Tobago – Disturbance Response

A Bleaching Response Plan Leads to Increased Protection of Tobago’s Reefs

Republic of Trinidad and Tobago

The Challenge
Tobago represents the southern limit for reef building corals in the Caribbean. Two areas in Tobago are renowned for their coral reefs. The first, Buccoo Reef, is a fringing reef, enclosing the Bon Accord Lagoon. The second is in Speyside and hosts the western hemisphere’s second largest brain coral. Other smaller and lesser known reef areas fringe around Tobago’s shoreline. Approximately 30 km of semi-contiguous fringing reef surrounds the island, which supports rich biodiversity and provides ecosystem services, such as food, tourism and coastal protection that were valued at contributing to over 50% of Tobago’s GDP (in 2008). The reefs are characterized by seasonal pulses of river discharge from South America, in particular the Orinoco River during the rainy season (June–December). Riverine inputs include freshwater, sediment and nutrients, which result in sub-optimal reef building conditions during the wet season. As a result, Tobago’s reefs have evolved, developed and adapted to wide ranging environmental fluctuations, which include seasonal pulses of acute riverine disturbance.

Reef health on the island is threatened by a combination of natural (hurricanes) and anthropogenic factors acting on various scales. The key threats are land-based pollution, sedimentation, and habitat degradation. In recent years, climate change-induced events (such as bleaching) and subsequent disease outbreaks as well as invasive alien species (such as lionfish: Pterois volitans and P. miles) have become a serious challenge. The influx of nutrients from agricultural and sewage sources, as well as prolonged periods of high sediment loading of coastal waters from land-based runoff, are thought to be major local scale contributors to the overall degradation of reefs. The maintenance or restoration of water quality as a result of nutrient enrichment and sediment loading on the reefs is arguably the most critical marine environmental issue confronting Tobago. Unfortunately, there is no national overview of the extent and levels of nutrients and toxicants found in coastal waters and sediments. Neither is there national-scale information on the emission of toxicants from diffuse pollution sources. The degradation caused by diffuse sources remains largely unchecked and unidentifiable.

Prioritizing environmental and marine conservation, especially with direct users, is a major challenge. Tourism has declined dramatically, and fewer new visitors are coming to the island. While stakeholders recognize the importance of reef conservation, they struggle to keep their businesses afloat.

Buccoo Reef

Buccoo Reef restricted area.

Actions Taken
Recognizing the socioeconomic importance of coral reefs to the island, the complexity of threats compromising reef resilience, and limited local capacity to manage the issues, the Tobago House of Assembly (responsible for the management of coral reefs around the island), in collaboration with other state and non-governmental agencies, has initiated various initiatives toward the preservation and improved resilience of the island’s reef resources. The reefs on the southwest side of the island (Buccoo Reef) have been designated a no-take marine protected area (MPA) and represent the only MPA on the island.

A coral reef monitoring and research program has been established to monitor reef health, temperature anomalies, and connectivity, and to guide restoration and management as well as identify resilient reef sites for future conservation. In tandem, community-based management programs (Speyside Marine Area Community Based Management Project, Tobago Coastal Ecosystem Mapping Project), education and awareness programs (“Sea, Sun and Science”, and “Sea and Me”) and capacity-building programs (Coastal and Marine Management and Education in the South Eastern Caribbean, tour guide training, Reef Check, Coral Reef Crime Scene Investigation, mooring buoy deployment and maintenance) have been streamlined to support reef conservation initiatives. Further, recognizing the conflicts between human use needs and the environment within the coastal zone, an Integrated Coastal Zone Management Policy framework is being generated in a collaborative effort supported by the THA to guide future coastal development in Tobago.

Jahson Alemu I

Photo © Jahson Alemu

Following the 2010 mass bleaching event, and guided by support from the Buccoo Reef Management Committee, The Nature Conservancy and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), developed a response plan to monitor and assess the impacts of bleaching events on the island. The plan consists of an early warning system (EWS), bleaching assessment and monitoring, and a communication plan. It also coordinates the response of stakeholder groups (state and NGO). Critical to the success of the EWS is a network of state, NGO, private sector (dive tour operators, boat tour operators, and hoteliers) and recreationalists that act as a first source of information for disturbances (coral bleaching, algal blooms, and invasive species) noted on the reef. Enhancing and expanding the potential of the Bleaching Response Plan are two IKON Coral Reef Early Warning Systems (CREWS) which will measure near real time SST and other ancillary oceanographic and meteorological data readily accessible to the public. On a national scale, these two tools will assist Tobago on its way to eco-forecasting and adapting to climate change impacts.

