A Disappearing Act? The Reefs of Vieques

By: Alexandra Novotny

The coral reefs surrounding Vieques have been subject to many destructive activities over the past few decades. After years of military exercises, large swaths of coral have been destroyed and are trying to recover. Current issues such as warming waters, strong hurricanes, and human impact are hindering progress and making matters worse. Without a plan for conservation and restoration, the reefs of Vieques may face a dim future.

Similar to Puerto Rico, Vieques has extensive reef coverage offshore. Locals in Vieques heavily rely on these systems for their livelihood.

Reef ecosystems benefit humans in a variety of ways. Fish and other organisms that thrive in these habitats feed local communities and provide small jobs for local fisherman. Coral reefs also greatly benefit the tourism industry. Colorful fish and abundant biodiversity attract tourists for recreational activities such as snorkeling and scuba-diving. In turn, this creates local jobs and adds money back into the economy and industry. Another important factor is that healthy reefs protect coastlines from erosion and damaging waves/wind from storms.

The beginning of the damage to coral reefs in Vieques started with the U.S. Navy. Vieques was the site of military bombing activities for around 60 years, creating isolated “bomb-craters” as they performed tests.

Reef craters formed from bombing activities are now associated with major colony fragmentation and reef framework disturbance. Miles of coral reef damage occurred during this period, and the recovery has been slow. In 2014, a study showed that “non-bombarded” areas adjacent to affected areas offshore of Vieques posed higher levels of biodiversity and coral density. The path of slow recovery has not set up Vieques well for the 21st-century issues it currently faces.

Caribbean corals are currently under many stressors that pose significant threats to its health and survival. Human interference, hurricane damage, and climate change puts many coral reefs including those of Vieques under a high threat level.

According to the World Resources Institute, two-thirds of reefs in the Caribbean are under threat from human activity. Vieques is included in this assessment. Coastal development, pollution and runoff, and overfishing are just a few of many human impacts that contribute to the degradation of reef habitat. Human interference is affecting coral’s ability to recover from major impacts.

Hurricanes Irma and Maria not only devastated coastal communities and ecosystems but offshore as well. Investigations of reefs in Vieques, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico show extensive damages caused by these back to back storms. Reefs off of Vieques and Puerto Rico also help protect the coast from severe storm impacts such as these. Waves, wind, erosion, and sand displacement impacts are significantly reduced due to the reefs.

Although less obvious to the eye, underwater ecosystems near Vieques were strongly affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Shallow waters were especially hit hard immediately following the storms. Coral colonies had branches ripped off, and major structural damage was present. Hurricanes have always occurred in the Caribbean, but what concerns scientists the most is their ability to recover before the next storm in a warming world.

As warming temperatures in the air and ocean become more frequent, scientists concerns increase about their effects on the coral reefs.

Increased ocean water temperature is contributing heavily to coral bleaching events. Coral and algae have a symbiotic relationship in which they rely on each other. When stressors such as increased water temperature, lower pH, and pollution runoff are present, the algae are released from the coral, and a bleaching event will occur.

Climate change is also contributing to more intense hurricanes. The data on frequency isn’t as concrete, but that is expected to increase as well. Damage will continue and accelerate for many corals in the Caribbean.

Corals are versatile organisms and are capable of recovering from human impacts, hurricanes, and coral bleaching events. However, they need time to do so. As bleaching events and hurricanes become more common as a result of climate change, recovery time lessens. If these trends keep occurring, we will see a severe decrease of coral in many locations like Vieques and Puerto Rico.

Although the future of reefs in the Caribbean and specifically near Vieques currently looks negative, some actions can be taken to attempt to curb these impacts:

  • Reduce Carbon Emissions. First and foremost, carbon emissions need to be reduced. The impacts of climate change can be directly addressed by reducing CO2 in the atmosphere. Reefs and the organisms and communities that rely on them will directly benefit from this action.
  • Reduce Local Impact.  Studies show that corals become increasingly more stressed with multiple impacts of environmental threats. As local impacts become more severe, the impacts of climate change will be exacerbated.
  • Adopt Improved Management Plans. Although many are already in action, management plans need to be updated and reinforced accordingly. All management plans need feasible short and long-term recommendations that include heavy stakeholder involvement.
  • Build Strong Constituencies for Reef Support. Reefs won’t be protected without support from big governmental bodies like NOAA and the EPA. In order for reefs like Vieques to be saved in time, political will needs to be strong.

Reefs off of Vieques still need time to recover from past impacts from the U.S. Navy booming activities. With climate change and other significant impacts threatening the region like hurricanes, it is ever-important to effectively protect and sustain these regions.

The secluded and undeveloped beaches of Vieques National Wildlife Refuge off the coast of Puerto Rico have been called some of the most beautiful in the world. (Maritza Vargas, USFWS)

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Alexandra Novotny is a graduate student in Error! Hyperlink reference not valid. Degree program. Her focus is protecting the environment and solving the world’s most complex issues, including climate change, using interdisciplinary approaches and business tactics. The blog post above is an example of her work in the NR 5884 Landscape Systems & Strategies course taught by Dr. Daniel Marcucci.  Alex has a BS in Geology with a concentration in Environmental Science from the State University of New York – Cortland.

The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability thanks the following photographers for sharing their work through the Creative Commons License: NOAA Photo Library; Sarah RichterNASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center; noelweathers; and USFWS.

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