CURAÇAO — The Caribbean island of Curaçao lies just a little bit to the North of Venezuela and is surrounded by more than 100 square kilometers of coral reefs. In a recent compilation of all available scientific literature on the state of Caribbean reefs by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN), some of Curaçao’s reefs, especially those along the eastside of the island, rank among the best remaining in the Caribbean region. In addition to its fringing reefs, large inland bays can be found around the island harboring mangrove/sea grass communities that serve as nursery areas for certain types of reef fish that more abundant than on similar islands that lack inland bays. Curaçao’s reefs currently range in quality from degraded to almost pristine.
Overfishing and coastal development (and all its side effects) are foremost responsible for the local degradation of reefs around the island. On the other hand, one can still find reefs that have not changed at all for more than 50 years, or even have higher coral cover. Such information is derived from the longest time series data on changes in reef community structure in the world that was started by Prof. Bak in the early ‘70’s. These near-pristine reefs are found in the remote areas of the island such as the area locally known as “Oostpunt”, along the eastern side of the island or along the wave-impacted north side of the island. In short, the reefs of Curacao can be found in a variety of conditions varying from degraded to among those considered among the best in the Caribbean.
Such healthy reefs provide numerous benefits to small islands like Curacao: they supports all sorts of activities such as diving, fishing and swimming, but also protect the shore from storm events, generate the sand required to form natural beaches on the island and ensure good water quality so all the activities mentioned above can take place in the first place. Economists have calculated that coral reefs provide goods and services worth about $375 billion worldwide each year – a staggering figure for an ecosystem which covers less than one percent of the earth’s surface. Thankfully, existing and new scientific information on Curaçaoan reef communities gathered by Carmabi researchers is increasingly more often used by the local Government to improve and design new strategies to protect the fragile ecosystem surrounding the island and the services it provides to the local economy. Implementation of four large protected areas and near finalization of new No-Take Reserves around the island to relieve overfished fish communities are just two examples of actions aimed at protecting Curaçao’s reef systems. For many islands, the realization to take such protective measures has come too late and reef systems have collapsed causing losses in tourism and fishing revenue, floods and deteriorated water quality resulting even in the emergence of waterborne diseases that affect human health. None of that has happened on Curacao yet and as such the island’s reefs, together with others in the region such as those on Bonaire and the Aves Islands, remain among the best in the Caribbean region.
Since 1955, Carmabi, first starting as an acronym for Caribbean Marine Biological Station, but later renamed as the Foundation for Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity, has continuously done research on the island’s marine ecosystems. Consequently, an enormous amount of information of the state and workings of reef and mangrove/seagrass systems is available providing background information to scientists working on these systems today. Current research activities focus on understanding the ecological processes that shape present-day coral communities. Examples include the processes driving the ability of coral larvae to establish themselves on the reef, whether young corals can adapt to changing environmental conditions and the ecological importance of turf algae, an algal group that is rapidly increasing in abundance on reefs worldwide, but that remains largely unstudied.
Annually, the research at Carmabi results in approximately 30 scientific papers published in peer reviewed journals and a large number of reports that are used to inform local stakeholder groups. In 2013, a new discovery on the importance of sponges driving energy flow within reef communities was published in the journal Science.
Carmabi has now upgraded its research facilities and to provide Curaçao with a modern biological station that will support and improve existing and new management strategies to safeguard the island’s natural resources. Recent developments have increased local awareness of the loss of natural areas and the need to protect such areas to preserve the island’s identity. The new facilities will triple the amount of laboratory space currently available at Carmabi and provide accommodations for up to 30 people. The upgrading of Carmabi’s laboratories and accommodations for visiting scientists has been made possible primarily through financial support from the Dutch Government through the SEI initiative of the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations (BZK), the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCW), the Curaçaoan Government as well as Carmabi itself.