Wednesday, 5 February 2014

St. Lucia: stunning island, surprising coral reefs but challenges everywhere

Petite Piton and fishing boats viewed from Soufriere Harbor
To say the island of St. Lucia is stunning is an understatement.  Its volcanic mountains thrust up into the moist tropical clouds of the Caribbean bringing frequent rains keeping everything verdant.

The rain forest at the Millett Nature Reserve.

However, this small (about 20 mile long) island has only a few economic opportunities.  Tourists are the ‘top banana’ but real bananas are second.  However, they don’t make enough money to support the island population so poverty and begging (on land and in the sea) is common.

Coastal village with fishing boats and a life connected to the sea.

With this is the background lets consider the status and conservation of St. Lucia’s coral reefs.  St. Lucia is well known in among the scientific and conservation community for having developed ocean use zoning well before many countries or islands had considered it.  Their reefs are small because the slopes from the mountains are so great so fishing pressure is concentrated over a relatively small area.   That’s a prescription for rapid depletion of reef fish.  So St. Lucia set up areas where fishing was prohibited and other areas they call “Fishing Priority” areas.  The idea is that if fish stocks build up in abundance and size in the no-take reserves, they will spill over into the Fishing Priority areas.

St. Lucia's progressive marine zoning map for multiple uses.
It appears this worked for a period of time.  However, meeting with the Jeannine Compton the managers of the Soufriere Marine Management Area (SMMA) she tells me that in recent years “compliance is a problem”.  The SMMA region has Rangers who patrol the region daily but areas that are out of sight or everywhere at night has little or no patrolling.

Ms. Jeannine Compton the Director of the Soufriere Marine Management Area (SMMA).

Jeannine arranged for Chancey Macdonald and I to survey all of the important reefs of St. Lucia’s SMMA and CAMMA (Canaries Marine Management Area).  For this, SMMA Rangers would pick us up each day from Alaria for dives at two reef sites.  We did this all week and got a good feeling for the status of St. Lucia’s reefs.

SMMA Rangers Mario Justin (left) and Francois Kerjackie (right).  Great company and wonderful Rangers!

First of all, this is a high island so much of the substrates on which coral could live are boulders that rolled off the island.  They had coral growing on them – and some sites had considerable coral.   What is so odd is how little of the coral accumulated.  I have to assume that as soon as a coral dies in this environment, it gets bioeroded to sediment that is washed away.  That’s very different from most of the Caribbean reefs I’ve studied (e.g. in Belize, Mexico, Jamaica and St. Croix) where as coral dies they leave their skeleton and the reef as a geological structure persists.  Not so with few exceptions in St. Lucia.

Boulder reefs of St. Lucia (but not all reefs are like this)
Stoplight parrotfish grazes a boulder reef.  Strings are from a worm that eats particles that fall on the reef.
The other difference we found in St. Lucia’s reefs is the abundance of the black spined sea urchin named Diadema.  This sea urchin was, until 1984, one of if not THE dominant grazer on Caribbean coral reefs.  In the early 1980s this sea urchin reached population densities averaging over 15 per square meter.  It was a virtual carpet of poison-filled spines that were literally and figuratively a pain in the ass.  Well over 90% of Diadema died throughout the Caribbean and their recovery has been slow or non-existent.  However, at a few sites on St. Lucia’s reefs, Diadema population densities were enough for them to be the dominant grazer.  Where that happens, the seafloor turns pink from the calcifying red algae (called crustose coralline algae or CCA for short).  The reef takes on an entirely new look.  Light reflects off the reef, the water is clear and baby corals do very well.

Two Diadema urchins grazing with pink coralline algae and a few corals (along my transect line)
We do wonder why Diadema has come back to only a few places in the Caribbean.  After a long period where no Diadema were easy to find on reefs, they started to come back… but only to a point.  The pattern often is, they do well in some back-reef environments and they do well at 3 – 5 meters water depth (10 – 15 feet) but not usually at the 10 m (30 foot) depth where we work. 

However, we did find sites in St. Lucia where Diadema thrived at 10 m and we have to wonder why here but not in lots of other places (recall we found NO Diadema in Barbuda). 
Baby (small) corals in a well urchin grazed portion of the coral reef
One possibility is that the key Diadema predators such as queen trigger fish and some of the larger grunts (e.g. bluestriped grunts) and Spanish hogfish are rare or absent at the key Diadema sites.  Our data suggests this may be the case.  Some of the sites with relatively few Diadema predators had the highest abundance of the sea urchin.  While sites with lots of Diadema predators had relatively few sea urchins.  The data are messy and this is far from resolved but it may be that the heavily fished predators allow Diadema to thrive and when that happens the reef appears healthy.  Perhaps in an ideal world, it would be better to have the big carnivorous and big herbivorous fish of yesteryear, but alas, we are not living in a perfect world so the Diadema patch we studied was one of the nicest reefs we’ve seen in the eastern Caribbean!