Jahson working

Photo © Jahson Alemu

How successful has it been?
In 2010, a mass coral bleaching event occurred on Tobago reefs, but unlike previous events the local managers were ready. An informal Bleaching Response Plan (subsequently formalized) resulted in the coordinated efforts of park managers, fisheries officers, marine scientist and dive operators to assess the impact of the bleaching, and communicate the implications to the public. This was the first time such an approach was used in regards to coral bleaching in Trinidad and Tobago. The implementation of the Bleaching Response Plan resulted in the identification of several potential nodes of resilience, as well as the identification of resilient species (three major sites are discussed in Alemu and Clement 2014). This information has, to an extent, been mainstreamed into the decision support system for reef management in the selection of future project sites and MPA locations.  However, various limitations continue to slow the pace of  reef conservation on the island.

Lessons Learned and Recommendations
Lessons learned and key recommendations include:

  • A history of poor management, poor enforcement, and perceived neglect have made it difficult for new projects and programs to be easily accepted by communities. Securing and demonstrating government support to projects and to the stakeholders is key to overcoming this hurdle.
  • More success stories and fewer lessons learned will empower stakeholders, and reinforce that their efforts can have a positive and beneficial impact.
  • For the sustainability of projects like these where stakeholder participation is key, more effort should be invested in the conversation with stakeholders before project/program development rather than after, to ensure that their needs are being met, rather than trying to mesh a project’s needs with stakeholder wants.
  • Limited capacity and resources mean that any new plan results in more work for already strained agencies. Plans, protocols and projects should simply and clearly outline roles, responsibilities, and deadlines. Additionally, the success of a bleaching response plan will be more easily accepted if it can be incorporated into an existing work plan or existing project or budget line.
  • Continued communication with stakeholder groups, even after a reef disturbance (e.g. mass coral bleaching), is necessary to maintain strong relationships and support for future efforts e.g. lionfish invasion.
  • Not all stakeholders have the same feeling about reef conservation – the response plan should be flexible enough to incorporate the needs of the stakeholders.
  • Strong leaders should be identified within the local community or stakeholders to drive the process and ensure long term success.

Funding Summary
The Nature Conservancy
The Institute of Marine Affairs, Trinidad and Tobago
Tobago House of Assembly
Tobago Department of Marine Resources and Fisheries

Lead Organizations
Institute of Marine Affairs, Trinidad and Tobago

The Nature Conservancy
Tobago Department of Marine Resources and Fisheries

Managing for Disturbance
Mass Coral Bleaching in 2010 in the Southern Caribbean

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Florida – Disturbance Response

Disturbance Response and Monitoring Program in Action in the Florida Keys

Florida Keys and southeast Florida mainland, USA

Florida bleaching mapThe Challenge
The Florida Reef Resilience Program (FRRP) region includes the Dry Tortugas and Florida Keys, and extends up the southeast Florida coast to Martin County. The FRRP started in 2004, and is a multi-year effort to develop and share management approaches and tools to cope with climate change and other stresses on South Florida’s coral reefs. The Nature Conservancy coordinates the FRRP in conjunction with the State of Florida, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and a Steering Committee of reef managers, scientists, reef user-group representatives and other conservation groups. The project region includes shallow water coral reefs (spanning approximately 30,800 km2), colonized hardbottom, seagrass beds and mangrove communities. The focus of the FRRP has been on stony corals and shallow coral reefs.

The chronic stresses that challenge reefs of South Florida include climate change (including warming seas, coral bleaching, disease and acidification); eutrophication from inadequate wastewater and storm water management systems; coastal development; overfishing; destructive fishing practices; boat groundings; anchor damage and diver impacts. The FRRP region has experienced several significant disturbances during the last three decades, including the Diadema sea urchin die-off of 1984, the 1997-1998 and 2005 bleaching events, and hurricanes including four named storms in 2005. In early 2010, the region experienced a cold water event.

The goals of the FRRP are to improve understanding of reef health in the region, and to identify factors that influence the long-term resilience of corals, reefs and the entire marine ecosystem. With this knowledge in hand, coral reef managers and users can work toward resilience-based management strategies that maximize the benefits of healthy reefs, while seeking to improve conditions of less healthy reefs.

