trust for a year as the assistant project coordinator. At the time the Trust was the only NGO in Tobago with an interest in the preservation and conservation of coral reefs.  

He was returning to the reefs where he had learned to dive just four years before. Even within this short time frame, reefs at some favourite dive sites – Mt. Irvine and parts of Speyside – were changing showing considerable coral loss and disease. Unfortunately, there was little record of the degradation or research into the causes. Moving forward, and recognising the paucity of data on Tobago’s marine environment, Jahson joined the Institute of Marine Affairs as the coral reef research officer. He set about establishing a comprehensive monitoring and research programme for the marine environment all around Tobago. He was also instrumental in the development of a Coral Bleaching Response Plan for Tobago and the establishment of two monitoring stations called Coral Reef Early Warning Systems (CREWS) at Buccoo and Angel Reef, Speyside. The monitoring stations collect near real time atmospheric and oceanic data – ocean temperature, wind, rain, pH and even algal levels –as part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Coral Health and Monitoring Program. The oceanographic data of Tobago is stored and may be accessed at an online repository for data from coral reefs all around the world. This data feeds into models that can be used to predict when bleaching events are expected to happen (see below for the link to the website).
Jahson carries out underwater reef monitoring. Photo by Jonathan Gomez
Jahson is now working towards his PhD. He is looking at the role of coral reefs in coastal zone planning. Apart from the biological significance of coral reefs for tourism, food security and enjoyment, Jahson believes it is important to “safeguard one of the most important ecosystems to island states. Through rigorous and empirical research he hopes to demonstrate the role of shoreline protection/ coastal erosion abatement potential of coastal ecosystems in coastal zone planning.” Such considerations should be included in the cost-benefit analyses associated with the evaluation of coastal development or alternative coastal management scenarios. We'd be in a better place if this was the case, since the decisions that affect these ecosystems, will ultimately influence our quality of life on the island.

Jahson works towards creating synergy between economic development and environmental conservation that will benefit communities and their natural environment. When asked if he believes coral reefs have a future, given all the woes they are facing, Jahson considers himself a coral reef optimist. “Coral reefs have been around for thousands of years and likely to be around for a bit longer. Given global trends and what's expected to happen over the next 50-100 years, our reefs might change - we might lose some species, new reefs may start and older ones may fade. We don't know how they will change. Ultimately, they're having a hard time right now, due to warming oceans, fishing impacts, physical damage, sediment and other natural impacts that come from storms and hurricanes. Their future really depends on what we’re willing to do for them now.”

If you are interested in learning more about Jahson’s research or getting started in the field of marine biology and conservation, you can email him at, and follow him on twitter: @jahson_alemu. Find out more about NOAA’s Coral Health and Monitoring Program (CHAMP) here:

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Big Picture

Anjani Ganase, Trinbagonian marine biologist, considers the big picture. The air we breathe, the waters that encircle the earth, these connect all living creatures. This week, she looks at the fortunes of big countries, and small-island states, and asks each person to reflect on personal consumption habits and where your waste stream ends up. 
Follow Anjani Ganase on twitter: @AnjGanase
This view of Englishman’s Bay is known around the world as a place of paradise. Photo by Anjani Ganase

Let’s talk about the air
There are about 22 million people living in Beijing, China. In this city the air is so polluted that people often wear respiratory masks to breathe as emissions from five million cars and coal fired plants release unhealthy levels of noxious gases. In December 2015, even masks were not enough; the smog of pollution closed down schools and outdoor activity, until the level of toxic particulates dropped. This pollution kills 4000 persons a day and is equivalent to smoking up to 40 cigarettes in one day! How many breaths of air have you taken since you started reading this? Don’t know? Exactly, it’s something that we easily take for granted.

