Group targets ailing reefs

With more than 700 islands and numerous reefs stretching across its vast 1,225 kilometres, the turquoise waters of the Bahamas are a diver’s dream.

One of the islands, Andros, has the third-longest barrier reef in the world and there are abundant coral and fish all across these Caribbean islands.

Giant brain coral, grouper, spiny lobsters, sharks, rays, dolphins, lionfish and the weirdly shaped guitarfish are but a few of the priceless jewels beneath the waves.

But the abundance and variety of sea life may just be contributing to their demise.

Reef destruction, pollution, overfishing of grouper and conch, and climate change are all negative byproducts of tourism in the Bahamas.

On New Providence Island alone, dredging, landfill, sedimentation and the construction of a cruise ship port has led to the loss of 60 per cent of the coral reef habitat, according to Reefbase, an environmental watchgroup.

Worldwide researchers, including Stanford University marine scientists, estimate the loss of more than 60 per cent of coral reefs over the next 30 years.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Many things are being done on a number of fronts. Researchers formed the Bahamas Biocomplexity Project, a five-year collaborative study of Bahamas reef ecosystems, with an eye to developing marine policies for the area.

Earthwatch volunteers are monitoring coral bleaching, which occurs when sea temperatures rise above normal limits.

The Bahamas Department of Fisheries is creating a network of protected marine reserves and is working with the Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation, the Bahamas National Trust, the Nature Conservancy and, interestingly, has a major sponsor from the tourism industry.

The non-profit Kerzner Marine Foundation, an offshoot of the company that owns the Atlantis resort, was established to help preserve and enhance global marine ecosystems through what it calls Blue Tourism initiatives.

In November, the foundation announced its first grant would go toward creating a marine protected area at Andros Island.

Then, in December, it launched the Blue Project, which pairs the newly opened $200-million Reef condo-hotel at Atlantis with a number of partners, such as Stuart Cove’s Aqua Adventure Tours, Melissa & Doug toys, American Express Blue and JetBlue Airways.

Working with scientists, the group has identified a reef in need of help near New Providence Island. The reef will be marked by a special buoy and dive boats can moor there rather than drop anchor on the coral below.

Part of the proceeds from Stuart Cove dive and snorkel trips to the reef will go toward the Blue Project and Reef guests can order special room service toys from a Melissa & Doug menu, with some of the money going to reef conservation.

The Blue Project also includes the creation of a coral propagation lab on Atlantis property on Paradise Island. Eventually, Reef Tower guests who book the reef tour will be able to take a piece of coral from the lab out to the reef where it will hopefully grow.

“We’ll be taking Reef guests to a restoration site and they’ll be educated about coral biology and what we’re doing to help restore the reef,” said Atlantis marine curator Dave Wert.

“Conserving the ocean is important, and frankly, in our best interests.”