JAN 01, 2018 7:24 PM PST

Who wants a quick Caribbean getaway?

Everyone loves a good Caribbean getaway, especially with the cold-streak that some of us up North are having. But how much do we actually know about the health of Caribbean marine ecosystems? New research collected from 25 years of data from the Caribbean Coastal Marine Productivity Program (CARICOMP) shows us fresh insights on Caribbean ecosystems and what’s stressing them out. The hope is that this novel information will help local and global marine management to keep the Caribbean the gem that it is.

CARICOMP is the longest, largest monitoring program in the Caribbean and has been gathering environmental data on mangroves, seagrass beds, and coral reefs for over 25 years. The data cover measurements on water temperature, salinity, and visibility with samples taken from stations that are purposely “far” from direct human impacts. These sites (29 in total) are located all over the greater Caribbean in Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, Bonaire, Colombia, Costa Rica, Florida, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico, Saba, and Venezuela. If you’re interested in Caribbean marine health, head on over to the CARICOMP database where the environmental data are now available!

The team of scientists that collaborated on the study, which was published recently in PLOS One, analyzed two main marine health stressors: decreases in water quality (measured on a local scale) and increases in temperature (to determine the impact on a global scale). They found that water quality in the terms of visibility decreased at 42% of the 29 stations. This points towards a stressed-out Caribbean, at least on a local level. The data also showed that worse visibility was associated with increased human density. Meanwhile, only 18% of the stations showed increases in water temperature.

"We're seeing important changes in local conditions, like decreases in visibility associated with declining water quality and the increasing presence of people, but we're not picking up global-scale changes, like climate warming," said Iliana Chollett, a post-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Marine Conservation Program.

But that doesn’t mean that temperature rise isn’t really happening: "Satellites only measure the temperature at the surface. Underwater temperatures are much more variable, and it may take decades of data to reveal a significant change, so we're not sure if this means that we just don't have enough data to detect it yet," explains Chollett.

The Caribbean is known for its breathtaking waters. Photo: Caribbean Challenge Initiative

The data that the team collected isn’t only a doomsday alert. "One positive implication of this report is that people are capable of dealing with local change by regulating pollution and runoff," said Rachel Collin, director of the Bocas del Toro Research Station at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. "If people get their act together very soon, there is still hope of reversing some of these changes."

People getting their act together could look like a lot of different scenarios, one of which is improving biomonitoring methods and informing more effective management techniques in marine ecosystems. That’s what the authors hope this study will work towards.

Sources: PLOS One, Science Daily

About the Author
BA Environmental Studies
Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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