Background information on 
Jamaica's reefs

(By Marjo Vierros, RSMAS)

Jamaica’s coral reefs are among the best studied in the world. They may also be the longest directly observed submarine ecosystems, with data available since the 1950s, when T.F. Goreau and his associates initiated their studies (Goreau, 1992). Subsequent observations by researchers at the Discovery Bay Marine Laboratory of the University of West Indies, as well as other scientists, have added to the wealth of information that is now available about Jamaica’s marine ecosystems.  

According to Wells and Lang (1973) Jamaica is located at the center of coral diversity in the Atlantic Ocean. Over 60 species of reef building corals grow here, with fringing reefs occurring on a narrow, 1-2 km shelf along most of the north coast of Jamaica. Reefs also grow sporadically on the south coast on a much broader shelf that is over 20 km wide (Hughes, 1994). In addition, reefs and corals can be found on the neighbouring banks of the Pedro Cays, 70 km to the south, and the Morant Cays, 50 km to the southwest (Woodley et al. 1998).  

The shallow water reefs of Jamaica are recent structures, probably less than 5000 years old and superimposed on a succession of older, submerged shorelines and drowned reefs that mark the various eustatic low stands of the Pleistocene and Holocene sea levels (Goreau and Wells, 1967). This indicates that the rate of sea level rise was too rapid for coral growth keep pace as was common in other areas in the Caribbean. The distribution of reef zones is strongly dependent on the submarine depth profile. As a result, there are large variations in the distance of the reef crest from the shore along the narrow north coast shelf. In addition, bays indent from the rest of the coastline, creating locally-wider lagoons, which contributes to the variable width of the adjacent reef zones. The south coast, contrary to the north coast, has a wide shelf area with unconsolidated sediments. The corals form patch reefs without a buttress zone, and are surrounded by sandy bottom. South of Kingston there is a reef crest as well.  

Jamaica’s coral reefs have undergone large changes during the past thirty years. These changes present a case study in the devastating effects of combined human and natural disturbances on a reef system. The natural impacts, most importantly the Diadema antillarum die-off and hurricane damage, started a major deterioration in Jamaica’s coral reefs. The recovery of the reefs after the natural disturbances was prevented due to chronic human disturbance, notably over-fishing and increased sediment and pollution runoff (Woodley et al. 1998). The phase shift from corals to algae witnessed in Jamaica during the past years demonstrate how human and natural disturbances may interact, reinforcing one another (Woodley, 1995).  

Goreau (1959) described the typical reef zonation of a Jamaican coral reef from his early studies in Ocho Rios. The reef crest was composed of the rear zone, the reef flat and the Acropora palmata zone. The rear zone forms the inshore limit of the reef crest and rises abruptly from the sandy bottom of the lagoon at a depth of 2 to 3 meters, and was the site of a rich and varied coral population dominated by massive species. The reef flat was formed almost entirely of dead and unconsolidated colonies of branching corals (Acropora palmata). The reef flat gave way to a narrow zone, which was populated almost entirely by large tree-like colonies of Acropora palmata. The reef slopes down gently to depths between 5 and 7 m over a distance of 30 to 60 m. the lower palmata zone formed a kind of a moat since the reef became shallower again in the buttress zone. The buttress zone consists of spurs or buttresses of living coral, which project outward to deeper water. The spurs are separated from each other by a series of narrow canyons or grooves running parallel to each other. At the crest the depth averages only about 2m while the canyons are at between 8 and 10 m deep. Large-scale aerial photographs show that this zone extends from Port Antonio in the east to Montego Bay in the west. Generally, spurs and grooves occur most everywhere, but not buttresses. There are some interruptions and the width of the zone is variable. The shallower part of the forereef consisted of large areas of staghorn coral, Acropora cervicornis. This zone is broken by elongated sandy tracts, which are the outward continuations of the grooves. There is high vertical relief. The lower part of the forereef was characterized by great numbers of multilobal heads of Montastrea annularis and other massive corals. Dense coral populations have been observed to occur down to 70 m (Goreau and Wells, 1967).  

