Saving Buccoo, Saving Trinidad and Tobago

Anjani Ganase, marine scientist and PhD candidate for a study of Coral Reefs, made a presentation to the Green Market community in Santa Cruz. She shares the presentation here in support of her belief that caring for the Caribbean Sea no longer rests only with marine scientists. We should all know and care about what’s happening offshore our islands and in the oceans everywhere.
This feature was first published in the Tobago Newsday on Friday March 3, 2017 
Follow Anjani on twitter @AnjGanase

Coral reefs around the world can be found in specific locations, around tropical islands where ocean temperatures are warm and the water is generally clear enough for sunlight to filter through. These locations amount to about one percent of the ocean floor. If we look at the map, we’ll see that our islands – Trinidad and Tobago – lie within one of these coral-select regions of the world, the Caribbean. 

Map shows where most coral reefs are located (Courtesy WWF)

According to the experts: “Coral reefs are a critical global ecosystem. They support 25% of all marine life worldwide, and are estimated to have a conservative value of $1 trillion, generating $300-400 billion each year in terms of food and livelihoods from tourism, fisheries, and medicines” (WWF 2015, Smithsonian Institute).

Coral reefs are important in the life cycles of many of the species that we harvest from the sea. They are important income generators in food and tourism industries to coastal communities.

However, coral reefs around the world are polluted by what runs off the land. They are further stressed by rising ocean temperatures.  Extreme rises in water temperature result in the stark bone white forms, a condition that’s known as bleaching. If you thought that the natural healthy state for reefs is white, you are wrong. Coral communities that are alive and growing are as colourful as vegetation in a rainforest. Coral reefs have been compared with rainforests, both essential to the health of the planet. Today, we are in the midst of a bleaching event that may not be easily reversed, even if humans come together to clean up the pollution (chemicals, plastics, garbage, sewage, silt) that ends up in the ocean; and to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that is emitted into the atmosphere by agricultural, industrial and human life practices.

Let’s pause here to understand how carbon dioxide and other emissions change the earth’s ecosystem. All animals breathe out carbon dioxide. Factories, burning fossil fuels, releasing fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal) from reservoirs in the earth, transportation systems based on fossil fuels, all result in increases in carbon emissions. At the same time, changes such as enormous gyres of trash in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, chemical pollution, over-fishing, rising temperatures, coastal development, are altering the capacity of ocean ecosystems to absorb carbon.

Humans also affect the ocean through unregulated and indiscriminate fishing. Most of the large species – whales, sharks, bigger fish like tuna, wahoo and grouper, and sea turtles – have been severely depleted. Food fish are smaller and further down the food chain. Herbivores, for example parrotfish and others that graze on the reefs, have also been fished out. If you have a look at Buccoo Reef today, you’ll see mainly small fish.

Coral reefs have been compared to “the canaries in the mines” a term that suggests they are indicators of the health of the oceans, and of planet earth.

While most of humanity, land-based and oblivious to what is happening in the seas, has proceeded with “business as usual,” some are aware and warning about the peril to the planet, raising issues like climate change and its connection to consumerism, carbon release in the atmosphere and warming global temperatures, over-population, pandemics and the growing pressures to support human life.

Organisations and groups promoting change include the IPCC (Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change), Mission Blue, and the Global Change Institute of the University of Queensland in Australia among others. We urgently need more individuals and communities around the world to identify with the cause of a safe and healthy planet.

I’ve always identified with the sea and see myself as an island person. I was born and lived in Trinidad and Tobago until I went to university, and cemented my relationship with other campaigners for the health of the oceans. It was a “round the world route” that brought me to the Global Change Institute and its significant project, the XL Catlin Seaview Survey. This was a long way from the poultry farm in the Northern Range valley of Santa Cruz, with recreational visits and vacations at the beach.