Let’s talk about our waste
The average person produces about four pounds of waste per day; this amounts to about 1500 pounds each year. If we were to add this up for the population of Trinidad and Tobago, this is about 900,000 tonnes of trash, equivalent to fifteen cruise ships full of garbage every year. Where does it all go?  Globally up to 5 % of our plastics, mostly packaging, end up in the ocean every year. There are places whose coastlines and coastal waters are already swamped by plastics. While diving along the Belize Barrier Reef, I was amazed to discover that clear little particulates suspended around me were not jellyfish but thousands of pieces of transparent plastic. The plastics that don’t travel to other coastlines end up in the stomachs of marine and bird life. By 2050, it is expected that 99% of sea birds will have plastic in their gut.

Let’s talk about the ocean
The ocean covers more than 70% of earth, and we in Tobago and Trinidad have the luxury of being surrounded by it. However, some island nations have already drowned. The accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is warming the planet and melting the ice caps. Countries in the Pacific, such as the Solomon Islands, have lost islands to climate change. Other islands are under threat from advancing Pacific waves. Hundreds of people have relocated; thousands are threatened. This isn’t just the loss of homes but of livelihood and heritage. These nations will become the first climate refugees. Here in the Caribbean, our reefs provide coastal protection; they also are spawning grounds and a source of seafood. Run off from the land and garbage in coastal waters as well as over fishing have already degraded the marine ecosystems over that last 40 years. It is likely that rising and warming seawaters will further compromise our shorelines.

Let’s talk about our planet
Our planet is one that has evolved to promote life. Plants release oxygen, while they use the power of the sun and scrub up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for growth and food production - a win-win for the animal kingdom. In China, for example, humans have overturned the balance of nature: trees are cleared for industry, coal is burned and blanket the atmosphere with particulates that block out the sun. Every step in the natural cycle is broken. Citizens of Beijing have become so urbanised that they’ve lost that connection with the very thing that keeps them alive.

Let’s talk about our home
Trinidad and Tobago is not visibly suffering from direct impacts of long-term pollution, destruction or climate change. However, time is not in our favour. Even if we take steps to preserve our environment, take a look at our surroundings. What most of us don’t see is the river of garbage – styrofoam and plastics mainly – that streams on the Orinoco current and fuses with our coastal waters. A closer look at the clear waters on our shorelines would reveal less than healthy water quality and eroding coasts.

It’s not too late
So why do we need to care? We can still choose to keep our islands and seas healthy; and in that way, keep our lives, careers and homes healthy. So we can continue to not have to think that every breath we take might kill us. We may not have to worry that living by the sea is going to destroy our homes, that the waters we swim in are not going to infect our food. By caring, we choose governments that deeply understand and represent our best interests. Governments who are not afraid of choosing innovative and greener ways to develop, rather than following other countries who have sacrificed nature and beauty to grow. Just as importantly, we need to have good representation regionally and internationally because the actions of a few countries may be detrimental to all. While the pollution experienced by the Chinese and the options to reduce it for the health of its citizens is in control of that government, the loss of the islands of the Pacific nations is the result of emissions from the developed countries. Finally, it’s not impossible, as countries like Bhutan and Costa Rica show, to allow environmental conservation to improve the economy.
Castara Bay – Scenic and unspoilt coastline of Tobago. Photo by Anjani Ganase

Albert S, Leon JX, Grinham AR, Church JA, Gibbes BR, Woodroffe C (2016). Interactions between sea-level rise and wave exposure on reef island dynamics in the Solomon Islands, Environmental Research Letters, 11(5).

Rohde RA, Muller RA (2015) Air Pollution in China: Mapping of Concentrations and Sources. PLoS ONE 10(8)

Wilcox C, Van Sebille E, Hardesty BD (2015), Threat of plastic pollution to seabirds is global, pervasive, and increasing. PNAS, 112(38).

Jambeck JR, Geyer R, Wilcox C, Siegler TR, Perryman M, Andrady A, Narayan R, Law KL (2015) Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean, Science Magazine, 347(6223).

