One Reef at a Time, in Charlotteville


There’s hope for coral reefs when people are enlightened and educated. Jahson Alemu, marine biologist, has reason to believe that Charlotteville Tobago is a community taking charge of its offshore environment, and can show the way. 
Underwater flowers born out of rock and sand, rebirthing themselves a million times over, coral reefs have evolved into some of the most resilient and productive ecosystems on earth. Covering just a tiny fraction (less than one percent) of the earth's surface and less than two percent of the ocean bottom, they are important sources of food security, storm protection, livelihoods and medicine to a conservative estimate of 500 million people on earth. But, I’d be lying to you if I told you that coral reefs have it easy. 
Ever expanding demands for these resources coupled with warming oceans over the last century have resulted in unprecedented levels of coral reef losses, well beyond their ability to recover. The situation is very dire. And even in Tobago, many of our reefs are having difficulty recovering from past and current stressful events. Ultimately, an improvement in water quality (reducing nutrients, sediment and pollution entering the ocean) and reducing greenhouse emissions are necessary to safeguard the future of coral reefs. But, instead of nursing feelings of despair, and giving up…
I am optimistic
The reef system in and around Charlotteville (Speyside too but we’ll save that for another article) is one of the bright spots of reef resilience for Tobago. Imagine, expansive reef flats and slopes, overhangs and walls, canyons and tunnels, covered in massive brain corals and peppered with colourful sponges, sea rods, sea fans and sea plumes. Hovering over the reefs, interspaced between corals and within every crack and crevice are a kaleidoscope of fish and invertebrates, charismatic species such as turtles, rays, eels and sharks that provide good marketing opportunities for eco-tourism. Also taking advantage of this rich environment is the lionfish, an alien invasive species and the newest threat to Caribbean coral reefs, which has taken a stronghold in Charlotteville. But don’t worry, local divers and fishers are on the hunt for lionfish as part of efforts to protect the reef. If you’re lucky you might even get lionfish on the menu at some restaurants.
Charlotteville the fishing village, photo courtesy Ron Tiah
Charlotteville is a small fishing village on the north-east of Tobago, with a rich cultural heritage and unique identity that I hope continues with future generations. Much of the reef resilience observed here is as a result of the attitudes of its people. A long history of local engagement in resource management, sparse urban development, relatively sustainable fishing, limited coastal pollution and remote access all contribute to better quality marine resources. On the downside, a burgeoning yacht tourism industry in this calm and sheltered bay has resulted in increased incidence of anchor damage on reefs (another threat to coral reefs). Can this type of community-based self-regulating model be applied or adapted elsewhere in Tobago? I think so and attempts have been made in the past. It can work. Will it be easy? Likely not. 
Looking across Man-o-War Bay, Charlotteville, photo courtesy Pat Ganase
Such a process requires continuous dialogue among many different stakeholders until common ground can be agreed upon, before change can be effected. Fortunately, community based groups such as Environmental Research Institute of Charlotteville (ERIC), the North East Sea Turtles (NEST), Environment Tobago (ET) and the Buccoo Reef Trust (BRT) have been working with and as part of the community to build local capacity for marine resource management and adaptation to climate change impacts. 
The results of these efforts has been the identification of hotspots of biodiversity for priority conservation, the temporary installation of mooring buoy system, coral reef monitoring programmes, coral nursery start-ups, turtle tagging and monitoring programmes, lionfish culling and first aid training, but most importantly an engaged community. The process has been slow, and agents of change within the community have been few. And if my doctoral research is any indication of the group mind, it’s not that people don’t care about the environment, or aren’t knowledgeable about its importance or their role in conserving it, but more pressing social needs (being employed, providing food to families, poverty alleviation) take priority over environmental concerns. Perhaps, in Charlotteville the blueprint for change has been found.

I am optimistic. 
Charlotteville is also learning the value of conserving its coral reefs, photo courtesy Ron Tiah

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