Sponges, clear water and Diadema ... just a pretty reef!
Some staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) a rare but not absent coral in St. Lucia.

Peacock flounder (just pretty)

Very pretty small anemone that lives in a sponge.  It is called Parazoanthus
Fishing is the only option for lots of the folk.  What surprised me was they target ballyhoo and flying fish (by netting them) for food.  Ballyhoo is most commonly used for bait elsewhere but there just aren't many big fish left so this is what they eat.

Fisherman prepares the ballhoo he caught as Chauncey looks on.
Ballyhoo and other fish seasoned for tomorrow meal.
There are also ideas of trying to deploy fish aggregation devices in order to get pelagic fish to stick around.  No one was talking about them so I'm not sure they succeeded.

Fish aggregation device "guarantees bigger and better catch" but I didn't hear anyone talking about them.
Jeannine warned us that poaching within the no-take reserves has been increasing in recent years.   This doesn’t surprise us because getting one large lobster to market would be worth more than a day of begging for money.  While it is arguable that maintaining the marine reserves will sustain a healthier reef ecosystem, when you have no financial resources, liquidating the natural resources to which you have access becomes rational.  Note, that does not mean it is sustainable, just that it is a rational option given the lack of alternatives.

When the Rangers took us to our last site, which is around the back of Gros Peton (the biggest of the two famous pitons), we came across three local guys swimming.  The rangers asked them what they were doing but they had no evidence of having any fish.  Given that we were not within site of any houses, it is unlikely these guys were just out for a swim.  Nevertheless, Chancey and I had to do our surveys so we suited up and jumped in the water.  As we got to work, I noticed a fish trap not far away.  These are clearly illegal and there was a string of them.  Jeannine thinks they are checked and rebaited at night in the dark.

Illegal fish trap in the Gros Peton no-take zone.
Parrotfish (with spots) and other fish in the trap.

I’ve seen plenty of fish traps over the decades but I can’t think of many (any?) with as many fish or the diversity we saw in this trap.  I saw in this one trap, Spanish grunt, French grunts, white grunts, blue tang, ocean surgeon, surgeonfish, stoplight parrotfish, spotted drum, Caribbean king crab (Mithrax) and Caribbean lobster (Panulirus argus).  Obviously the fishing was very good in this no-take reserve.  We reported this to the Rangers and they asked that we open the trap and let the fish go (which we did).  It is unlikely the fellows swimming had anything to do with the traps (they require a boat to service) but everyone agreed that they were undoubtedly fishing but dropped their catch and their spear guns when they saw the Rangers.

The income inequality is striking and we of course were part of that.  Next to fishing villages with no opportunity for work or income are expensive cruising yachts.  St. Lucia is a destination for a range of cruising ships.  Sadly, only a tiny fraction of the wealth from a cruise ship of 3000 passengers is passed to the island community of St. Lucia.

Sailboats and big cruise ships frequent Soufriere Bay, St. Lucia.

As it happens paying for moorings is one of the best sources of income for coastal villages.  But the villagers know it is their job to try to extract as much money as possible from transient sailors.  You cannot tie up your dingy at the town dock without a boy waving at you as you approach to point out the obvious spot where you should tie up.  Then they offer their services to watch your dinghy.  This is worth the few dollars we spent for this because an inflatable dingy is vulnerable (although we had the smallest and dingiest dingy in the harbor).

After being in St. Lucia for nearly two months I could now see and feel the “edge” that divided the haves from the have-nots.  Children would paddle to the boat on a broken found surfboard asking for food or money to take our garbage.  We’d love to support them all but it would be hopeless.  There was also an aggressiveness we encountered from time to time.  People would not take “no” for an answer.  On the occasions when we gave something to one person we’d find a rapid increase in beggars wanting more from us. It is hard to say no to those in need but our giving would not change this situation. 

So it was with mixed emotions that we departed St. Lucia at 5 am under a starry canopy.  As we sailed out, we gazed at the shadows of the conical hulks of the pitons for the last time.  Just above them we saw the famous Southern Cross constellation marking our way south to Bequia (St. Vincent) where we hoped to find healthier reefs and happier communities.

The setting sun from St. Lucia.


  1. What a stunning place in the world! Very insightful post!

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