Meaghan Johnson of The Nature Conservancy performs reef surveys as part of the FRRP-DRM. © Erich Bartels

Meaghan Johnson of The Nature Conservancy performs reef surveys as part of the FRRP-DRM. © Erich Bartels

Actions Taken
A focal area of the program has been filling spatial and temporal information gaps for stony coral bleaching and other bioindicator monitoring data. The first step in this process was characterization of the >400 km long reef tract from Martin County to the Dry Tortugas into 22 unique reef zones. This created a spatial framework within which a Disturbance Response Monitoring (DRM) scheme could be developed. An online course was developed to train people to monitor corals before and during bleaching and other extreme events.

The DRM focused initially on coral bleaching, but is adaptable to detect and capture responses to other forms of disturbance. During the Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill, the DRM was deployed to detect any detrimental effects from the oil spill to the reefs off Florida. Luckily, the reefs were spared any direct impacts.

FRRP surveyors. Photo © Meaghan Johnson/TNC

FRRP surveyors. © Meaghan Johnson/TNC

The Disturbance Response Monitoring scheme consists of a probabilistic sampling design and a stony coral condition monitoring protocol, implemented during peak thermal stress across the entire South Florida reef tract that extends from Martin County to the Dry Tortugas.

Since 2005, 1758 surveys have been completed by 13 teams from federal, state, and local government agencies, non-profit organizations, and universities during the summer months. Teams enter data on an online database and query through an online mapping service.

2010 Cold Water Event
Following extreme cold temperatures in early January 2010, the FRRP partners initiated a Disturbance Response Monitoring effort to determine the extent of the impact on stony corals in South Florida. Survey sites were randomly selected from a pool of 2005-2009 DRM sites. High resolution sea surface temperature data provided by the University of South Florida was used to further stratify the sample design between sites that experienced temperatures at or below the lethal limit for stony corals (59 degrees) and sites and that did not experience lethally cold conditions.

Recently dead Montastrea coral due to a cold water event. Photo © Meaghan Johnson/TNC

Recently dead Montastrea coral due to a cold water event. © Meaghan Johnson/TNC

In early 2010, 78 sites were surveyed across the Florida Reef Tract. The impact of the cold water was very spatially explicit. The areas that sustained the greatest impact were the inshore and mid channel zones from Summerland Key in the lower Keys through Biscayne National Park. Contrary to warm water induced coral bleaching events, the main effect on the stony corals was direct mortality with low levels of bleaching. Frequent observations on specific corals during the event showed that the corals would generally pale for a day, then die, with mortality occurring across all species.

How successful has it been?
From 2005 to 2013, 1758 surveys were completed. Results from these nine years of surveys show spatial and temporal patterns in coral bleaching and colony size frequency distribution, indicating that some reef areas or coral species may be more resilient to stress than others. Minor to moderate bleaching occurred within varying reef areas in 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011. While the causes of this variability remain poorly quantified, projected increases in coral bleaching due to climate change makes identification of these resilient reef areas and species important for long-term coral reef conservation and future management strategies.

An analysis of the data revealed areas of the reef tract that contains higher abundance of corals, larger coral colonies, prevalence of bleaching and prevalence of coral disease. All of these layers combined give an indication of where the reefs are that have a higher resistance to bleaching and disease. Having this information for the entire Florida Reef Tract has allowed coral reef managers to incorporate this into their public processes to improve the management of Florida’s coral reef resources.

Figure 1: (C) Rob Van Woesik & S Burman

Figure 1: (C) Rob Van Woesik & S Burman

With this knowledge in hand, coral reef managers and users can work toward resilience-based management strategies that maximize the benefits of healthy reefs, while seeking to improve conditions of less healthy reefs. Ultimately, the FRRP seeks to improve ecological conditions of Florida’s reefs, economic sustainability of reef-dependent commercial enterprises, and continued recreational use of reef resources.

Lessons Learned and Recommendations

  • Success of this project was highly dependent on the collaboration and contributions of many different agencies and institutions. The scale of the survey was so great that it would not have happened without collaboration. This has also resulted in a continued high level of commitment from the organizations involved.
  • Identifying supplementary funding to allow different organizations that had staff and expertise, but lacked the funds, was critical. This enabled a broad spectrum of institutional stakeholders to contribute.
  • In the first year, the team was able to demonstrate that an undertaking of this scale was possible and that there was a broad institutional commitment. The success of this pilot effort helped attract additional partners who had initially questioned the feasibility of conducting such large-scale surveys.
  • It was important to develop a simple protocol so that surveys could be completed rapidly during the period of peak bleaching occurrence; so that minimal training was required; and so that the resulting data set was consistent.
  • It was important at the beginning to agree on the scale, sampling goals, and protocol, so that the process was clear to participants.
  • It was important to continue surveys each year regardless of the level of coral bleaching to keep surveyors up to date with the methodology in case of unexpected disturbances (e.g. 2010 cold water event). This also keeps the survey work in team members’ annual workplans and budgets, facilitating their ongoing participation.