Friday, August 12, 2016

Caring for Tobago Reefs

Anjani Ganase, Trinbagonian marine biologist, continues her exploration of marine Tobago. This week, she takes another look at Tobago’s iconic Buccoo Reef, comparing what was seen on the reef almost 50 years ago with what’s there today. Follow Anjani Ganase on twitter: @AnjGanase

Anjani Ganase, photo by Amanda Ford

In April 1967, Dr. Thomas F. Goreau, a marine biologist at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, visited Tobago’s Buccoo Reef to assess the composition and health of the reef and advise on recommended steps for its preservation. Dr. Goreau was an expert in coral reefs carrying out crucial research on Caribbean coral reefs at Discovery Bay, Jamaica, over ten years. This was his account of the Eastern and Outer reefs of the Buccoo system:

“As seen from the air, the best living coral framework by far occurs on the north-eastern windward side of the reef facing Buccoo Bay. Here the outer slope is steep and is covered with dense somewhat buttressed stands of Elkhorn coral that form the living rampart on which the surf breaks.”

Based on Goreau’s description in the report, here’s what we would expect to see. The surf zone of this reef was made up of Elkhorn coral, a branching species, whose thick branches span out to resemble a tree canopy with light sifting through to the reef creatures streaming below. Very dense interlocking thickets of these corals extend to the surface at low tide and break up the strong forces of the waves, giving shelter to the fragile fire coral and smaller colonies of other coral growing in between these corals. Moving farther down the reef slope and extending beyond 30 feet in depth, the shape of the corals change, consisting of highly diverse and abundant massive and boulder shaped corals. These corals included large brain corals, up to six feet in diameter, and other massive growth forms, such as the boulder star coral, whose shape resembles a long draping skirt. In between these large coral mounds there were finer branching forms – finger coral and staghorn coral, as well as an abundance of fire coral and patches of calcareous macroalgae, which is a major source of sand being produced for the Buccoo area. This colourful and richly diverse reef was home to many fish species including groupers, snappers and parrotfish.

This assessment of Buccoo reef – high coral cover and diversity, low algae and little disease - was similar to many Caribbean reefs throughout the 1960s up to the 1970s.  However, in the late 1970s, there was widespread mortality of the Elkhorn corals throughout the Caribbean, as a result of the white band disease. This was followed in the 1980s by the regional death of the sea urchin, a crucial grazer. Sea urchins prevented reefs from being overgrown by macroalgae, and their loss shifted many reefs from coral dominance to algae-dominated reef. The degradation of Caribbean coral reefs continues to this day compounded by declining water quality, unregulated fishing and global warming which further limits recovery of the reefs.

Back in 1967, the strong recommendation made by Dr. Goreau was to protect the Buccoo Reef, not just the coral reef habitat but also the neighbouring lagoon, seagrass beds and mangroves, since the health of one habitat greatly affects the health of the other. Furthermore, he advocated maintaining water quality by implementing sewage treatment on shore, since poor water conditions harbour pathogens that can infect the corals. In retrospect, if Dr. Goreau’s recommendations were implemented earlier, it may have allowed for quicker recovery of the reef community following these disturbances and buffered the damages done to the coral from coral bleaching events.

 Underwater view of Buccoo reef in 2012, Photo by Jahson Alemu


Here is an account from Jahson Alemu, the coral reef ecologist who carried out assessments, while working at the Institute of Marine Affairs in March 2014:

The surf zones of the Eastern reef and the Outer reef consist of the skeletons of Elkhorn coral, colonised by sea fans and fire coral. Small massive corals are present, but overall this area is very sparse of coral life and the vibrant community that used to live among these corals. Moving farther down the reef slope, coral cover increased but there are no large colonies of living brain and boulder corals. Most living corals are smaller in size, and are more encrusting and plating in shape. The boulder star corals predominate below 15 feet, but most colonies have evidence of partial mortality and suffer from yellow band disease. We do find small colonies of Elkhorn corals at 25 feet with the largest colony being about three feet in diameter, a fraction of the size seen in the 1960s. At this depth, the reef is a mixture of hard and soft coral but the more delicate branching corals are absent. Fish life are mainly juvenile parrotfish communities, with adults more common during spawning sessions. Small reef fish are abundant, such as the damselfish, snappers and grunts but more ecologically important fish and top predators are rare. Some fish still utilise the reef structure provided by the coral skeletons as areas to seek refuge. Macro-algae and turf algae are abundant on the reef; they are the main competitors of corals denying them space to settle or grow on.