In high school, I loved swimming and represented the red white and black on the Carifta teams and in water polo. Curiosity about waterways (Santa Cruz and Caroni rivers, the Nariva swamp and all beaches and shorelines) took me to Tobago (from Charlotteville to Sandy Point) with my family. At university, I delved into the study of marine organisms.  I learned to snorkel and scuba dive in waters around Trinidad and Tobago. After a first degree, I returned to a research project on sea turtles in Tobago.

The master’s programme in marine biology at the University of Amsterdam, took me to the associated research institute CARMABI in Curaçao where I worked with teams monitoring the coral reefs. Through the University of Amsterdam came a research project on Heron Island in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef; which led to a relationship with the Global Change Institute. I was one of the first divers trained to operate the new underwater photographic equipment developed to capture images of ocean-scape, in particular the shallow coral reefs. I later accepted the offer to pursue PhD study at the University of Queensland.
The underwater camera developed for the XL Catlin Seaview Survey records images in a 360 degree array. Photo courtesy The Ocean Agency/ XL Catlin Seaview Survey

The XL Catlin Seaview Survey brought academics from the University of Queensland, communications and advertising and commercial interests, together with computer tech giants like Google, in a project to map coral reefs. The 2013 Caribbean Expedition recorded reefscapes along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef and selected islands in the Caribbean. That programme has provided thousands of images and videos of these reefscapes which are available for public information through the webpage

Information is the first step to dealing with climate change. The next new initiative of the Global Change Institute and The Ocean Agency, is “to identify and prioritize protection efforts on the coral reefs that are least vulnerable to climate change, and also have the greatest capacity to repopulate other reefs over time. Our aim is to catalyze the global action and investment necessary to save this critical ecosystem.”

The project is called 50 Reefs. Over the next months, 50 Reefs will identify what Sylvia Earle calls “hope spots” around the world.

According to the 50 Reefs webpage, this initiative comes at a perilous moment for coral reefs, as current estimates indicate that barely ten percent will survive by 2050. It is supported by a unique philanthropic coalition of innovators in business, technology and governments, led by Bloomberg Philanthropies with The Tiffany & Co. Foundation and The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. The aim is to prevent the worst economic, social, and environmental impacts of this enormous crisis. Without coral reefs, we could lose up to a quarter of the world’s marine biodiversity; and hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people would lose their primary source of food and livelihoods.
A bleached coral reef in the Maldives. Photo courtesy The Ocean Agency/XL Catlin Seaview Survey

 “This is an all hands on deck moment,” said Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Director of the Global Change Institute. “We are establishing the first global coalition of philanthropic, governmental and non-governmental organizations that will be
aimed at slowing the decline of the world’s coral reefs.”

“This initiative was developed after witnessing unimaginable loss of reefs over the last two years,” said Richard Vevers, founder of The Ocean Agency. “Even if the targets set by the Paris climate agreement are met, we will lose about 90 percent of our reefs by mid-century. 50 Reefs gives us hope that we can save enough of these surviving reefs to ensure they can bounce back over time.”

The 50 Reefs plan is shaped by what the XL Catlin Seaview Survey allowed us to see. In addition to the on-going scientific research, there will be a strong component of communications, engaging stakeholders and especially communities. Conservation teams will seek support from governments and organizations to enact necessary legislation, or to promote guidelines already in place.

In Trinidad and Tobago, we have Buccoo and other Tobago reefs that have been sources of benefit to fishing and coastal communities for at least a hundred years. Recommendations for conservation have been documented since the late 1960s and are still applicable today. The area was designated a marine protected area in the1970s but regulations and management practices remain less than adequate. 

Shouldn’t Buccoo reef and marine park also be protected, to become a location for coral regeneration over the next 30 years?

Coral bleaching in American Samoa in the Pacific Ocean: the photo on the left was taken in December 2014, the other in February 2015. Photo courtesy The Ocean Agency/XL Catlin Seaview Survey


  1. great work anjani, hope they put things in place to save what we have left.


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