The pattern of zonation described by Goreau, though typical of its time, has changed drastically since hurricane Allen in 1980 and subsequent disturbances. It is possible that Goreau’s descriptions of luxurious growth of Acropora palmata and A. cervicornis may have represented an atypical condition. According to Woodley (1992) the condition of the reef at the time of these studies was a result of a long hurricane-free period (39 hurricanes between 1870 and hurricane Gilbert in 1988). The single longest period with no hurricane activity during this time period is an interval of 36 years between 1944 and 1980. This is the time period of fluorishing Acropora thickets, and also the time period during which most descriptions of the coral reefs of Jamaica’s north coast were written.  

The classic north coast reef zonation patterns described by Goreau and colleagues in the 1950s – 1970s no longer exist, and a striking phase shift has taken place from a coral dominated system to one dominated by algae (Hughes, 1994). The Acropora palmata and A. cervicornis zones (Goreau, 1959) are no longer recognizable, since these dominant species have suffered sharp reductions in abundance (Hughes, 1993). These changes are due to multiple human and natural impacts, which will be detailed here.  

Hughes (1993) measured coral cover on nine reef sites on the north coast in the late 1970s. The results averaged 52% coral cover at 10 m depth. In the 1990s the coral cover on these reefs had declined to 3%. During the same time period, the coverage of fleshy macroalgae had increased from 4% to 92%. Similar results were also reported by other researchers.  

Although the human stresses on coral reefs were already present in the 1970s and earlier, there appeared to be little visible coral deterioration prior to the advent of hurricane Allen in 1980. Hurricane Allen severely damaged the coral reefs of north Jamaica. An almost total mortality of Acropora cervicornis was experienced, and A. palmata did not fare much better. Overnight, Hurricane Allen created patterns of distribution and abundance strikingly different from pre- existing states (Woodley et al. 1981). The destruction of the tall branching Acropora species caused a severe reduction in reef architectural complexity. At Discovery Bay average spatial indices ranged from 3.8 m/m at 3m to 2.8 m/m at 10m prior to the hurricane. After hurricane Allen, the reef architectural complexity was reduced to 1.6 and 1.4 m/m respectively (Steneck, 1993).  Coral cover was also reduced after the hurricane. In 1977, Hughes (1993) recorded coral covers between 47% and 70% at his study sites near Discovery Bay. After hurricane Allen, coral cover had fallen to 22-38% and the relative abundance of species had changed significantly.  

Within a few months substantial coral recruitment began, and while recruitment by Acropora was minimal, other corals settled onto the free spaces and the reef began to recover. During the following 3-4 years coral cover increased slowly, rising from 22% in 1981 to 29% in 1984 at a study site in Rio Bueno (Hughes, 1993).  

All this changed, however, when a mass mortality of the black sea urchin, Diadema antillarum, took place in Caribbean between 1982 and 1984, caused by a species-specific pathogen. The effects were seen in Jamaica in 1983 with far-reaching consequences to the coral reefs of the island. Jamaica had had an unusually high abundance of Diadema prior to the die-off. Even though overfishing had been taking place prior to the 1960s, the abundant Diadema grazed down the algae, allowing corals to dominate. The Diadema population sizes fell abruptly by mid-August 1983 by almost 2 orders of magnitude (Hughes, 1993). When the Diadema died, macroalgae grew over the reefs, smothering living hard corals and preventing new coral larvae from settling. As a result, larval settlement by all species of corals has failed and most of the adult colonies that survived hurricane Allen have been killed by algal overgrowth (Hughes, 1994). In the beginning of the bloom, Dictyota quickly colonized coral rubble left from the hurricane. Lobophora, which previously was abundant at depth, soon expanded its range and Sargassum also colonized the area. Dictyota grew large enough to form canopy layers over the tougher algae. Some species like Halimeda which had always been present in crevices and between the lobes of M. annularis, soon became more abundant. Some of these algae formed extensive mats up to 10-15 cm deep. Prior to the Diadema die-off, the cover of fleshy macoralgae was typically less than 5%. Surveys of a variety of sites show that the cover by fleshy macroalgae has increased from 4 to 92 % (Hughes, 1994). There has been very little, if any, recovery since. The effects of the Diadema die-off highlight the role of herbivory in the dynamics of reef communities. The lack of herbivory due to the loss of Diadema and chronic overfishing has prevented normal recovery from recurrent hurricanes and remains the major impediment to coral reef recovery by pre-empting space and overgrowing coral recruits (Hughes, 1993).  The current depleted fish stocks are not sufficient to reduce algal abundance in the absence of Diadema, nor have the numbers of other echinoids increased to compensate for the loss of Diadema. The most abundant coral on the forereef today is Montastrea annularis, but even this species has declined to 0-2% cover at depth of 10 m in 1993 (Hughes, 1994).  

