An environmental disaster is unfolding before our eyes, but it is receiving far too little attention and response.
Historic heat waves this summer are causing a massive coral bleaching event of a scale probably not seen since 2005. Much of the bleached coral will die if it isn’t dead already.
The bleaching, so called because corals — a type of invertebrate animal — turn white shortly before death, is a harbinger of much wider environmental damage.
Indeed, the only reason that the 2023 bleaching didn’t affect even larger volumes of coral is that the territory has precious little left after the 2005 event and other stresses including Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, the recent lionfish invasion, and various human impacts like runoff and irresponsible anchoring.
Coral death has obvious fallout for all sectors of the tourism sector, from cruise ships and the yachting industry to dive operators, snorkel tours and fishing charters.
But beyond the direct hit to many businesses’ wallets, reefs underpin the wider marine environment and support fish, sea turtles, marine mammals and countless other organisms.
They also help protect the shoreline from large waves — which means their destruction could be deadly for people as well as marine life.
Heat waves are probably the result of climate change, an issue largely out of the Virgin Islands’ control. But there are plenty of local actions the VI can take to help protect all the corals that remain.
To start, this means getting serious about stopping human impacts. For example, sediment runoff from construction can literally smother corals, and even slightly cloudy water is bad for their health.
Developers, then, must work much harder to mitigate this phenomenon by installing silt curtains and taking other preventive measures that are too often ignored. Meanwhile, government agencies including the Town and Country Planning Department and the Building Authority must work much harder to enforce existing rules designed to minimise ill effects from development.
Secondly, workboats, fishers, yacht companies and vessel captains of all types must ensure they aren’t harming corals with their anchors. This seems like a simple idea, but in practice there are far too many reports of sailors acting irresponsibly and damaging large swathes of reefs by anchoring on them. Charter companies can do their part by continuing to educate their customers.
As soon as possible, the government also must end the longstanding practice of dumping untreated sewage directly into the ocean from land.
And on the water, regulations must be tightened and enforced to control sewage dumped from yachts and other boats. As government has promised repeatedly over the years, a reliable system must be established to give boaters plenty of opportunity to pump out their waste for treatment. In the meantime, vessels should follow the best practice of discharging their waste out at sea, where there is a better chance of dilution.
Legislators also must fulfil their 20-year-old promise to enact a comprehensive environmental management law that includes much stronger legal protections for vulnerable marine ecosystems.
Currently, reefs are protected largely through a patchwork of outdated laws that are inadequate at best.
More research would help too. Non-profit organisations have done their best in this regard, but the government hasn’t done nearly enough to monitor the territory’s reefs — even as they are dying off.
Finally, as Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley recently showed at the COP28 climate change conference in Dubai, Caribbean leaders can advocate for ocean health on the world stage.
Coral bleaching may seem at first like an issue that is out of the territory’s hands, but there’s a lot that everyone can do to protect the reefs. The community must work together to tackle this urgent crisis, starting now.