Haiti’s Reefs Survived the Quake

Haiti’s overlooked coral reefs could help feed thousands of undernourished Haitians finds a post-earthquake assessment by scientists from Reef Check.

With headquarters in Los Angeles and volunteer teams in more than 90 countries, the nonprofit organization works to improve reef health worldwide.

Although Haiti is an island country surrounded by coral reefs, most experts have assumed that Haiti’s reefs were destroyed long ago, says Reef Check Director Dr. Gregor Hodgson, a coral reef ecologist who led the underwater survey.

But Hodgson and his survey team found resilient, healthy reefs. “Surprisingly, there was no evidence of direct earthquake damage to reefs just a few yards offshore of heavily damaged hotels,” he said.

The Reef Check team surveyed the Arcadine Islands north of Port au Prince and the fringing reefs off Jacmel on the south coast – both reef areas that were most likely to be damaged by the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12.

The rapid assessment completed on April 18 showed that these reefs were unaffected by the quake and could become an important source of desperately needed protein if they are properly managed to increase fish populations.

Even the fringing reefs off the city of Jacmel on the south coast, an area very badly damaged by the earthquake with a high percentage of buildings destroyed, were in good condition, Hodgson found.

“The reefs surveyed are in better condition than those in Florida, and included large stands of the elkhorn coral, now on the U.S. Endangered Species List,” he said.

As Dr. Hodgson expected, no damage was found at Haiti’s Arcadine reefs. Several years ago, Jean Weiner, the Haitian marine biologist heading up FoProBim, recommended to the President of Haiti that this area become the first Marine Protected Area in the country, and these reefs are far from sedimentation that affects many coastal areas of Haiti due to runoff from eroded land.

The divers found that the seabed in both areas was covered with between 50 and 80 percent living coral, with a high biodiversity and excellent structure to serve as fish habitat.

But Haitian reefs have been overfished, resulting in a lowered fish abundance and small size of reef-dwelling fish.

Healthy coral reefs can provide up to 35 metric tons of fish per square kilometer, whereas overfished reefs such as those in Haiti provide only one tenth this amount, Hodgson says.

Reef Check recommends the establishment of a network of marine protected areas, the education of Haitians about the value of reefs and the benefits of reef conservation, and regular monitoring or reef status.

By setting aside areas of coral reef where reef fish can grow and breed without disturbance, more fish and larger fish will produce millions of new young fish every year, increasing the available fish supply for hungry Haitians.

Dr. Hodgson says that most international food aid has focused on terrestrial solutions, neglecting the potential that improved management of coral reefs and associated fisheries could play in improving food supply and nutrition.

“Our rapid assessment indicates that any long-term plan for food security in Haiti should include reef fisheries,” he said.

Reef Check plans a more detailed reef survey later in the year with Haitian biologist Wiener and is seeking funds to design a network of marine protected areas for the government that will help increase fish stocks.

Haiti imports 48 percent of its food. Even before the earthquake, Haitians were short of food with 58 percent of the population undernourished.

The 10 million people of Haiti make up 25 percent of the total population of the Caribbean and the population is growing rapidly at 2.5 percent annually. Yet, one in five Haitians dies before the age of 40 and one-third of newborn babies are born underweight.