Thursday, October 27, 2016

Caribbean Reefs after Columbus

This week, marine biologist Anjani Ganase reviews the scientific article “Reefs since Columbus” written by ecologist Dr. Jeremy Jackson (1997) highlighting the history of degradation of Caribbean marine ecosystems since the time of Columbus. The significant loss of key marine animals long before the advent of modern monitoring and research on coral reef health, indicates the problem of the shifting baseline and our failure to understand what a truly healthy (or unexploited) coral reef or marine environment might be like.
This article was first published in the Tobago Newsday on Thursday, October 27, 2016.
Follow Anjani on twitter @AnjGanase

“Large vertebrates such as the green turtle, hawksbill turtle, manatee and the extinct Caribbean Monk Seal were decimated by about 1800 in the central and northern Caribbean…” – Dr Jackson 1997.

The thrill of sharing a protected reef with these Galapagos Sea Lions, Galapagos. UNESCO World Heritage Marine Site. Photo by Underwater Earth, XL Catlin Seaview Survey.
When we observe an ecosystem for the first time – a coral reef, rainforest, wetland – that impression forever becomes our baseline against which we judge future changes to this environment. We often exclude the long-term history of impacts on these ecosystems, ignoring the major events in local, social or human history. What impact did the Industrial Revolution, World War II or organised large-scale agriculture have on our natural world? We forget that Europe was at one point covered in temperate forest; that New York City was originally a wetland; and before World War II access to Trinidad’s north coast beaches was only possible by donkey trails or boats. The challenge of shifting baselines becomes especially problematic when trying to convince legislators, communities and law makers of the need for protection, management and conservation, especially so when the degradation is slow and almost unseen within one’s lifetime. Unless you have experienced severe changes within a lifetime, then we assume that what we see was always the case. This is one of the reasons that we are unable to halt the degradation of many environments, both terrestrial and marine, around the world.

Here in the Caribbean, the field of coral reef ecology – recording reef health, monitoring marine diversity and function - is less than 70 years old. Already these coral reefs have over three hundred years of impact by man. Therefore the baselines for many scientists are marine environments that are essentially not pristine and already degraded. It is essential to place recent scientific monitoring of reef health in the context of the long-term history of Caribbean to truly grapple with the effects we have had on the marine organisms and ecosystems throughout the Caribbean. In his paper “Reefs since Columbus,” Dr. Jackson compiles the evidence of ships’ logs and fishery records in Jamaica and in other places in the Caribbean over 350 years; and as far back as possible to 1492 when Columbus arrived in the Americas.
Majestic Manta Rays at home in the protected Komodo National Park, Indonesia. UNESCO World Heritage Marine Site. Photo by Underwater Earth, XL Catlin Seaview Survey.

Marine mega fauna such as the turtles, manatees and rays are all sculptors of their seascape habitats, coral reefs, sea grass beds etc. They are the equivalent of the hippos, rhinos, elephants and the wildebeest of the Serengeti. When the colonizing English first arrived in Jamaica and Grand Cayman in the 1600s, they turned to sea turtle fishing for food. During this time, turtle harvesting was so intensive that by 1800s, the fishery for turtles had collapsed. Descriptions of seeing sea turtles in the wild went from this:

