January 27, 2010

Haiti Earthquake and Coral Reefs

By Reef Check Executive Director Dr. Gregor Hodgson    
Photos: Krishna Desai


The earthquake in Haiti has been a huge tragedy with perhaps 200,000 lost and many more injured. What has not been discussed is the status of coral reefs in Haiti. Were they damaged by the earthquake, and if so will this affect the long term food supply for Haitians? Long time Transect Line readers will recall the dramatic earthquake and tsunami that affected Aceh, Indonesia and many other countries in late 2004. Reef Check was the first conservation organization on scene and sent back the first photos of tilted islands and large areas of exposed dead reef.

The problem in Haiti is that very little is known about the reefs. Reef Check has been partnering with a local conservation group in Haiti since 2005 and was preparing for field surveys and training when the earthquake hit. Haiti’s reefs have a large potential to help supply protein to the hungry population.

Haiti occupies the western half of Hispaniola Island with a population of over 9 million (25% of the Caribbean). It is the poster child of poverty in the western hemisphere with a per capita GDP of $1300, and environmental degradation. 80% of Haitians live under the poverty line and 54% in abject poverty with 70% of the labor force lacking regular employment.

Fringing coral reefs are found along most of the 1829km long coast with a barrier reef in the north.  Very little is known about Haiti’s coral reefs. Reef Check surveys carried out in 2002 with the help of RC Jamaica indicated that despite heavy impacts, coral reefs in the Arcadine/La Gonave area were still in relatively good condition with up to 50% cover, and included large stands of the endangered Elkhorn Coral, Acropora palmata.


The Reefs at Risk in the Caribbean (2004) by World Resources Institute rated all the reefs around Haiti to be threatened by human activities especially overfishing, poison fishing, watershed-based sources of sediment and pollution. Extensive land clearing and poor agricultural practices have led to dramatic erosion problems threatening over 90% of the reefs. Haiti’s coastal resources are the most heavily exploited and poorly managed in the Caribbean, but are the main source of livelihood and sustenance for an estimated 30,000 fishers and their families. Fish also provide 50% of the protein for Haitian people. Fishers target mainly lobster, conch, and reef fishes using spearfishing, light fishing at night, and poisons (chlorine). Many of these activities are illegal, but law enforcement is limited. Without any conservation training or Marine Protected Areas, Haiti will remain in a downward spiral of overexploitation of reefs and reduced ability of reefs to provide protein or employment.

In 2010, Reef Check will again partner with the Haitian NGO, Fondation pour la Protection de la Biodiversité and Reef Check Dominican Republic to implement a project to establish the first MPA in Haiti. Reef Check has a very strong coral reef monitoring and conservation program in the Dominican Republic, the other half of Hispaniola. RC DR is enthusiastic about assisting Haiti to improve marine conservation. RC DR is currently co-managing the La Caleta MPA near Santo Domingo so there will be good opportunities for cross-training.

If you would like to help Reef Check help improve reefs in Haiti so as to increase food supply and jobs, please consider a donation to our Haiti program.