Following Goreau’s guidelines, the Buccoo reef area was declared an area for restricted use in 1973; the marine park management plan was established in 1995. Forty-nine years since Goreau’s recommendations were made, progress has been too slow when considering the increasing frequency at which coral bleaching events are occurring as the earth climate continues to warm.

More importantly today, the protection of the reef is about understanding how innately the reef is connected to lives and livelihoods for the well-being of communities in Tobago, as well as Trinidad.  Buccoo Reef is our living heritage. Jahson is hopeful and so we should all be; science has shown that if you give nature a chance, it will reward you in ways you could never imagine.


Goreau, T. F. (1967), Observations and recommendations concerning the preservation of the reef and its lagoon in relation to urbanisation of the neighbouring coastal islands.


Some of the recommendations made to the Economic Planning Unit of the Prime Minister’s Office in Trinidad and Tobago in 1967 by Dr T F Goreau.
(Review of Goreau’s paper was facilitated by the Institute of Marine Affairs)

The Buccoo Reef – Bon Accord Lagoon complex is a single ecosystem which is unique in the eastern Caribbean for its biological richness, beauty and accessibility. This area is therefore to be regarded as a national asset, the development of which must take into consideration the long term economic and educational value of this reef for the nation as a whole. … It is up to Government to preserve and hold in perpetual trust for the people of Trinidad and Tobago this priceless national resource.


·      Removal of mangrove from the designated area to be forbidden.

·      All insect control measures with residual insecticides to be stopped.

·      Dumping of garbage, sewage, petroleum waste into the reef, lagoon from shore as far as Stonehaven to be forbidden.

·      All interference with the bottom of the sea to be forbidden in the preserve.

·      Capture of fish, turtles, shrimp or other creatures by any means within the preserve to be forbidden.

·      Collection of specimens for scientific research to be allowed with permission from relevant authorities.

·      On-going programmes of research and monitoring to be initiated by Government with relevant university.

·      Create a national preserve or park with appropriate legislation.

·      Government should acquire at fair value all lands bordering the Bon Accord Lagoon including Pigeon Point, Sheerbird Point, the mangrove forests and swamps in the area.

·      Create a national marine park, for educational and tourism purposes, with an aquarium and museum. Train guides and park rangers to conduct tours for school children students, and other visitors to the reef and lagoon

·      No marinas should be allowed in the confines of the park, but mooring facilities and jetties for the small boats required in the preserve on the western side of Pigeon Point and northern side of Sheerbird Point.

·      All boats and tourist operators using the preserve to be registered and licensed.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Tobago's timekeeper

Anjani Ganase, Trinbagonian marine biologist, continues her exploration of marine Tobago. In this episode, first published in Tobago Newsday on Thursday August 4, 2016, she looks at one of the biggest (living) brain corals in the world, located at the dive site off Speyside known as Kelleston Drain. Follow Anjani Ganase on twitter: @AnjGanase
Big brain coral at Kelleston Deep, Speyside, Photo courtesy Rochelle Ramlal (Name Brand Ting)

Just below the waves around Little Tobago lives one of the oldest inhabitants in Tobago waters, the giant brain coral. It has made its home in about 55 feet of water along the base of the reef slope, and is part of a larger reef community abundant in corals, sponges, as well as both micro and mega-fauna, including sharks, manta rays and turtles that use its crevices for shelter. Our brain coral is of the species Colpophyllia natans commonly known as the boulder brain coral or the zipper coral after the interlocked pattern formed in the ridges on the coral’s surface. They are known to grow big and are pretty common on Caribbean coral reefs.  The boulder shape makes them more robust to physical stress, and a relatively hardy species.
Close up on surface of Colpophyllia natans commonly known as the zipper coral, photo by Anjani Ganase