But in those twenty leagues (100+ km), they saw very many more (sea turtles) for the sea was thick with them, and they were of the very largest, so numerous that it seemed that the ships would run aground on them and were as if bathing in them.” - Andres Bernaldez, 1494 in southeast Cuba
to this:
I have not even seen most of these large animals (turtles), underwater for twenty years or more, and some of them never at all, despite thousands of hours SCUBA diving on and around coral reefs” – Dr. J. Jackson 1997 
Dr Jackson calculated that populations of green turtles must have been somewhere between 6 and  600 million when the first Europeans arrived.  He also speculates that the predators such as the sharks that fed on the juvenile turtles were immensely more numerous. Further, he leads us to reflect on the abundance and the health of the habitats - the sea grass beds, the coral reefs - that were required to support these turtle populations. And we arrive at a different baseline 500 years ago.
Today’s baselines are for habitats devoid of large numbers of turtles. One turtle can graze the same area as 155 sea urchins. Apart from the difference in quantities of sea grass being grazed, the mode of grazing - urchins are more selective of older blades – and the cycling of nutrients is different. Turtle faeces are often carried outside the sea grass beds affecting other habitats. The sea grass ecosystems have completely changed over the last three hundred years.
Human impacts are also from the land. Even though we have been studying the effects of land run off, erosion and eutrophication on the coral reefs in the last 60 years, there were signs of this disturbance already occurring since the time of the sugar cane boom in the Caribbean. Many island colonies were home to major plantations where massive stretches of land were cleared. This included Tobago. Scientists found clues to the long-term degradation on coral reefs in Barbados, where aerial photos of Barbadian reefs in the 1960s were already impoverished of the large branching Acropora corals in the shallows before the massive regional die off; most likely related to extensive land clearing events in the island’s history.
With regard to Caribbean fisheries, one island has a well-recorded history of the severe loss of fish life from overfishing – Jamaica. In the late 1800s the fisheries of Jamaica had peaked and collapsed. By the 1970s, the very small number of fish and their smaller sizes were seriously affecting food and the tourism industry.
Let’s look at another marine species. The last sighting of a Caribbean Monk seal in the northern Caribbean was recorded in 1952 somewhere between Jamaica and Nicaragua. It was declared extinct in 2008. They had been heavily hunted for oil.
“Studying grazing and predation on reefs today is like trying to understand the ecology of the Serengeti by studying the termites and the locusts, while ignoring the elephants and the wildebeests.” – Dr Jackson 1997

Today there are too few reefs that have large animals - sharks, turtles and rays. While the shifting baselines may be seen as convenient or a coping mechanism to maintain positive outlooks, there is a deeper truth. Humans have devastated the diversity of species on our planet. Will we take action when the only big marine life are in zoos or theme parks, or wake up after the reefs are devoid of fish and the corals dying or dead?
It’s not yet too late. What can we do as a species? What can we do as individuals?
Finally, I can only concur with the slim hope which Dr Jackson expresses at the end of his paper: “…really large marine protected areas on the scale of hundreds to thousands of square kilometers are vital to any hope of conserving Caribbean coral reefs and coral reef species. Can we restore damaged reefs? Can we control inputs from the land and harvesting? Can we manage what we do decide to invest in and use? … The people trying to answer (these questions) are... the only chance we have got.”
The company of a lone eagle ray on Glover’s Reef, Belize Barrier Reef System. UNESCO World Heritage (in Danger) Marine Site. Photo by Underwater Earth, XL Catlin Seaview Survey.

J. B. C. Jackson (1997). Reefs since Columbus, Coral Reefs, 16, Suppl: S23—S32

Thursday, October 20, 2016

For Love of Tobago

Anjani Ganase, Trinbagonian marine biologist, believes that people and communities are just as important in shaping a place as the natural environment. Occasionally she intends to profile personalities that she considers curators of Tobago’s cultural and natural environment. This week, she invites Lindsay Hall to speak about her Tobago.
This feature was published first in the Tobago Newsday on Thursday 20th October 2016  
Follow Anjani on twitter: @AnjGanase

Tobago is a community of 61,000 persons who - although they share a common environment - still have unique experiences and stories living on this Caribbean island. This week Lindsay Hall tells her story, and relates why she became a yoga instructor and her hopes for change in Tobago’s education system. Lindsay is the daughter of Tony Hall, dramatist, and Mary Hall the Canadian born educator who founded and still teaches and runs the Michael K. Hall Community School in Tobago. M.K. Hall was named for Lindsay’s grandfather, the educator and father of sons Dennis “Sprangalang” and Tony. Lindsay was born the year after her parents moved to make Tobago their home, their dream since the seventies. She was six when the school was started, one of the first students there. The Halls are 30 years rooted in Tobago; Lindsay’s child will be the first Tobago-born in the family.

