Blessing in disguise for Buccoo Reef Marine Park

Soft corals at Buccoo Reef. PHOTO BY JONATHAN GOMEZ  - Jonathan Gomez
Soft corals at Buccoo Reef. PHOTO BY JONATHAN GOMEZ - Jonathan Gomez

MARINE scientist Shivonne Peters advocates seasonal closure of the Buccoo Reef Marine Protected Area, for recuperation and research, and calls for stricter management practices. The current closure of the park due to covid19 has brought another problem to light – poaching.

In TT, the covid19 pandemic has resulted in the closure of the nation’s beaches, rivers and waterways. It was therefore no surprise when the temporary closure of the Buccoo Reef Marine Park was announced from March 24. While the reason for this closure was dictated by the government’s decision to restrict public gathering, there is another tremendously positive impact. It allows this ecologically important area to recover from years of human activities, which have led to environmental stress and degradation. After decades of overuse, misuse and an overall lack of effective management, this period of closure may be exactly what the doctor ordered to return Buccoo reef to health.

Brain coral colony in the Buccoo Reef Marine Park. PHOTO BY SHIVONNE PETERS - Shivonne Peters

Marine areas worldwide are subject to temporary and seasonal closures. One of the most notable closures occurred in the Philippine island of Boracay. In 2017, over two million people visited Boracay; in April of 2018, the island was closed for a six-month period. With such remarkable visitor numbers, what could possibly be the reason for such drastic action? Government officials described the island as a cesspool and cited environmental issues related to sewage disposal, improper solid waste disposal and unregulated coastal development. A phased reopening was recommended along with several other initiatives including limiting the number of visitors to the island and an outright ban of party activities. The closure achieved the desired results, and Boracay Island is cleaner, safer and less crowded than previous years.

Notwithstanding the devastating impact on economies and business, especially in Tobago’s tourism sector, the closure of beaches, rivers and other marine areas can positively impact coastal ecosystems. With the start of the turtle nesting season in March, an absence of visitors to our beaches reduces the level of disturbance caused by human activities. In Florida, an increase in leatherback nesting along Juno beach is thought to be a direct result of beach closures due to covid19. The return of seabirds to once-overcrowded beaches in Peru is also attributed to an absence of visitors. Beaches and river systems also benefit from reduced waste which is often left behind in populated coastal areas used for recreational activities. Ultimately, like turtles, all other marine life inhabiting coastal areas will benefit from reduced human activities.

Buccoo reef. PHOTO BY SHIVONNE PETERS -

The closure of larger, more ecologically-diverse areas would certainly produce more tangible benefits. Habitats such as coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangroves provide crucial ecosystem functions such as the dissipation of wave energy, shoreline protection against erosion and nurseries for juvenile marine fauna. Buccoo Reef Marine Park, the only Marine Protected Area in TT, will undoubtedly benefit from this period of closure. Decreased boating and motorised craft activity mean less disturbance for marine life due to noise and less scarring of seagrasses caused by boat propellers. Fishing pressures – fishing is prohibited but still occurs – will also be reduced due to area closures. Studies indicate that reef closures offer protection to reproductive adult fishes, allow for increasing larval production and promote the spill-over effect.

In times of closure, fish stocks within and surrounding the Buccoo Reef increase. Coral reef colonies also benefit from reduced human activity. Improper dropping of boat anchors by some glass-bottom boat operators has caused severe damage to corals. Boating, particularly during low tide, also results in scarring of corals by propellers. Despite this damage caused by decades of unregulated activities, some colonies within the Marine Park are healthy and extensive. Recent reef surveys in Buccoo Reef have found Elkhorn coral colonies with diverse reef fish species of considerable sizes. Other healthy reef indicator species such as butterflyfishes, parrotfishes, spiny lobster and urchins were also observed in this area. The closure of the reef, based on scientific studies, would allow for an overall healthier and more productive Buccoo reef.

Unfortunately, some poachers are using this time of closure to heighten illegal fishing activities. They indiscriminately target ecologically-important species such as the queen conch and parrotfish. This further damages Buccoo reef and mitigates against full recovery, especially in light of projected climate change impact. Moreover, Tobago is highly dependent on the blue economy, a source of financial gain through numerous avenues which can revive the local economy post-covid19. This period provides the best opportunity in recent years to study the impact of closure on protected areas in TT. If and when the marine park re-opens, we would have the opportunity to collect scientific data for comparison with the data collected over the last two decades. Such information is crucial in informing strategies needed for efficient management of Tobago’s marine areas.

A healthy Elkhorn Coral colony in the Buccoo Reef Marine Park, Tobago. PHOTO BY SHIVONNE PETERS -

Although this may be perceived as a lost opportunity owing to the misguided efforts of a few, there is still time to make a difference in Buccoo reef’s future. Firstly, a permit system should be implemented to regulate and record access to the Marine Park; the system was proposed in the 2015 Buccoo Reef Marine Park user policy. Permit holders should adhere to such regulations as no overloading of vessels, no removal of marine life, anchoring only at designated areas and payment of an entry fee (to be used for park management).

Consistent scientific research should also play a greater role in ecological monitoring efforts. Attempts to control use of the area together with enforcement and research can change the current trajectory of a paradise lost towards a healthier, more resilient and sustainable Buccoo reef.

Shivonne M Peters is Managing Director of Seven Environmental, a consultancy company focused on the marine sector. She is currently a PhD candidate in Marine Sciences at the University of Trinidad and Tobago. For further information email sevenenvironmental@hotmail.com.

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"Blessing in disguise for Buccoo Reef Marine Park"

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