New methods are needed for the study of coral reefs, as they are changing rapidly. Satellite remote sensing has become a common method for benthic mapping with advances in satellites and sensors and as methods are devised to account for atmospheric and water-column effects. Images from the QuickBird satellite have proven useful in reef mapping. Sand was distinguished from coral with an overall accuracy of 75% on the shallow reef off of the Caribbean island of Bonaire. Coral and sand had user accuracies of 50% and 90%, respectively. Increased samples of field-collected data would further increase the accuracies of such classifications.
The island of Bonaire is a long-established Marine Protected Area (MPA), the reefs of which were extensively mapped in the early 1980s. Satellite remote sensing techniques were used to construct reef maps for 2008–2009. Metrics describing the spatial structure of coral habitat at the landscape scale – including coral cover, fragmentation, patch size and connectivity between patches – were calculated and compared between these two time periods. Changes were evaluated in and out of the MPAs and in areas exposed and sheltered from storm damage. Overall, coral cover has declined during the past three decades, being replaced by sand, but the decline has not been as drastic as elsewhere in the Caribbean. Fragmentation of the reef habitat has occurred, resulting in smaller and more disparate patches, but these changes were not associated with exposure along the coastline. However, total coral cover was maintained in sheltered areas, whereas it declined along exposed shorelines. Human protection of reefs by marine reserves had variable effects on coral cover and fragmentation. One of two no-diving marine reserves showed increases in coral cover accompanied by decreases in the number of patches of coral and an increase in the size of individual patches over the time period, while the second reserve exhibited the opposite trend. Advances in satellite remote sensing techniques allow for a more rapid assessment of changes in reefs at the landscape level, which can be used to identify spatial changes in the reef environment, including areas of coral decline.
The islands of Bonaire and Curaçao, Dutch Caribbean, were both mapped along their leeward coasts for dominant coral community and other benthic cover in the early 1980s. This mapping effort offers a unique baseline for comparing changes in the benthic community of the two islands since that time, particularly given the marked differences between the two islands. Bonaire is well-protected and completely surrounded by a marine protected area (MPA), which includes two no-diving marine reserves; additionally, Bonaire’s population is only around 15,000. In contrast, the island of Curaçao is home to 140,000 inhabitants and marine protection is limited, with a reef area of 600 ha established as a “paper” park (i.e., little enforcement).
Video transects collected by SCUBA over the reefs were collected on Bonaire in January of 2008; when compared to data from 1985, coral cover had declined in the shallowest portion of the reef (< 5 m) and was mostly the result of declines in Acropora spp., whereas head corals increased. Transects closest to the no-diving marine reserves showed higher coral cover and diversity than transects located farther from the reserves.
Satellite remote sensing techniques were used to create landscape-scale reef maps along the leeward coasts of both islands, which could differentiate areas of high hard coral cover (> 20%), predominantly sand (> 50%) and areas where hard coral and sand were mixed with soft corals, sea whips and marine plants. These modern maps (2007-09) were groundtruthed using the video data collected on Bonaire for accuracy and then compared to the early 1980s maps of the reefs on both islands.
Bonaire experienced declines in coral cover overall and the remaining coral was increasingly patchy; however, changes in patch characteristics were not significant over the time period, but status as a marine reserve and the sheltering of the shoreline did appear to buffer against coral loss. Surprisingly, the island of Curaçao did not experience a decline in total coral cover, but did become increasingly patchy, significantly more so than Bonaire. The Curaçao Underwater Park afforded no additional protection against coral loss or fragmentation than an adjacent unprotected area of reef.
The difference between the two islands in coral loss versus fragmentation has the potential for a unique natural experiment to study the effects of habitat fragmentation in the absence of overall habitat loss at the landscape scale. The Bonaire National Marine Park could benefit by restricting visitors to its most frequented dive sites by increasing the cost of entry into a tiered pay system, thus generating more income for education and management of the park, as well as deterring some divers from these overused sites. Satellite remote sensing-derived maps are useful for rapid reef mapping and can be utilized for comparison to ancillary maps created by more traditional methods. Satellite-derived maps can only distinguish benthic habitats coarsely (3-4 habitat classes) and are only as reliable as their source data, they benefit greatly from fieldwork to determine depth, geographic location, and benthic habitat cover in real time.