“My dream job growing up was to become an animal psychologist, Britney Spears back up dancer and later I wanted to become a Marine Biologist.” – Lindsay Hall, Carnbee

Lindsay Hall, Tobagonian spirit, yoga and dance instructor

I am a yoga and dance instructor. My profession is rooted in helping others find health by first finding and creating balance in their physical bodies. I chose this profession because I have always been very physically active (dancing my entire life and being very active generally) and over the years I have realized a connection between my physical wellbeing and my emotional and mental wellbeing. I helped heal myself emotionally and mentally by searching and exploring ways to help my physical body. I want to help others to do the same.

In my spare time I enjoy making jewellery or free diving, snorkelling and general beach going. The ocean is a place of peace for me. I grew up next to the sea; it's the place I go to when I simply want to feel good. 

My friend went to Hawaii and was blown away by the natural landscape and how kind and generous the people were. She talked about seeing a volcano erupting with lava flowing down the mountainside, doing night dives with manta rays and seeing sea turtles in the water of every beach she went to. She also talked about the lush greenery and how magical each of the islands she visited felt. Because of her stories, I've recently been thinking a lot about going to Hawaii to experience the magic she described.


What I like most about Tobago is its natural landscape and the unique Tobago vibe that goes along with it. The best part about living in Tobago for me is the freedom it allows me. I don't feel burdened by any system or any ideology. I feel free to create the life I want. Although I have many favourite places in Tobago, one that sticks out to me at the moment is the reef right in front of Little Tobago.

I would like to see Tobago become greener. If Tobago was actually a green island, I think that could be a real drawing card for tourists. I would like to see recycling, organic farming, the elimination of plastic bags and Styrofoam, introduction of renewable energy, and better laws and enforcement of laws for the protection of Tobago's wildlife and environment.

What I dislike about Tobago is that, unfortunately there are few outlets in Tobago for promoting innovative and creative thinking, whether it is through the arts or scientific research.  This prevents people from being able to think creatively or problem solve.  Generally, they don't want to think outside the box. Few Tobagonians have the confidence to genuinely think alternatively for fear of being different and thereby setting themselves up for ridicule by others; this mentality can be crippling. A shift in the focus of the education system that empowers students to become more free thinkers may be able to help with this. 

If I could address the government, I would want to discuss the need for education reform. I would tell them that if the approach to education shifted, the type of citizens created would change the landscape of this country for the better. If we gave our kids more outlets to be creative in a supported environment and nurtured all their interests instead of just praising the ones who are good at math and science and dismissing everyone else, we could create more balanced, productive, happier human beings. And yes, teaching yoga would be useful in our schools at every level.

Yoga on the beach: "My profession is rooted in helping others find health by first finding and creating balance in their physical bodies."

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Alternatives for Sustainable Tourism in Tobago

Anjani Ganase, Trinbagonian marine biologist, continues her weekly exploration of islands and the ocean. Today, she looks at alternatives in sustainable tourism through conservation and education, and imagines applications for the tremendous diversity of our own Tobago. This feature was first published in the Tobago Newsday on Thursday October 13, 2016
Follow Anjani Ganase on twitter: @AnjGanase

Although Tobago has been tied to Trinidad for the past 127 years (since 1889), it is distinctly different in a lot of ways. For one it has built its own reputation as the quintessential tropical Caribbean island. Over the years, more people remember travelling to Tobago on family vacations than to Trinidad. It is considered to be the truer Caribbean island, less altered and more pristine. Even Trinis know this because it is where we go for a holiday. Tobago has a group of dedicated visitors, and we want to preserve this following and maintain these connections. But do we think that we can grow this market and develop without compromising our land and seascapes?

Tobago is similar to many other small island states and developing countries that have decided to make a shift from resort style tourism - which relies on large scale heavy construction, with severe alterations to the landscape - to dispersed and diversified forms of tourism, where the visitor is given multiple options for activities, accommodation and encounters. The product is the island, nature, people and culture; the way of life.

This week we look at two alternative options for expanding and developing the tourism sector, but with sustainability built in, where the focus is on engaging the visitor on a personal and authentic level and one that is mutually respectful.

