The Marine Resilience Initiative, Tobago (Pilot Project)
Tobago waters are rich in marine biodiversity, home to unique and interconnected ecosystems, such as the Buccoo coral reef – Bon Accord Lagoon Complex made up of seagrass and mangroves. Most of Tobago’s Caribbean coast is fringed by coral reefs extending to the northeast Tobago, UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Reserve. For over ten years, the Institute of Marine Affairs has been monitoring the health of coral reefs and seagrasses around Tobago. Unfortunately, we have observed several disturbance events have affected Tobago’s marine ecosystems resulting in significant mortality / dieback of critical coral reefs and seagrass beds. Coral reef monitoring conducted by IMA has shown up to 50 % coral loss from the 2010 bleaching alone with minimal recovery to date as a result of chronic ailments, such as pollution and overfishing, that limit the natural recovery processes. Seagrass beds in southwest Tobago have also been impacted by land-based pollution, coastal development, such as land reclamation, and acute disturbance events, such as Sargassum influx. Considering the current climate change projections for island nations, including sea-level rise, increase in extreme storms, global warming and ocean acidification, there is an urgent need to boost the resilience of crucial marine ecosystems to reduce the vulnerability of these ecosystems and dependent communities.
The Marine Resilience Initiative (MARIN) Tobago project is an 18-month pilot project carried out by the Institute of Marine Affairs with support from the bpTT. MARIN means ‘of the sea’ and aims to highlight our dependency and interconnectedness with our ocean and the need to act as stewards to these valuable but vulnerable ecosystems. During the pilot phase, MARIN Tobago seeks to determine the feasibility of coral and seagrass rehabilitation strategies given their current ecological state, existing disturbances, and management practices. For this, IMA will explore suitable methodologies for seagrass and coral reef restoration in Tobago; one that maintains biodiversity and continues to support livelihoods. The second objective is to sensitize on the importance of coral reef and seagrass restoration efforts and garner community support for sustainable restoration and active management efforts. By the end of the pilot, we hope to create a Marine Resilience Network – group of community stakeholders that we can draw upon to assist rehabilitation activities when the time comes.
If strategies prove to be viable, we will move on to the second phase, which is the implementation of rehabilitation at sites that to jumpstart ecosystem restoration. However, restoration can only be sustainable with active management. While laws exist to protect the Buccoo Reef marine protected area, it is lacking in enforcement and an approved management plan. The IMA aims to target community group at the grass-roots level to educate and spur stewardship through education.
Project activities began after the project launch in April 2022. The first activities undertaken in the first three months focused on mapping the seagrass meadows in SW Tobago. A health assessment was conducted at Bon Accord Lagoon and Kilgwyn (along the south coast) where seagrasses occur. Water samples were tested for nutrient pollution, while the seagrasses were monitored for productivity and faunal richness. Methods of seagrass transplantation were explored with feedback from the community of experts and stakeholders on strategies. Transplanting trials used two methods at two location – Accord Lagoon as a control site, and at Kilgwyn, an area of seagrass loss and a higher wave environment.
The second component focussed on assessing coral health at five pilot sites across Tobago (southwest and northeast). The coral reef sites where observed for coral cover and diversity along with the presence of disease, coral recruitment and competitor species. These sites were selected to determine suitable locations for potential host sites for coral restoration through larval based coral propagation, as well as sites of restoration. During coral spawning season, July to October, the team focuses on tracking the coral spawning patterns of prominent coral species to compared with the predictions for the southern Caribbean. This is the first time that coral spawning has been monitored in detail in Tobago.
The feasibility assessment for rehabilitation and restoration is an essential first step to guide the implementation phases of future restoration activities in Tobago. The immediate outputs of the study would be to coordinate rehabilitation efforts at a national scale and avoid pockets of mismanaged restoration activities by well-intentioned, but isolated activities that may be potentially detrimental. This is necessary for initiating coral reef and seagrass restoration in Tobago that will be extended to more sites in Trinidad and Tobago in the next phase. It will also help determine the most practical step forward, so that efforts and funds can be focused on the needs of the marine habitats that are suitable for rehabilitation. Part of this includes building social resilience in tandem with ecological resilience through community inclusion. In the event that coral spawning is observed, IMA will prioritise reefs for coral larval-based restoration of suitable species. Success of the seagrass restoration will result in the expansion of the restoration practice and monitoring for long-term recovery. All implementation activities must correspond with specific threat reduction management of our marine ecosystems, such as abating land-based pollution and regulating fishing activities.