Caribbean Coral Reefs May Be "Silent Victims" of Violent 2004 Hurrican Season

The series of violent hurricanes that racked island nations throughout the Caribbean region may have made increasingly fragile coral reefs the "silent victims" of this savage storm season, according to ocean explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau.

Cousteau, founder of Ocean Futures Society, said the severity and duration of the damage is heightened due to human factors linked to reef degradation, such as sewage and pollution discharge, overfishing and related ecological disruption, coral bleaching from warming oceans and coral disease from new pathogens. Significant damage from the hurricanes could have drastic economic and ecological implications for nations dependent on tourism for their economies and the natural protection of reefs to buffer the islands from wave action and more common storms.

"Hurricanes have lashed the Caribbean for thousands of years, and healthy coral reefs have been able to rebound because Nature allows them to regenerate," Cousteau explained. "Reefs are like our bodies, and stress reduces their natural resilience to recover from injury. In other words, sick reefs will have a much more difficult time to heal themselves after strong hurricanes, if at all. Coral bleaching due to global warming and other human-related impacts have left many coral reefs in a very poor state of health. Intense hurricanes, such as we’ve just experienced, can devastate those reefs, obliterating islands’ primary natural resource and safeguards."

Cousteau said he urges Caribbean governments and non-governmental organizations to do a thorough assessment of the damage once the still turbulent seas around hard-hit islands begin to calm and ongoing sediment impacts subside.

"These silent victims of this hurricane season should act as a warning that we must take action to protect the Caribbean’s most vital asset-its coral reefs," Cousteau said.

Cousteau noted that a recently released report by the World Resources Institute (WRI) determined that nearly two-thirds of the coral reefs in the Caribbean are threatened by human activities, exposing island nations to increased economic and ecological risks. The report, Reefs at Risk in the Caribbean, in which Cousteau wrote a preface, indicates the combination of strong hurricanes and a lessened ability to regenerate has debilitating economic repercussions.

"Reefs take a battering from hurricanes, which is a natural occurrence, but the threat increases if they become more frequent," the report says. "When reefs get knocked down, the cost to people is dramatic. If coral reefs are lost, replacing such natural protection by artificial means would cost coastal communities millions of dollars."

"Human activity has undermined the health and vitality of reefs," Cousteau said in the report. "The coral reefs I observed in the 1940s are totally different today. Sadly, none has changed for the better."

The WRI’s Reefs at Risk Threat Index was applied to the 10,000 square miles of coral reefs throughout the entire Caribbean. The measurements found: Caribbean coral reefs provide goods and services with an annual economic value in 2000 between $3.1 billion and $4.6 billion from fisheries, dive tourism and shoreline protection services. Shoreline protection alone from natural Caribbean reefs saves between $700 million and $2.2 billion. Continuing degradation of the region’s coral reefs could reduce net annual revenues from dive tourism-which provided an estimated $2.1 billion in 2000-by as much as $300 million per year by 2015.

"These sobering facts were all estimated before the hurricanes of 2004," Cousteau noted. "When one sees the enormous damage done by Charley, Francis, Jeanne, and Ivan to the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, the British West Indies, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Aruba, the Florida Keys and many others, the threat alert becomes far greater."

"When the final toll is taken of the 2004 hurricane season, we cannot forget that life beneath the ocean’s surface suffers as well as all those on land," Cousteau said.