The beach at Castara, Tobago. Photo by Anjani Ganase

Located farther along our island chain is Dominica, an island slightly bigger and more populated than Tobago. This volcanic island is home to a rich rainforest, over 350 streams and well-recorded diversity of animal and plant life. Also similar to Tobago, Dominica’s rainforest is protected. In the 1970s there was a plan for a mass tourism to be brought to the island, as was the approach on other Caribbean islands; however their beaches were shaded by steep cliffs and had minimal white sand to draw the crowd. In addition, there was an expectation of huge infrastructure that would be built to compete for the tourists attracted to the other sunnier islands.

It was at this point that the government decided to go in a different direction. Dominica looked at its identity, and shifted focus to promote small-scale local tourism (Weaver 2004). They would appeal to visitors who were not just interested in paradise but also willing to have an adventure and real encounters with local cultures. Dominica promoted itself as the Nature Island of the Caribbean. By preserving nature and the communities connected to it, it attracted a special sector of visitors. This format is supported on all levels from the community to government and fosters small-scale, locally managed tourism. Everybody is responsible for the product. Everybody earns from it. Niche attractions include activity-based tourism – birding, whale watching, kayaking, hiking, diving and snorkelling. A significant achievement is the development of the Waitukubuli national trail 184 km running north- south along the full length of the island. The trail crosses two nature reserves; local communities provide lodging, campsites and other facilities along the route. All the parks are protected; and rangers regulate traffic and collect fees for permits and passes that are used towards maintenance.

Scotts Head, Dominica. Photo source: (Creative Commons License)

Another option is to promote a locale for environmental education: knowledge based learning experiences in natural habitats and areas of historical and cultural importance. This can apply to all levels of formal learning, school and camp groups as well as university courses built on research-based excursions. Guided excursions may also be offered for general visitors.

Excursions may also run over longer periods and require both classroom/ research facilities and accommodation that may be provided by local entities. The work being carried out daily may facilitate long-term learning and engagement projects, such as monitoring forest regrowth, cataloguing indigenous wildlife or surveying coral reef health, all contributing to conservation in local communities. Over the years, I have worked with research field stations where I have seen the benefits of regular visits by international schools and university groups. The students learn everything about the local environment over the period of internship; they experience habitats that are locally managed and maintained.  Again, this requires the vision, the framework of organisation and management. It is possible to make a business of caring for the environment.

The success of alternative options like these relies on the following (Sarrasin and Tardif 2012):
1.     Protect the natural ecosystems, and put policies in place to ensure that the habitats are not abused. Healthy ecosystems can secure long-term stable income generation.
2.     Apply an adaptive co-management arrangement among stakeholders. The shared responsibility of all parties  - tour guides, accommodators, managers, government officials - is built on a system of duties and financial obligations, where roles are clear. By being adaptive, we ensure that procedures are ever evolving, through continuous dialogue within the social and natural systems.
3.     Build sustainable infrastructure to ensure protection of the environment and the visitor. This indicates instilling sustainable policies that govern how areas are protected, park fees, safety standards and regulation practice.
4.     Develop the skills of local communities in all aspects.

With any form of development, we can expect conflict between the multiple users of any resource. It is necessary therefore for all stakeholders to understand co-operation among roles: users, NGOs, business owners, park managers, government officials. This system is not hierarchical; cannot be managed with a top-down approach. A government that acts without open and transparent consultation or community meetings does not trust the people nor believe they can rely on the communities.

Finally, let us consider Tobago, long regarded as a jewel of the Caribbean. The Main Ridge Forest Reserve is the oldest legally protected forest reserve (April 13, 1776), an act specifically for conservation of the watershed. In this small island, natural ecosystems of coral reefs, beaches and mangroves shelter immense biodiversity. Imagine our Tobago whose tourism is based on a diversity of activities and adventures  - hiking and biking tours, camping and walking trails that may last days, stand up paddle and surfing lessons, scuba and snorkelling lessons. Imagine a tour of epic battles that took place offshore including exploring the wrecks in Scarborough harbour; hiking from one bay to another or one lookout to the next. 

