Sat, Sep 21, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Coral gardeners bring back Jamaica’s reefs, piece by piece

When fish populations began to collapse two decades ago, something had to change, and once it became clear that a no-fishing zone actually helped populations rebound, it became easier to build community support

By Christina Larson  /  AP, OCHO RIOS, Jamaica

Illustration: Kevin Sheu

Everton Simpson squinted at the Caribbean from his motorboat, scanning the dazzling bands of color for hints of what lies beneath.

Emerald green indicates sandy bottoms, sapphire blue lies above seagrass meadows and deep indigo marks coral reefs.

That was where he was headed.

He steered the boat to an unmarked spot that he knows as the “coral nursery.”

“It’s like a forest under the sea,” he said, strapping on blue flippers and fastening his tank before tipping backward into the azure waters.

He swam down almost 8m carrying a pair of metal shears, fishing line and a plastic crate.

On the ocean floor, small coral fragments dangled from suspended ropes, like socks hung on a laundry line.

Simpson and other divers tend to this underwater nursery as gardeners mind a flower bed — slowly and painstakingly plucking off snails and fireworms that feast on immature coral.

When each stub grows to about the size of a human hand, Simpson collects them in his crate to individually “transplant” onto a reef, a process akin to planting each blade of grass in a lawn separately.

Even fast-growing coral species add just a few centimeters a year and it is not possible to simply scatter seeds.

A few hours later, at a site called Dickie’s Reef, Simpson dived again and used bits of fishing line to tie clusters of staghorn coral onto rocky outcroppings — a temporary binding until the coral’s limestone skeleton grows and fixes itself onto the rock. The goal is to jump-start the natural growth of a coral reef, and so far it is working.

Almost everyone in Jamaica depends on the sea, including Simpson, who lives in a modest house he built himself near the island’s northern coast.

The energetic 68-year-old has reinvented himself several times, but has always made a living from the ocean.

Once a spear fisherman and later a scuba-diving instructor, Simpson started working as a “coral gardener” two years ago — part of grassroots efforts to bring Jamaica’s coral reefs back from the brink.

Coral reefs are often called “rainforests of the sea” for the astonishing diversity of life they shelter.

Just 2 percent of the ocean floor is filled with coral, but the branching structures — shaped like everything from reindeer antlers to human brains — sustain a quarter of all marine species.

Clown fish, parrotfish, groupers and snappers lay eggs and hide from predators in the reef’s nooks and crannies, and their presence draws eels, sea snakes, octopuses and even sharks.

In healthy reefs, jellyfish and sea turtles are regular visitors.

With fish and coral, it is a codependent relationship — the fish rely upon the reef structure to evade danger and lay eggs, and they also eat up the coral’s rivals.

Life on the ocean floor is like a slow-motion competition for space, or an underwater game of musical chairs.

Tropical fish and other marine animals, such as black sea urchins, munch on fast-growing algae and seaweed that might otherwise outcompete the slow-growing coral for space. When too many fish disappear, the coral suffers — and vice versa.

After a series of natural disasters and those of human origin in the 1980s and 1990s, Jamaica lost 85 percent of its once-bountiful coral reefs. Meanwhile, fish catches declined to one-sixth of what they had been in the 1950s, pushing families that depend on seafood closer to poverty.

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