All our reefs need is a little ‘reefspect’ – just a little bit

  • Natural treasure: our reefs contribute to our fishing industry, our economy and even our national security
  • Adam Farrell

Did you know that some of Bermuda’s most valuable natural resources are hidden just out of sight? They are there, beneath the surface of our beautiful, azure waters. Those murky brown shapes seen above the water are a wonderland of vibrant colours and sea life beneath the waves.

Sadly, many of us take our reefs for granted, or even abuse and damage them to the detriment of us all. The contribution that our reefs make to our fishing industry, our economy and even our national security is significant, yet for years we have not treated them with care and offered them only limited protections.

More recently, the global community is waking up to the devastating effects of climate change, which now threatens the very existence of our reefs. Now more than ever, we need to recognise and appreciate what our reefs provide for us. We need to change old habits and give our reefs the respect — “reefspect” — they deserve.

To better understand the fragility and mortality of our reefs, and gain the “reefspect”, we should first better understand how they are formed.

In short, coral reefs are home to thousands of kinds of plants and animals, including hard corals. Hard corals are sessile marine animals that look somewhat like plants and that build reefs. Corals form colonies of tiny coral polyps that attach themselves to the seabed. As the generations pass, these polyps die and leave their calcium carbonate endoskeletons behind, upon which more coral polyps grow. This process can continue for generations and larger reefs can be many thousands of years old. Similar to ancient artefacts housed in a museum, our reefs deserve protection.

So, what do our reefs do for us?

All Bermudians should already know that our reefs are a key attraction for our tourists, who come here to snorkel and dive, and enjoy the fascinating array of sea life that dwells in and around our reef systems. Of course, reefs also provide the safe habitat and breeding grounds for many of the fish and shellfish we eat, such as snappers and groupers, and our prized, spiny lobsters.

Besides supporting our fisheries and tourism product, one perhaps less obvious benefit of our reefs is their contribution to national security. This natural, regenerative sea barrier that surrounds our island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean protects us from the large ocean swells that are generated during hurricanes and winter storms. The flooding and coastal erosion that would occur if these waves were left unchecked could be catastrophic for the island, and be extremely hazardous to the shipping on which we depend for our supply lifeline.

This coral boundary also serves to restrict unauthorised, deepwater passage. During the Second World War, this was regarded as a key defence against German U-boats who might have been looking to torpedo Allied supply ships while at port and disrupt a major supply line for the Allied troops fighting in Europe.

This helped to set up Bermuda as a key supply base during the conflict and cemented its strategic importance for many years to come, which has directly benefited our economy.

Even today we can thank our reefs for persuading many of the larger predator sharks to deviate from their feeding grounds at the Banks and not enter our swimming areas!

Sadly, many coastal and island communities around the world have taken their reefs for granted. However, people are starting to realise that the damage that man has caused to reefs for decades, being now compounded by the devastating effects of global warming on coral reefs, is having a significant impact on local fisheries, which are vital to many communities’ economies and way of life.

The World Wildlife Federation estimates that one billion people worldwide have some dependence on coral reefs for food and income from fishing. In fact, it is believed that coral reefs generate about $30 billion each year in goods and services, given their contribution to fisheries, tourism and coastal protection.

In 2010, a joint project between the Government of Bermuda, environmental economists from Britain’s Joint Nature Conservation Committee and the Institute for Environmental Studies, of the VU University in the Netherlands, placed a total economic value of Bermuda’s reefs at $722 million per year. When compared with our total gross domestic product for 2007, the TEV of coral reefs constituted 12 per cent of Bermuda’s annual GDP.

Coral reefs are also seen as having huge potential for medical science. Coral reef organisms are being used in treatments for diseases such as cancer and HIV, and there is a lot of well-financed research going into finding other elements of these very complex, natural ecosystems that may help us to cure other ailments.

Last year Bermuda was visited by representatives of a Swedish pharmaceutical company for this very purpose. Clearly, this is an exciting prospect for the future, but will depend on us demonstrating our “reefspect” and keeping our reefs healthy.