Imagine a Tobago where each community co-manages their local resources. They manage, protect, showcase and educate. Accommodation can occur at multiple levels from student backpackers and the bungalow sharer to those in luxury cabins. Imagine every summer, the Buccoo Reef Marine Park Research Centre hosts classes for high schoolers and university students. The final product can only be a Tobago that knows its own identity, as custodian of this beautiful tropical ecosystem and marine environment; that knows its future is intertwined with locally owned conservation practices and monitoring projects. Pulchrior evenit, indeed, she grows more beautiful.

Sarrasin B., Tardif  J. (2012) Ecotourism and Natural Resources in Dominica. Co-Management as an Innovative Practice, Téoros 1 (Special Issue):85-90.

Weaver, D. B. (2004) Chapter 8, Managing ecotourism n the island microstate: the case of Dominica, Ecotourism: Management and Assessment (Dimitrios Diamantes).

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Do we need Sandals in Tobago?

Two Trinbagonian marine scientists, Jahson Alemu and Anjani Ganase, both PhD candidates, team up to discuss the impacts of the proposed Sandals development on the Buccoo Reef Marine Park. This article first appeared in the Tobago Newsday on Thursday October 6, 2016.
Follow them on twitter: @jahson_alemu and @AnjGanase

Nestled in the southern Caribbean is the tiny island paradise of Tobago. This idyllic island offers the best features of a Caribbean get away while retaining its unique identity, unexploited by the pressures of large-scale tourism. Tourism is undoubtedly the mainstay of the island and the result has been steady growth and some investment in the industry over the last two decades. In a competitive tourism industry, the TT government is seeking to up the ante by inviting the Sandals Resort chain to Tobago. Sandals is the one of the recognised tourism brands of the Caribbean.

Overview of No Man’s Land, Bon Accord Lagoon and Buccoo Reef Marine Park.

Recent proclamations have confirmed that the Angostura Estate and No Man’s Land (also known as Sheerbird’s Point) is the location under consideration for development. It is likely that other sites are being scouted, but for now we will focus on No Man’s Land and the surrounding habitats, including the Bon Accord Lagoon and Buccoo Reef Area.

Bon Accord Lagoon and No Man’s Land are unique public spaces etched into the identity of Tobagonians, that serve as major tourism attractions of great economic, cultural and environmental significance. The lagoon waters link important habitats, such as the mangroves and seagrass to the coral reefs. These are essential habitats for many species of birds, fish, crabs and rays. If the resort were developed in this area, would traditional uses be allowed to continue and how will the environment be affected? How will the identity of this piece of Tobago change? The proposed plan is for a self-contained, all-inclusive establishment of massive proportions, over 1000 rooms.

This issue is not specific to Tobago and so we can look to other examples on how these developments can effect on both the environment and communities. Here are five environmental considerations if a resort is to be developed on the No Man’s Land area:

1.     Water quality - Mangroves serve as a natural trap for sediments and nutrients from the land before being released into the ocean. Seagrasses also remove more sediment from the water; allowing cleaner water to flow onto the reefs. The likely removal of mangrove and other wetland vegetation associated with a resort development in the No Man’s Land area will result in the loss of this buffer of land-based runoff such as may be expected with heavy rainfall during the construction and operational phases of the resort. The increased amount of sediment and nutrients in the marine environment will not only cloud the water column but have adverse effects on the seagrass beds, fish nursery areas, and coral reef health. Mangroves also act as a natural “sink” (nature’s storage area) for nutrients.

2.     Coastal Erosion – Beaches and coastal areas are a dynamic environment. The natural sand trapping habitats of mangroves and lagoon systems governs the stability of the beach areas. Further the removal of coastal vegetation and the addition of solid structure can exacerbate erosion processes and change the natural hydrodynamic regime of the area affecting water flow and sand transport.

