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Robert Curley

Caribbean Corals Endangered, Along with Dive Tourism

By December 11, 2012

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Cayman Islands coralAs I sit here in the Northeast during another depressing 60-degree day in December (remember when we used to have snow, kids?), it seems like a good time to say a few words about global climate change and the future of Caribbean tourism. The big news last week was that the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is proposing to add 66 species of coral in the Caribbean and Pacific to the endangered-species list.

In the Caribbean, NOAA is proposing to list five coral species as endangered and two as threatened, as well as reclassifying two other species from threatened to endangered. These include elkhorn coral, pillar coral, rough cactus coral, mountainous star coral, branching coral, and boulder star coral (see photos).

Don Stewart, co-founder of Bonaire's famous marine park -- which contains some of the healthiest corals remaining in the world -- calls coral reefs "the canaries of the sea," telling Conde Nast Traveler recently: "When the reefs die, the ocean is in big trouble." The article points out that the reefs are under assault on a variety of fronts, from warming waters to overfishing to pollution. The only silver lining: most of these problems, while manmade, also are correctable.

"If you need a reminder of what the future should look like, come to Bonaire," writes Conde Nast's Patrick Symmes. "The national marine park created in 1979 was comprehensive, setting aside thousands of acres of reef to a depth of two hundred feet as a protected zone. And the park came about only after 15 years or so of coral conservation efforts that pioneered no-take rules for fishermen and divers and bans on spearfishing and dropping and dragging anchors. Today, Bonaire's corals are largely intact and are the basis of the island's tourism industry. In survey after survey, divers rate Bonaire the Caribbean's top dive destination of those reefs."

Other Caribbean islands need to make similar commitments. As Kevin Edmonds recently noted in a column titled "The Other Side of Paradise," thedive tourism and fisheries industries in the Caribbean are worth a combined $3.1 billion to $4.6 billion annually. But no live corals mean no fish, and nobody is going to pay to dive the bleached white bones of dead reefs. I grow weary of seeing colorful images of coral in tourist brochures only to arrive in a destination to find scenes of desolation. Caribbean divers should not be reduced to searching for old anchors and other manmade debris on the sea floor because all of the natural beauty has vanished.

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(Photo Cayman Islands Tourism)

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