March 30, 2011

Haiti’s Reefs Most Overfished in the World

Research Assistant Edward Beucler, Jessie Haspil, Einar Madsen, Philippe Bayard of Haiti Audubon.

By Reef Check’s Executive Director Dr. Gregor Hodgson

In February, we completed our first round of surveys of Haiti’s reefs – the first ever comprehensive survey of coral reefs in the country. The work is part of a 3-year MacArthur Foundation-funded Marine Resource Management Project to build conservation capacity. The team included a Haitian marine biologist, Erika Pierre-Louise and a Creole-speaking graduate student from Harvard, Edward Beucler.

We carried out two types of surveys – manta tows for rapid large area surveys and standard Reef Check protocol surveys. Using this mix, we were able to survey about 120 km of coastal reef. The initial surveys covered the coast around La Gonave – a large offshore island, and near St. Marc on the mainland. The high biodiversity reefs feature a full complement of Caribbean fish and invertebrate species, and the reef structure still provides excellent fish habitat. What was astonishing was the high diversity and quality of Haiti’s coral reef structures and the lack of fish.

Haiti’s coral reefs must have been truly world class in the 1970s with dramatic drop-offs and huge stands of coral with high vertical relief. At this point, Haiti’s reefs are hanging on — with some large stands of the Elkhorn coral, now on the US Endangered Species List, but we saw almost no food fish of reproductive age. The largest Reef Check indicator fish we observed was about 6 inches (15 cm) long. Every 100 m along the reefs, we observed a large fish trap, fishing net, spear or line fisherman. What is amazing is that almost all fishing in Haiti is still done from paddle or sailboats.

Although Haitian fishermen travel only by sailboat, 100 m long nets such as this one are commonly deployed. Other types of fishing include spear, handline and the use of traps. Haitian reefs are severely overfished.

Our survey results indicate that Haiti’s coral reefs are the most overfished in the world. In a classic “fishing down the food chain” scenario, overfishing has also destabilized the entire coral reef ecosystem by removing herbivorous (plant-eating) fish – allowing fast-growing algae to overgrow and kill adult corals while blocking settlement of coral larvae. As a result, while the reef structure is intact, living coral typically occupies less than 10% of most reefs surveyed while algae and sponge occupy over 50%.

There are three objectives of the project: 1) survey the reefs of Haiti, 2) train local teams of Reef Check EcoDivers who can regularly survey Haiti’s reefs, 3) based on the survey data, recommend to the government the establishment of a network of marine protected areas. Haiti is the only country in the Caribbean without a marine protected area.

Healthy coral reefs can provide up to 35 metric tons of fish per square kilometer, whereas overfished reefs such as those in Haiti provide a tiny fraction of this amount. By setting aside areas of coral reef where reef fish can grow and breed without disturbance, more fish and larger fish will produce millions of new young fish every year which would increase the available fish supply for Haitians.

Even before the earthquake, Haitians were short of food with 58% of the population under-nourished and some children reportedly being fed mud cakes seasoned with salt. The 10 million people of Haiti make up 25% of the total population of the Caribbean and are growing rapidly at 2.5% annually. Haiti ranked 148th of 179 countries on the United Nations Development Programme Human Development Index prior to the earthquake; 76 percent of Haitians live on less than $2 USD per day. Haiti imports 48 percent of its food.

Unfortunately, despite millions of dollars spent on environmental work in Haiti by aid agencies, almost all of it has focused on terrestrial issues, neglecting the potential that improved management of coral reefs and associated fisheries could play in improving food supply and nutrition. Haiti is an island country surrounded by coral reefs. Most experts have assumed that Haiti’s reefs were destroyed by sedimentation long ago. Sedimentation does affect some large areas of reef.

The project has been generously supported by Philippe Bayard of Haiti Audubon Society and Einar Madsen. We are very grateful for the wonderful hospitality, advice, accommodation and boat time.

Video clips from the surveys can be found on our YouTube page.

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Over 100 km of reef was surveyed using the “manta tow” technique wherein a marine biologist is towed behind a boat at slow speed. Every two minutes the boat stops and the biologist writes down a quantitative estimate of how much living coral, sand, algae and other seabed types were observed. By tipping the manta board forward, the diver can carry out a controlled dive to about 20 feet (6 meters) depth. The elkhorn coral, Acropora palmata, formed the major reef zone closest to shore throughout the Caribbean until the 1970s, and then was killed off during the 1980s. Large colonies such as this are very rare.
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Haiti’s reefs show a high diversity of corals, and the reef structure is quite varied providing excellent fish habitat, but the reefs are often like ghost towns with no fish at all. Edward Beucler records data on an underwater slate during a survey following a 100 m long transect line — a giant survey tape.