3.     Effects on wildlife – Vegetation clearance will result in loss of habitat for bird species, and mangrove clearance will further result in the loss of habitat for juvenile fish and shellfish, many of which are ecologically and commercially important species e.g. parrotfish, snapper, crabs and lobster. Diving, snorkelling and glass-bottom boat tours, as well as commercial and recreational tours all rely on the presence of fish, turtles, sharks and marine life in surrounding waters for a sustainable income.

4.     Degradation of Buccoo Reef - The Buccoo Reef is home to a diversity of marine life and its health relies on the healthy waterways of the mangrove and lagoon system. If this connection is broken or degraded there will be serious consequences for the sustained health of the reef. Buccoo Reef already has a long history of local and regional environmental disturbances. Recommendations have been proposed for its protection and conservation since the 1960s to improve the ecosystem and the livelihoods of those that rely on it. The Buccoo Marine Park was designated in the 1970s. The Buccoo Reef was also named a park of importance to Trinidad and Tobago according to the Ramsar Convention.

5.     Loss of valuable environmental assets – 40 % of the tourists that visit Tobago come for coral reef related activities. Healthy coral reefs, seagrasses and mangroves alone are estimated to provide 7 trillion US dollars in assets worldwide! Providing income from tourism, shoreline protection and fisheries. The current estimation of (direct and indirect) economic benefit from coral reef tourism for Tobago is about US $100 – 130 million dollars annually. Reef associated fisheries add an additional $1 million USD, while the annual value of shoreline protection is estimated at 18- 33 million USD; this is expected to increase with the predicted sea-level rise from climate change. The loss of these ecosystems will have severe economic consequences on all stakeholders that rely on them (World Resource Institute Report 2008).

The Sandals development is envisioned to result in a boom to Tobago’s tourism industry (in three years) with expected revenues to the country through increased international tourism to the island and opportunities for the development of downstream business and enhancement of existing ones. The development of large resorts on small remote islands is not a unique venture, however there is need for transparency in the process that includes stakeholders. At the very least, with consultation, policies need to be put in place to ensure that quality of life is maintained.

Communities of Tobago have the right to ask for thorough environmental and social impact assessments. This is not just someone else’s vacation paradise, it is our home. Furthermore, Sandals resort may be all-inclusive but what separates Sandals in Tobago from Sandals anywhere else in the Caribbean? If the environmental and cultual features that make the area unique are not retained, then we would have lost what attracts visitors to the island.

As the Tobago economy grows and expands it is inevitable that there will be conflicts for natural resource use e.g. between coastal communities and tourism developments. While several laws and policies have been implemented, there is still a lack of enforcement. The Buccoo Reef/Bon Accord Complex has been designated a Ramsar site of ecological significance; the Buccoo Reef Marine Park was declared a restricted area more than 40 years ago; but poor management of human activities continues to stress the area.

Recently, President Obama, understanding the value of healthy oceans and marine ecosystems to the US, established the world’s largest marine reserve north of Hawaii twice the size of Texas. Here’s why:

“ The health of our planet’s oceans determine for the most part the health of our bodies and the health of our economies and while it’s our ocean’s contours that shape our coastlines, it is what we decide and do here that will shape our ocean’s future (and ours)”  – President Obama, 2016

We can promote tourism in the Tobago without having to compromise our paradise. One important suggestion – touted by several bodies over the years including the Buccoo Reef Trust, UWI, UTT and IMA - includes making the Buccoo Reef a fully functional marine park. Healthy and protected coral reefs will boost current tourism and fisheries. Improved regulation and protection of these areas contribute economically by creating jobs for the protection and utilisation and attracting a different type of visitor.

The Marine Areas Preservation and Enhancement Act 1970, includes essential steps for the protection and enhancement of wildlife in the area, and promoted more scientific understanding of the area. Internationally the science of coral reefs, mangroves and reef organisms is of great interest for environmental value. Instituting a university-associated research station, with programmes and facilities run by Trinbagonians will provide jobs and income and learning opportunities for those who live in the area. This will attract visiting scientists and other educators as well as local, regional and international students.

Reference: WRI report -

Views of the proposed Sandals and Beaches developments