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  • Writer's pictureMolly Cornwell

Caribbean Coral Crisis

The devastating impact of Coral bleaching in The Caribbean

Coral reefs are the bustling metropolises of the underwater world, harbouring a wealth of biodiversity and serving as vital habitats for marine life. Over 4,000 fish species and a staggering 25% of all marine life are estimated to rely on these vibrant ecosystems at some point in their life cycle. However coral bleaching, a devastating process exacerbated by rising sea temperatures, are putting these essential ecosystems and the communities that depend on them, at risk. The direct result of stress placed on reefs due to environmental changes, such as fluctuations in temperature, is the occurrence of bleaching, where coral expels its colourful, symbiotic algae, leaving the coral tissue white and vulnerable to disease. Without this algae, the coral's vibrant beauty fades, weakening the reef and making it more susceptible to damage and predation. The subsequent decline in the number of species that rely on coral reefs for food and shelter can have catastrophic impacts on the food chain and ecosystems, threatening the survival of marine life. Despite being home to one of the world’s largest and most diverse coral reef systems, the Caribbean has lost 50% of its coral reefs since 2005. Over the last 30 years, this area has experienced five major bleaching events, each becoming more and more frequent and intense, posing profound impacts on the wildlife that inhabit these spaces. Species ranging from giant sharks and whales to small fish and invertebrates lose their food sources, homes and even nursery grounds. One of the most effected species experiencing the negative impacts of coral bleaching are Reef Sharks.

As top predators in the food chain, they play a crucial role in regulating the population and heath of the coral reef ecosystems. When coral beaching occurs, Reef Sharks can’t get the nutrients they need to survive from the coral, and so their population depletes leaving the reefs, and its remaining population, increasingly vulnerable to damage and predation.

The decline in the fish population in areas that have been affected by coral bleaching are not only devastating for the animals that live in these ecosystems, but communities that rely on them as crucial pillars of their livelihoods. Island populations that lean heavily on fishing as a primary source of food and income are experiencing increasing economical and health impacts, as well as losing integral parts of the geographic culture. Beautiful coral reefs attract tourists from all over the world with their vibrant colours and diverse marine life for snorkelling and diving. But when bleaching ensues, a pale and lifeless cast of the reef is left behind. This devastating phenomenon threatens not only loss of revenue from fishing but also the livelihoods of local people whose economies depend on tourism. The loss of revenue from reduced tourist activity can cripple communities that rely on these precious ecosystems. For indigenous communities in the Caribbean, the ocean is more than just a source of income; it’s a way of life. The loss of coral reefs at the heart of their culture threatens to disturb the traditions and practices that have sustained them for generations.

As climate change continues to devastate these coral reefs and the lives that depend on them, it also leaves the communities around them more at risk of the continued effects of global warming such as storms and rising sea levels. Coral reefs act as natural storm barriers, but when they are destroyed by bleaching, they lose their productivity and cannot sustain the growth rates needed to provide adequate shoreline protection, losing their ability to offer efficient protection against dangerous waters. As weather around the world becomes more extreme and unpredictable due to climate change, protection against natural disasters is imperative for small communities who don’t necessarily have the resources to rebuild when significant damage occurs.

For fishing villages who have previously been able to rely upon the natural protection of coral reefs, the devastated reefs will no longer be able to stand up against dangerous weather, leading to the possibility of entire communities being decimated by a single storm. For the people who live in these areas, the choice of leaving behind their culture and heritage for a safer landscape is not one they always have the luxury of making themselves. The poor economic opportunities of the fishing industry in an area that has been suffering with the effects of coral bleaching for decades means that they may not even be able to afford to relocate. This leaves them with minimal choices, the best of which is that the reefs are somehow able to heal over time. The Nature Conservancy, a global non-profit organisation, has taken on the challenge of making this happen. They have begun the process of guiding effective coral restoration and protection by introducing new ways to enhance reef recovery and accelerate coral reproduction in the Caribbean. Using modern and refined approaches, they have launched ‘Coral Innovation Hubs’ for large-scale coral breeding and nurseries for restoration. The experts are also mapping coral reef habitats across the Caribbean on a massive scale, studying how reefs can withstand the effects of climate change to prioritise the protection of the most vulnerable areas. Their ultimate goal is to improve the resilience of these delicate ecosystems to global warming and ensure their long-term safety.

But further action must be taken to prevent coral bleaching and restore these critical ecosystems for future generations. Both individuals and governments can take several measures to help lessen the effects of coral bleaching, the first of which is decreasing our carbon footprint is a crucial first step. Carbon emissions are one of the primary causes of climate change, which raises ocean temperatures and instigates coral bleaching. By reducing our carbon footprint, we can slow the rate of warming and lessen the severity and frequency of bleaching events. Individuals and industries can reduce their

use of fossil fuels, such as oil, gas and coal, to cut emissions, which is achievable by utilising renewable energy sources. At home, reducing personal consumption by insulating homes, making the most of alternative modes of travel besides driving, and using energy efficient hacks to cut down usage are some of the best ways to have a positive impact on the climate crisis. Governments can implement necessary policies to reduce global emissions, including fossil fuel regulations, carbon budgets/limits, emissions trading schemes and incentives to switch to renewable energy sources. By taking these actions and joining forces to reduce our carbon footprint, we can help slow the rate of climate change and minimise coral bleaching events. The fate of our coral reefs is in our hands. A collective effort from organisations, industries, governments and individuals like you is required to prevent the devastating effects of coral bleaching. Every small action counts, and by choosing to take the bus instead of driving, you too, are contributing to prevent future coral bleaching.

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