October 28, 2009

St Vincent Hosts Reef Check Training for Tobago Cays Marine Park & Coast Guard

By Reef Check Executive Director Gregor Hodgson

During the second week of September, I had the pleasure of leading a Reef Check training of Tobago Cays Marine Park staff and the Coast Guard from St. Vincent and the Grenadines on Union Island. The training was organized with the help of Hyacinth Armstrong of Buccoo Reef Trust in Tobago and Georgina Bustamante with funding from CaMMESEC (which is much easier to say than the Coastal and Marine Management and Education in the South Eastern Caribbean project). St Vincent is comprised of a group of islands located at the southern end of the Caribbean, just over 100 miles north of Venezuela. Their closest neighbors are Grenada, St. Lucia and Barbados. St. Vincent Island is the largest of the more than 30 islands that comprise the nation, covering roughly 150 square miles. Some of the better known islands include Bequia and Mustique – the hang out of the rich and famous.

St Vincent has a fascinating and complex history of native people, Africans, and more recently Europeans from a variety of countries. The active Soufriere volcano has erupted twice in the past decades, killing thousands.

St Vincent has one of the most diverse marine protected areas in the Caribbean, the Tobago Cays Marine Park (TCMP). Originally gazetted (declared) in 1997, TCMP has gone through several management planning processes over the years.

The islands and reefs of the Tobago Cays Marine Park (Photo: Paul Gravel, SVG Air, with labels by Espeut, 2006).

Because there is no major international airport in St Vincent, the country is not on the major global tourist track. Many visitors arrive by sailboat and are from Europe. The annual number of visitors is less than may arrive in one day at a major destination such as Cancun. Therefore there is a lot of room to spread out and enjoy a beach or dive without disturbance, and the human impacts are relatively less. That being said, an analysis by the training group of human impacts indicated that poaching is a problem that is difficult to solve. During the training a couple of spearfishermen were caught poaching inside the park and were fined. The fishermen complained that the fine was too big while the park staff felt the fine was too low to deter repeat offenses.

Both the Coast Guard and the Park Rangers were extremely skilled in the water and picked up the Reef Check monitoring methods very quickly. While many areas of the park showed high coral cover and some now-rare elkhorn coral, the numbers and size of high value fish was low. An extra day was spent designing a monitoring plan for the park that could be carried out every year. Reef Check will continue to support the hard work of TCMP staff to conserve their corner of the Caribbean.

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A well-known cruising destination many tourists arrive in the Grenedines by sailboat or rent a boat upon arrival. During the peak season this can create sewage impacts on some reefs in the park. Pristine beaches are common in the Grenadines.
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Large stands of dead Elkhorn coral Acropora palmata are common throughout the Caribbean, including in TCMP, however, thankfully some healthy colonies of living Elkhorn have now colonized these graveyards. The Park Rangers and Coast Guard were very comfortable in the water and enjoyed the challenge of learning the Reef Check indicators.
TCMP Rangers and Coast Guard worked well together and gained a better understanding of their roles in marine management during the training class.