Speaking for the ocean

Snorkelling rocky reefs around Rocky Point, Mt Irvine. - Photo by Anjani Ganase
Snorkelling rocky reefs around Rocky Point, Mt Irvine. - Photo by Anjani Ganase

From the frontline of research on coral reefs around Tobago, Dr Anjani Ganase is seeing how human activities on shore affect life in the ocean. Here, she makes an appeal to consider five gifts for a healthy ocean.

World Oceans Day (June 8) was last Saturday, but maybe we should start thinking of our ocean every day, or at least for the month of June. Here are my five wishes for the ocean around Trinidad and Tobago. These confront the five main challenges that our marine ecosystems face. Here are some things that we can do as individuals, communities and a country to protect our piece of the ocean.

Protect our marine biodiversity by law: TT is home to 11 environmental sensitive species, including five species of marine turtles, and three environmentally-sensitive areas –all of which are terrestrial and none in Tobago. What do we know about our sensitive marine ecosystems?

While the Buccoo Reef Marine Park has been proposed as an environmentally-sensitive area in the past, it is meant to be protected under the marine park bill, yet no enforced management plan exists. The ecological interactions of the Buccoo reef, seagrass meadows and the mangroves of Bon Accord create a marine nursery and biodiversity hotspot for resident and visiting marine life.

Exploring seagrass beds of Bon Accord Lagoon. - Photo by Anjani Ganase

All around Tobago, there are a number of reef-building coral species that dominate the island’s marine reefscape and are crucial habitat-providers to local marine wildlife.

Many of them are declared (critically) endangered by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) because of the recent decimation of populations by disease and marine heatwaves throughout the Caribbean. These species include the critically-endangered branching elkhorn, staghorn and pillar corals, the endangered mountainous star and boulder star corals, and the critically-endangered massive starlet coral, symmetrical brain coral and the grooved brain coral.

These can be classified as environmentally-sensitive species, given their critical importance to Tobago’s marine ecology as habitat-providers that, in turn, support livelihoods, and the existing and escalating threats they face.

Appropriate marine management (supported by regulations for environmentally-sensitive species) can limit human activities, especially during sensitive times, such as coral spawning and recruitment periods with benefits to the species in many areas.

Account for all marine activities: The passing of the integrated coastal zone management (ICZM) policy framework last year now governs enforcement of coastal and marine policies and plans, which are only slowly coming into play.

The reality is that most marine ecosystems on Tobago are extremely sensitive to coastal development. The removal of coastal vegetation that buffers run-off and replacement with impermeable concrete elevates the level of pollutants – chemicals, oils and sediment – into surrounding marine habitats, thereby smothering and polluting corals, seagrasses and benthic organisms. Chronic influxes result in infections and disease, bleaching and death when it comes to corals.

Currently, no legislature or plan exists to supervise development that aggravates the high sensitivities of the marine ecosystem. While the certificate of environmental clearance process seeks to find the best outcome for sustainable development that includes mitigation and management to safeguard surrounding flora and fauna.

However, there is no enforcement of compliance or administration of penalties when measures are breached.

Building marine stewards - virtually diving on Tobago’s coral reefs, The Maritime Ocean Collection Road Show. - Photo by Anjani Ganase

There are areas where coastal development and coral reef habitats cannot co-exist (for example, development in the mangrove area of Bon Accord Lagoon). Other scenarios would require sophisticated management of land clearing and pollution control of all run-off from roads, buildings and drains. These measures do not exist on the island. Furthermore, they are also required for the protection of the marine space.

This is why the implementation of the Integrated coastal zone management (ICZM) policy is important for marine spatial planning. Areas must be demarcated and designated for sustainable development, community use, recreational activities or conservation. It is not too late to be mindful of the sensitivity of marine ecosystems, considering their importance to culture and the economy.

Let’s manage our waste: Plastic pollution is the most obvious and unsightly waste problem on our islands, but there are other waste issues that do more harm.

Unlike other countries that depend on tourism and pristine-looking environments to support the economy – Jamaica, Barbados or Bermuda – we are accustomed to expecting garbage in coastal and marine areas to be carried away with rain and disappear under the waves. The bigger issue is the pollution that every household discharges directly into our rivers and out into the ocean.

Every rainy season, the Maraval River – turned box drain – is attached to several storm drains and household canals where chemicals, oils, dirt and garbage are flushed out to sea.

On both islands it is part of our infrastructure and we do not think of the consequences to our rivers and marine flora and fauna. Household detergents and fertilisers cause eutrophication in rivers and on our reefs and bays. Chemicals such as malathion to control mosquitoes, herbicides, weedicides etc, also affect freshwater and marine life, either directly killing or impairing biological functions such as growth, reproduction and producing malformations.

We must change our infrastructure to treat grey water and recycle waste water before putting back into the natural environment.

Explore and conserve: TT is responsible for an economic exclusion zone that is 15 times our combined landmass. We’ve spent over 100 years exploiting oil and gas reserves with little exploration or studies to understand the ecosystems that occur in our deep-sea backyard and how such long-term activities are affecting it.

TT is in a unique location at the edge of the continental shelf along the margin of the Caribbean Sea. The paths of many migratory marine mammals, fish and shark species cross our waters, and more research is urgently needed to understand what exists in our oceanic backyard and how we may benefit from such knowledge. This will create other opportunities outside the extractive energy sector.

Become an ocean steward: The people of TT benefit from the ocean every day. We have the ocean to thank for our stable climate, beautiful vistas, our weekends at the beach, not to mention food and some industries.

We must not continue to treat the ocean as an endless resource or the away place for our waste. We urgently need to understand and respect our marine environment. Conservation is an activity that should engage individuals, community, business and the nation.

Think about what you wash down your drains and how much waste you dispose of at home.

Apart from waste management in your workplace or school, get the community involved in generating eco-solutions. Question and hold governments and businesses accountable for their waste. Lobby for the use of reusable bags, bottles and utensils. Lobby for the government to lead in reducing its waste. National management of waste by sorting and composting will reduce what goes to the landfill by 32 per cent (Beetham), while plastic reduction and recycling can also reduce the amount of landfill. Finally, learn about your ocean. Learn to swim, volunteer with environmental NGOs, connect with local researchers.


"Speaking for the ocean"

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