By Reef Check Executive Director Dr. Gregor Hodgson
The Bahamas is one of the most important coral reef countries in the Caribbean with 29 major islands, 661 small cays and over 2,300 rocky islets – many surrounded by reefs. The first Reef Check surveys in the Bahamas were carried out in 1999. Surveys have been carried out almost every year since by independent scientists and student groups from the Chicago City Day School. But given the vast size of the Bahamas, the sampling effort has been small and the government has not been involved.
More and more governments are recognizing the value of Reef Check surveys as a low-cost, broad-brush technique to track coral reef health and climate change -- useful at both the MPA and national levels. The Bahamas Environment, Science & Technology (BEST) Commission is now implementing a UNEP GEF Project focusing on the marine environment. The project partners include The Nature Conservancy (TNC), The Bahamas National Trust (BNT), and The Department of Marine Resources (DMR). As part of the “Strengthening & Expanding of the MPA Network” component, there are 3 pilot projects: invasive alien species (the lionfish), incorporating climate change and mangrove restoration into conservation planning, and sustainable tourism and coral reef health.
According to the Project Coordinator, Laura Millar, “All three pilot projects are taking place within existing MPAs; the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park (ECLSP) and the South Berry Islands Marine Reserve (SBIMR). Reef Check was selected as the methodology for establishing data on the baseline condition at these sites, as well as the tool for collecting data for monitoring and evaluation. It is anticipated that the most successful outcomes from each of the pilot projects will be scaled up and applied across other MPAs in The Bahamas.”
During the week of August 23rd, Laura arranged for thirteen participants from TNC, DMR and BNT to be trained as Reef Check EcoDivers in Nassau. The classroom sessions were followed by field training and a completed Reef Check survey at a local reef. The results of the surveys were quite interesting because they indicated that the popular dive site, Goulding Reef, has a healthy population of parrotfish, a resident reef shark, but few grouper, snapper or jacks – an indication of heavy fishing pressure. As it turns out, parrotfish are traditionally not considered a tasty food fish in the Bahamas.
All 13 participants in the training course are now certified EcoDivers and look forward to starting their surveys. Upon completion of their pre-requisites, some will be participating in the Training of Trainers Course later this year with the eventual goal of training over 70 EcoDivers in the Bahamas. With Reef Check now being supported by the key government agencies and NGO responsible for conservation, it will finally be possible to obtain a long term dataset from multiple islands and track coral reef health in the country, including the impacts of the rapidly reproducing invasive lionfish.