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Coral Reefs & Construction  –  In March 2010, the Executive Director of Reef Check, Dr Gregor Hodgson, spent a week in the BVI to observe the condition of our coral reefs. During this week, Dr Hodgson visited the offices of OBMI to host a presentation on the impacts of human development on reefs, and the measures which can be implemented to aid their protection and recovery. The audience included construction professionals, realtors, environmental consultants, contractors, property developers and owners, and representatives from the Town and Country Planning and Conservation and Fisheries Departments.

As early as 1851, Charles Darwin remarked that sedimentation from freshwater discharge could prevent reef growth. By the 1960s, high-profile news stories about oil spills and DDT led researchers to investigate the potential impacts of these chemicals on marine life. In the 1970s, the first international symposium on coral reefs was held, and researchers became interested in the effects of sedimentation and pollution on coral reefs. By the late 1980s, anecdotal reports of coral reef decline were becoming common. Recreational divers, now armed with underwater cameras, were returning from dives remarking, "It doesn’t look as good as it used to." Scientists were noting that there seemed to be a decline in coral cover, especially in the Caribbean.

Dr Hodgson founded Reef Check in 1996 as a community-based monitoring protocol designed to measure the health of coral reefs on a global scale. During his presentation, he described how he has watched every coral reef ecosystem he has studied change almost unrecognizably from the way it used to be. He gave an outline of the critical situation in the global state of coral reefs, with outbreaks of coral disease, coral bleaching, fleshy algae and crown-of-thorns starfish posing a genuine danger to reefs. The causes include the usual list of overfishing, pollution, introduced species and global climate change.

In the BVI, although more remote offshore reefs are still relatively healthy, the reefs near the shore are under considerable stress. Reclamation, where aquatic areas are filled to create solid ground, has happened extensively along the shores of Tortola, on reefs, wetlands, mangroves and shallow coastal waters. While land value may rise for these waterfront areas, there’s a significant loss of the ecological value of these habitats, irreversibly affecting the amount of habitat available to marine organisms. Corals are easily stressed by sediments which smother them, preventing light from reaching them. They are unable to withstand sediment cover for longer than a couple days.

  Close up of a brain coral that is partially bleached. Photo courtesy of Jim Scheiner.

The discussion after Dr Hodgson’s presentation focused on what can be done to prevent or minimise siltation. Contractors and excavation equipment operators need to be familiar with the simple methods to prevent and control soil runoff. Engineers and architects need to build solutions into their designs and persistently remind clients of the need for these measures. Government agencies need to educate the public and monitor and enforce proper construction methods. It was pointed out that if things are thought through properly, good design and planning can actually save money and lead to a much more attractive solution. It was very encouraging to hear Dr Gregor Hodgson’s positive attitude: despite the fact that a huge amount of harm has been done, reefs have the ability to recover, and with a creative and intelligent “joined-up” approach, we may yet be able to protect the reefs of the BVI from further damage.

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