However, reduced herbivory alone could not have caused the massive macroalgal blooms witnessed in many locations.  Lapointe (1997) presents evidence that bottom-up control of macroalgal standing crops by nutrient enrichment in Discovery Bay was a major contributing factor to the phase shift away from corals and toward macroalgae and algal turfs. Groundwater discharges at Discovery Bay are evidenced in increased nutrient concentrations. The nutrient concentrations measured by Lapointe in Discovery Bay are some of the highest reported for coral reefs world wide and help explain why such impressive standing stocks of macroalage have developed on the reef system. These findings were also supported by those of D’Elia et al. (1981), although it has not been conclusive shown (Kjerfve 1998, Hughes et al. 1999, Aronson and Precht 2000).  

A second major hurricane, hurricane Gilbert, impacted the island in 1988. Hurricane Gilbert was a category 5 storm, and caused additional damage to corals, although the loss in coral cover was less than that during hurricane Allen. Hurricane Gilbert also reduced algal cover and biomass substantially. However, this effect was short-lived and the algal cover returned to previous proportions within a few weeks (Hughes, 1994). Many deeper sites lost almost half their coral cover during 1988. In 1993, in Discovery Bay, the coral cover was less than 3% at many sites, while algal cover everywhere was greater than 90% (Hughes, 1993).  

Jamaica’s coral reefs continue to suffer from combined human-induced and natural stresses. With the growth of human populations, nutrient pollution has increased. This is particularly evident in the vicinity of Kingston, where the pollution plume from Kingston Harbour has contributed to increased coral mortality west of the harbour. Soil erosion has been a serious problem in Jamaica for 50 years. Near the mouths of rivers, sedimentation is damaging reefs. In shallow water, where sea urchin numbers have increased, opportunistic corals have recruited and coral cover is increasing slightly. Healthy coral populations can be found around Port Royal Cays, where coral cover up to 20% can be found. Mass bleaching took place in Jamaica during 1987, 1989 and 1990, with considerable mortality, and wide-spread bleaching was also recorded in 1998 (Woodley et al. 1998).  

Some recovery of coral cover has taken place in a few locations. Mendes et al. (1999) report an increase in live coral cover from approximately 12% in 1989 to over 29% in 1999 at depths between one and eight meters on the fringing reef at Lime Cay, just south of the capital city of Kingston. This is presumed to be due to an increase in the abundance of Diadema in the shallow reef areas. Lime Cay became a part of a protected area in 1998, and is up-current of the polluted outflow from Kingston Harbour. Reef restoration efforts are also underway in Montego Bay, which is both severely impacted and one of the leading tourist destinations in Jamaica. The long term restoration efforts include establishing strategic partnerships, integrated coastal zone management decision support modeling, watershed management, sewage treatment interventions, an alternative income programme, zoning and fisheries management, monitoring, education, volunteer and enforcement programmes (Jameson, et al. 1999)


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