Funding Summary
Florida Department of Environmental Protection—Coastal and Aquatic Managed Areas
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—Coral Reef Conservation Program
Florida’s Wildlife Legacy Initiative—State Wildlife Grant
Darden Restaurants Foundation
Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd—Ocean Fund
Curtis and Edith Munson Foundation
Peacock Foundation Inc.

Lead Organizations
The Nature Conservancy

Mote Marine Tropical Research Laboratory
Southeast Florida Coral Reef Initiative
Florida Department of Environmental Protection
Biscayne Bay Environmental Center
Florida Department of Environmental Protection
John Pennekamp State Park
Florida Department of Environmental Protection
Office of Coastal & Aquatic Managed Areas
Southeast Florida Aquatic Preserves Field Office
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Division of Habitat and Species Conservation
South Regional Office
South Regional Laboratory
Broward County: Environmental Protection and Growth
Miami Dade County
Dept. of Environmental Resources Mgmt.
Restoration and Enhancement Section
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences
Nova Southeastern University National Coral Reef Institute
Nova Southeastern Univ. Oceanographic Center
Florida Institute of Technology
National Park Service Biscayne National Park
National Park Service Dry Tortugas National Park

The Nature Conservancy’s Florida Reef Resilience Program
South Florida’s Bleaching Response Plan (pdf)

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Understanding coral reef resilience in Tobago

news-Understanding Coral Reef Resilience in TobagoJahson Berhane Alemu I (a participant in our 2010 Training of Trainers Workshop) and co-author Ysharda Clement recently published the paper “Mass Coral Bleaching in 2012 in the Southern Caribbean”. For 6 months, they monitored approximately 650 colonies (composed of 30 taxa) at three sites across Tobago during a bleaching event in 2010. The purpose of their research was to find nodes of reef resilience in Tobago by identifying taxa resilient to bleaching. We asked Jahson more about his research. In particular, we wanted to know how coral reef managers could learn from his experience. Here’s what he said:

How do you think your findings will influence coral reef management in Tobago?

Our findings now contribute to an evidence-based foundation, on which reef managers can make more informed decisions. Our findings have now been integrated into a Bleaching Response Plan, where a suite of taxa have been incorporated to determine the impact of bleaching and other anthropogenic impacts on reef health.

What most surprised you during the analysis of your research?

The wide variety of responses of taxa to the same stimulus. This will be the subject of future research.

What advice do you have for coral reef managers and practitioners who are trying to identify resilient reefs?

Reef resilience means a bunch of things and it’s evolving. My opinion is that you’re not going to figure it out in one assessment. (Well, maybe you can, and good luck to you!) But I’m no expert and I’ve just started. For me, having a clear personal understanding of what it means and how I intended to apply this knowledge for example through the development of a response plan and MPA selection was central in my approach. This study is but only one of several underway to better understand reef dynamics and the future of coral reefs in Tobago.

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A Framework for Responding to Coral Disease Outbreaks that Facilitates Adaptive Management

In this study, investigators develop and present a framework for responding to coral disease outbreaks with implications for reef ecosystem health. The framework contains four components, including an early warning system, a tiered impact assessment program, scaled management actions, and a communication plan.

A combination of predictive tools with in situ observations of areas at risk for disease outbreak constitute the early warning system, while reports of increasing disease prevalence triggers a tiered response of assessment, research, or management actions. Response to the disease outbreak risk is scaled based on the severity and spatial extent of impacts incurred by a disease outbreak to coral species.

Additionally, the study reviews potential management actions to mitigate coral disease impacts and facilitate recovery of the reef ecosystem, and considers coral disease-specific strategies as well as strategies already used in reef resilience.

Author: Beeden R., J.A. Maynard, P.A. Marshall, S.F. Heron, and B.L. Willis
Year: 2012
View Full Article

Environmental Management 49:1–13. doi:10.1007/s00267-011-9770-9

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