Wed | May 24, 2017

Setting record straight on coral reefs

Published:Friday | March 6, 2015 | 3:00 AM


I am writing to clarify the findings and presentation of the 2014 Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA) coral reef assessment following the misleading article that appeared in The Gleaner on March 4, 2015, headlined 'Portland Bight fish biomass extremely low'. Please note that I did not state that "citizens need to play their part in ensuring that they are aware of proper environmental practices".

An assessment of the coral reefs within the PBPA was carried out in July-December 2014, funded by a Waitt Foundation Rapid Ocean Conservation Grant to Dr Suzanne Palmer (UWI). Overall, there is reasonable live coral cover with reasonably healthy corals. There are also small areas of high coral cover with large coral outcrops.

Surveys recorded three coral species and two turtle species currently listed as critically endangered or endangered species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. As with most Caribbean coral reefs, there is considerable, but variable cover by macroalgae (seaweed). The long-spined sea urchin occurs in reasonable densities, though more are needed for more effective grazing of the macroalgae. Surveys reported very low fish biomass, but very high fish density because of large shoals of small fish.

We have compared all our data from the PBPA to a regional database that used the same methodology. The good news is that the coral reefs are in reasonable condition and near to regional averages. The exceptions are for fish biomass and fish size, which are extremely low across PBPA reefs.

However, the good news is that there are a lot of fish, and so, work needs to focus on allowing the fish to reach reproductive age so they can be effective grazers and to ensure sustainable fisheries.

At the national level, the PBPA reefs differ from the extensive fringing reefs of the north coast of Jamaica, as they are patch and small fore reefs in shallow waters with variable water clarity.


Reef health


Differences aside, we use the 2014 data on the Healthy Reefs ranking system to compare the PBPA reef health and find that they rank 'fair'. In 2013, the National Environment and Planning Agency carried out surveys (using a different methodology) in selected marine parks around Jamaica and reported that most of the reefs were ranked as 'poor'. PBPA coral reefs are clearly important marine habitats to Jamaica, and therefore, it is crucial that they are protected and managed.

Fish surveys were carried out along the mangrove prop roots of the Goat Islands and reported high densities of blue fry, grunts and snappers. Juvenile nurse sharks and breeding lobsters were also recorded. These areas are clearly important fish nursery grounds within the PBPA.

The reefs are in reasonable condition and the mangroves act as critical fish nursery grounds. Therefore, focus should be on: (1) maintaining and restoring coral reef habitats, and (2) restoring fish populations to ensure sustainable fisheries.

A public pamphlet of the results can be viewed via:


Coral Reef Scientist

Visiting Researcher, UWI