Status of Dutch Caribbean Reefs
Following the Royal Palace Symposium in the Netherlands
in December 2016, and the harsh call to action by Professor
Jeremy Jackson (Scripps Institution for Oceanography) that,
if drastic action is not taken to protect them, our coral reefs
could disappear within the next 15 years, DCNA has spent the
past year collecting and collating all the available information
on the status of coral reefs in the Dutch Caribbean. This Special
Edition of BioNews, containing reviews of the status of coral
reefs on Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, Saba Bank, St. Eustatius and
St. Maarten, is the result of that work.
Coral reefs in the Wider Caribbean Region have suffered considerable
declines in health and abundance in recent decades with
serious declines in benthic coral communities and shifts from
coral to macroalgae dominated reefs. Coral reefs in the Dutch
Caribbean are not immune to regional trends and the effects of
global climate change and are also showing signs of distress.
Bonaire and Curaçao’s coral reefs have long been considered
some of the healthiest and most diverse in the Caribbean.
However, research spanning the past several decades reveals
an alarming trend with reduction in coral cover and species
composition and increases in macroalgae, turf algae and
Recent work providing the first evidence of coral reef resilience
in the Caribbean showed that, thanks to conservation measures
taken to protect Bonaire’s reefs, there have been signs of
recovery from the last severe bleaching event of 2010.
Indications of reef resilience, such as relative abundance in
juvenile reef-building coral species, have also been found on the
reefs of the Saba Bank.
Overfishing of reef grazers, particularly parrotfish, has been
singled out as the most damaging fisheries activity to threaten
the health of reefs. While parrotfish biomass has declined
around some Caribbean islands, Bonaire’s ban on parrotfish
catch in 2010 is proving to be a success. The average parrotfish
biomass of Bonaire’s leeward coast rank amongst the three
highest in the Caribbean, just above Curaçao which ranks fifth,
and may have helped Bonaire’s reefs recover more quickly from
the 2010 bleaching event.
In the Windward Islands of Saba and St. Eustatius, findings
show that the reefs are also under pressures from local, regional
and global stressors. First assessments of the status of St.
Maarten’s reef since Hurricane Irma show that the damage
from the category 5+ hurricane is significant.
The devastation caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in
September 2017 should serve as a wake up call to all of us concerned
about the future of our coral reefs and a reminder about
the potential for more and more severe weather events in the
future. Thermal stress has also become a considerable cause
for concern, with two severe bleaching events (2005 and 2010),
which caused extensive coral mortality amongst Caribbean
reefs and mounting concern in the scientific community about
the long-term impacts of ocean acidification.
Above all, the importance of reducing local stressors in order to
increase coral reef resilience cannot be underestimated. Local
stressors have been identified as the most significant drivers of
reef degradation throughout the Wider Caribbean, particularly
overfishing, introduced species, coastal development and
pollution associated with increases in tourism visitation and
local populations. The resulting increases in eutrophication and
sedimentation are highly detrimental to coral reef health.
The need to increase the resilience of our coral reefs has
never been more pressing. Coral reefs are marine biodiversity
hotspots that are not only invaluable for coastal protection but
also have a high economic value through associated tourism
and fisheries. Our islands are particularly dependent on the
health of the coral reefs due to our economic dependence on