A rough estimation of this coral’s age, based on its size – 10 feet high and 16 feet wide – is at least a couple hundred years. Imagine this animal being born on this reef during the 1700s, when the ownership of Tobago was still being fought over by the French, Spanish, English and even the Swedes. During this era, Tobago’s landscape also changed quite a bit as the sugarcane and cotton industries bloomed and ebbed over a hundred years. In the 1800s, when slavery was abolished, this coral was already a mature adult. Moving on to the 1900s, the coral was growing under the waves during two world wars and the industrial revolution.

Even in the 2000s, Tobago continues to develop and change oblivious to this creature below the sea. *But what if the coral is much older? Imagine that it had been born in the time before colonial rule, and well before Columbus sailed the ocean blue? A different world compared to now.

These hundreds of years of climate and underwater memories are stored within the skeleton of the slow growing coral. Particulates and chemicals from the surrounding environment, above and below the water such as river runoff or terrestrial sediment from heavy rainfall, will get incorporated into the coral’s skeleton as it lays down new calcium carbonate. Also, by looking at a coral’s cross-section, along the different layers, one can essentially observe a timeline of historical environmental conditions. Changes in the skeleton density, seen as growth bands similar to that of tree rings, reflect the coral’s growth rates, which tend to speed up or slow down during colder or warmer temperatures. These changes in the coral patterns give an indication of historical water temperature patterns and even temperature stress events.

Dr. Jennie Mallela, a coral reef scientist from the Australian National University, researched exactly this. She examined coral cores of Colpophyllia natans from coral reef sites around Tobago for historical growth anomalies, which were related to notable coral bleaching events. She was able to show that corals growing in better water quality were less vulnerable to coral bleaching. Coral bleaching events occur when prolonged higher water temperatures cause the coral animal to lose its algae, which it relies on for most of its food through photosynthesis. This results in the coral losing its pigmentation and having a bone white appearance. The loss of the algae can lead to the starvation and eventual death of the coral.

(*This was edited on August 14, 2016.)
X-ray section through a coral core. Horizontal white bands show where coral growth stopped during bleaching events. Photo provided by Dr. Jennie Mallela
Although this ancient creature might tell us a lot about our environmental past, we know very little about it. Why has it been so successful over these years compared to others in its community and others of its kind? Did it get lucky by choosing a relatively amicable location or is it just genetically “tough” and therefore more resistant to changes in the environment. In recent history, this coral survived three worldwide mass coral bleaching events: 1980, 1997 and 2001. Tobago reefs have also been subjected to many hurricanes, including hurricane Flora in 1962, which devastated the island. How this coral survived all these years and remains successful thus far, while others have not, is something that coral reefs scientists are investigating on reefs around the world.

Some of us may be concerned whether our coral will survive the changes occurring now and yet to come. Compared to those in the last two hundred years of this coral’s life, human changes are continuing to shift the landscape, modify environments and to push the earth’s climate beyond anything it has seen before. Worse still, we have sped up the process of these changes. Not even these ancients may keep up or adapt fast enough to our accelerated activity. Only time will tell: one thing for sure, we need to cherish these ancient and living archives.

If you have the opportunity to visit the reef where this coral still lives, please observe but don’t touch, as the living part of the coral forms a thin layer over the surface, and is very sensitive to physical disturbance. I also invite the readers, as citizen scientists, to help us create a photographic record of this coral over the years. If anyone has a photo of the brain coral, please email a copy labelled with date taken and your last name, to All photos are welcome, the older the picture the better!

Reference: Mallela, J., Hetzinger, S. & Halfar, J. Coral Reefs (2016) Thermal stress markers in Colpophyllia natans provide an archive of site-specific bleaching events, 35: 181. doi:10.1007/s00338-015-1350-7

The photo of the brain coral here is by Paul Mannix, taken in 2008.
via Flickr:
Adjustments: Colour correction of original image