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U.S. Exhibit Highlights Bahamian Reefs - WSJ
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Posted by:Jul 29th 2003, 01:07:33 pm
Fig Tree News TeamJuly 29, 2003 - 08:39
U.S. Exhibit Highlights Plight Of Bahamas' Reefs

One of the latest theories about reef destruction is dust from the Sahara Desert, which is thought to produce algal infestation, coral diseases and massive sea urchin die-offs in the Caribbean.

The Wall Street Journal wrote last week about New York's celebrated American Museum of Natural History featuring a 40-ton chunk of the Andros barrier reef collected during a series of expeditions in the 1920s and '30s.

The museum's Hall of Ocean Life recently underwent a $25-million makeover, and the two-storey Andros reef diorama is one of its stellar attractions.

Visitors on the lower level get an underwater view of the reef, while those on the walkway above get a surface view of the exposed reef at low tide and a nearby cay with flamingos.

The surface vista was painted by eminent wildlife artist Francis Lee Jacques, who died in 1969, and had been hidden for the past 30 years. It has now been painstakingly restored.

"Today of course, removing sections from a living coral reef would be unthinkable, but in fact the one off Andros has become so degraded that we are lucky to have this snapshot of it from healthier times," the Journal wrote.

It is true that the Andros reef and most other reefs around the world are threatened or endangered. According to the museum's web site (, "many of the corals in the Andros barrier reef the world's third largest are no longer alive, only their limestone skeletons remain."

Scientists cite many causes for this including polluted runoff from nearby land, dredging, over-harvesting of fish that help balance the reef ecosystem, bleaching to catch lobster and fish, and rising water temperatures that kill the symbiotic algae that give the reefs much of their colour and provide food for the corals themselves.
One of the latest theories about reef destruction is dust from the Sahara Desert, which is thought to produce algal infestation, coral diseases and massive sea urchin die-offs in the Caribbean.

Satellites have tracked huge dust clouds from Africa across the Atlantic, where they fertilize the waters of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico with iron, which kicks off blooms of toxic algae, known as red tides. The dust also carries bacterial, viral and fungal spores and can cause skin and respiratory problems in people.

As one example of evidence, the United States Geological Survey says that "a fungus affecting sea fans throughout the Caribbean has been identified as a land-based fungus that does not reproduce in sea water...
Dust may be a viable explanation for the plight of coral reefs throughout the Caribbean."

In addition to the rich marine environment the corals create and support, reefs protect coastal areas from powerful waves that sweep in from the ocean. Waves contain tremendous energy and can do immense damage to an unprotected coastline.

The American Museum of Natural History was one of the pioneers of marine research in the Bahamas and is still involved in the seas around Andros through its Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation. The Centre is working on two innovative research projects: a habitat-mapping project of the Andros reef; and a regional-scale "biocomplexity" initiative to study complex factors that affect marine reserve networks.

In fact, the museum was involved in the expedition that led to the historic creation of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park in 1959, the first of its kind in the world. This led in turn to the formation of the Bahamas National
Trust, which now administers 19 national parks throughout the country, including land and sea areas of Andros.

According to the museum's web site, "Despite the global significance of the Andros reef, and the recent establishment of a new land and sea park there, relatively little is known about the biodiversity and function of this ecosystem."
To help fill this gap, the museum's researchers are combining remote sensing with underwater species surveys to develop sea floor-habitat maps that will help conservation efforts.

A recent poll by the museum showed that more than half of the scientists and the public surveyed expected "major impacts" on living conditions during their children's lifetimes as a result of biodiversity losses. And most scientists believe we already know enough about the threats to justify major international efforts to prevent further loss.

The Nassau grouper is a good local example. This is one of the most popular food fish in Bahamian waters, and it is commercially extinct virtually everywhere else. To breed, grouper school in large "aggregations" at set times and locations, where they are an easy catch.
But kill off these breeding groups and there will be no more grouper.

Conservationists have long recommended that the government set up no-take marine reserves (such as the Exuma park) and implement closed seasons for grouper and other commercial fish.

According to a recent comment from Captain Joel Moxey, "we are running clean out of our primary marine resource, more notably the seafood varieties that Bahamians so readily identify with culturally."
Experts agree that unless action is taken soon, Bahamians will see less and smaller fish, which will become more and more costly.

"From all the local information we have gathered over the last 10 years, and from the experience of other countries in the Caribbean and the Atlantic, we know we are in grave danger of losing our fishery," wrote Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation chief Sir Nick Nuttall recently.
"Can we persuade our government to react before it is too late?"

BREEF urges immediate action to stabilise the situation. Its recommendations include banning lane snapper hauling before the next full moon, stopping the taking or sale of grouper from November to February, a ban on conch exports for the whole of 2004, and an extension of next year's crawfish closed season to Sept. 1 to protect egg-bearing females.

"The government should hold a public inquiry from October to December this year to recommend long-term measures to put in place from April, 2004," Sir Nick said. "All interested parties will be free to make their contributions in writing or in person."

By Larry Smith, The Nassau Guardian

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