Of course, whichever way we look to place a monetary value on our reefs, it is clear that they hold intrinsic value for us regardless. Imagine a Bermuda without its reefs to snorkel over, dive through and wonder at as you fly over the island. Imagine a Bermuda without its history of shipwrecks, and all the fortunes which that unfortunate practice of “wrecking” brought to the island in its early days.

Would the Sea Venture have sailed right past, its passengers hearing only the strange noises of the cahows in the night? Our island’s history and culture would not be the same without our reefs. Surely, this must mean they are priceless to us.

Despite some of our reefs being hundreds of years old, having endured centuries of pounding seas and strong ocean currents, they are now under threat more than ever because of the consequences of human activity.

Ocean pollution owing to the run-off of fertiliser and pesticides from land create a toxic environment for marine life. Sewage run-off from tourism resorts is another problem in some areas. The negative impacts of tourism and recreational boating are also evident. Fishing or tour boats anchoring close to reefs can cause huge damage in a matter of minutes if high winds/ocean currents cause a heavy anchor to drag across or over the reef.

Many swimmers are not aware that most sunscreens contain chemicals that are toxic to reefs, such that repeated visits by snorkellers and divers are all taking their toll.

Perhaps the most alarming and existential threat to our reef comes from the adverse effects of global warming. The ocean represents a “carbon sink” in that it absorbs much of the carbon dioxide produced naturally, thereby regulating the potentially noxious gases of our atmosphere.

However, the large-scale burning of fossil fuels over time has been turning our oceans more acidic, as the sea is forced to absorb more carbon. This is proving harmful for all marine organisms, including the coral polyps that form our reefs. We tend to think of our reefs as large hunks of immoveable rock that seem to be permanent structures on our ocean floor. However, in recent years, reef systems around the world have been devastated or wiped out because of the rise in ocean temperatures.

Coral bleaching is a process whereby even if water temperature rises by just 1C to 2C, this will eradicate the algae on which the corals depend, which in turn drains them of colour and makes them more brittle and, therefore, susceptible to damage.

Bleaching has been occurring since the 1980s, but bleach events have been seen on a global level in 1998, then 2010, then for three consecutive years from 2015 to 2017. Scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change believe that, as warming is expected to reach 2C over the next 50 years, there is a greater than 99 per cent chance that tropical corals would be eradicated. It is a very real possibility that children born today will be the last generation to see coral reefs in pristine condition.

One positive point about Bermuda’s reefs is that they represent the northernmost coral reefs in the world. Situated in the cold waters of the Atlantic, technically Bermuda should not have any reefs at all. However, thanks to the sustained warm-water current of the Gulf Stream, we enjoy a subtropical climate that has allowed our reefs to flourish, while the cooler water temperatures have meant our reefs have not been exposed to the same devastating bleach events that have occurred in other parts of the world.

The versatility of our reefs is of global importance. As reef systems die off in parts of the world, scientists have figured out a way to regrow coral. The ability of our reefs to withstand colder temperatures could mean that our corals could provide the “seed” to grow more hardy reefs elsewhere. Indeed, attempts at coral rejuvenation are already being made in Bermuda, and some tourist resorts around the world now have home-grown coral gardens as a key attraction for their guests, something Bermuda would do well to mirror.

Our reefs are vital to the economy and the security of our island, but their true value cannot be estimated in monetary terms. As reef systems are threatened worldwide, we must increase awareness about what they do for us as a community, so that we can act to provide the safeguards they so desperately need. This involves reducing ocean pollution as well as strengthening enforcement against any violation of the existing protections.

Also we need formal policy put in place to consider issues that may affect our reefs when “planning” or “developing” our marine environment. We need to find the balance between the commercial exploitation of our reefs by fishermen and sediment-producing cruise ships, and the protection they need to flourish and provide for Bermuda’s future generations.

Only then will we have the “reefspect” we should have had all along.

Adam Farrell is a member of the Bermuda Environmental Sustainability Taskforce’s marine resources committee