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March 3, 2013

Coral comeback

Mats of algae and seaweed have shrouded the once thick coral in shallow reefs off Jamaica’s north coast. Warm ocean waters have bleached out the coral, and in a cascade of ecological decline, the sea urchins and plant-eating reef fish have mostly vanished, replaced by snails and worms that bore through coral skeletons.

Now, off the shores of Jamaica, as well as in Caribbean islands from Bonaire to St. Croix, conservationists are planting fast-growing coral species to try and turn things around by “seeding” reefs. The strategy has doubters, with one expert joking that prayer might be as effective, but conservationists say the problem is so catastrophic that inaction is not an option. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, live coral coverage on Caribbean reefs is down to an average of just 8 percent, from 50 percent in the 1970s.

Lenford Dacosta grew up in the north Jamaican fishing village of Oracabessa Bay and spear-fished the waters for most of his 46 years. Now he is part of a crew that tends to a small coral nursery in a fish sanctuary, hoping to revitalize the reef that sustained his village, whose shoreline is now dominated by ritzy resorts.

“I used to think that children would only hear about coral reefs and fish in books,” said Dacosta, expressing hope that his work will yield fruit.

Seascape Caribbean, the fledgling company that employs Dacosta and touts itself as the region’s first and only private coral restoration business, uses low-tech coral nurseries consisting of buoys and weights with small fragments of staghorn coral suspended from them on strings. The fragments grow on the strings until bits of tannish coral with the beginnings of antler-like branches are ready to be planted onto reefs. Other specialists grow coral fragments on concrete pedestals placed on the seabed.

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