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Curaçao, 31 October 2002 — The island of St. Martin (both the French and the Dutch sides) will be hosting the second Caribbean Coral Reef Conference next year. This was announced by the representatives of the two marine parks around St. Martin at the end of the first conference on Curaçao.

From October 24 to 29, representatives of Caribbean marine parks, coral reef conservation organizations, and grassroots groups, as well as representatives from the private sector and government services, discussed the urgency of reef conservation. It was clear that the problems are very similar everywhere, but that each island or country has developed its own solutions, which can often be helpful for other (is)lands. Participants were very satisfied with the contacts made during the conference as well as the lessons learned from each other’s experiences. Everyone agreed that these contacts should be kept alive and that meetings such as this should be held regularly. The NACRI (Netherlands Antilles Coral Reef Initiative) will undertake to expand its website with links to initiatives and contacts in the other Caribbean nations.

Sustainable tourism

In his opening speech for the conference, Curaçao Commissioner of Tourism Ramon Chong announced that, in anticipation of legislation, he has decided to have moorings placed in the Curaçao waters. Thus, dive and fishing boats can moor without damaging the corals by anchoring as is still happening at the moment. Chong emphasized that Curaçao is serious about sustainable tourism, i.e. use of the natural beauty of the island by both tourists and local people, without a negative impact on nature.

Ms. Islelly Pikerie, Minister of Public Health and Environment of the Netherlands Antilles, presented a keynote address. She emphasized the vital importance of coral reefs to the islands and the need to protect them in the face of continuing degradation. She stressed that for this it is necessary to have the support of the whole community. She applauded the NACRI as a multi-stakeholder approach, supported by the Antillean government which has officially joined the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI). Furthermore, she stressed the need for adequate legislation to protect the reefs, still lacking on Curaçao and St. Maarten, as well as legislation to regulate fisheries which all islands except Saba still lack.

Antillean biodiversity

The necessity of legislation was recognized by the participants of the conference as well. Proper legislation will make it possible to protect the reefs, while at the same time ensuring their use in a sustainable way by both fishermen and tourists. According to the participants, the Netherlands should also assume its responsibility. The biodiversity of the Antillean islands is a cause extending beyond the Caribbean, and of worldwide importance. As part of the Kingdom, the Netherlands should give more assistance in the financing of coral reef conservation in the Antilles, as well as focus more attention on the coral reefs.

In the course of the conference, the participants concluded that governments and local people are still not sufficiently aware of the fact that coral reefs are an economic product, attracting lots of tourists. Deterioration of the coral reefs might in the long run keep diving and snorkeling tourists from coming to the islands, with severe consequences for the economies of the Caribbean, most of which are heavily dependent on tourism. So, because of the economic value of reefs, financial support from the government is hardly a luxury, but more of a stark necessity. Yet presently the level of financial support from governments is far too low.

Financial problems

Money is a universal problem. In Sint Maarten for example the Marine Park has very limited powers because structural financial support is lacking and user fees cannot be levied without legislation. Paul Ellinger, assistant manager of the Marine Park: ‘The policymakers, both from St. Maarten, the Netherlands Antilles, and the Netherlands, really must give nature conservation top priority. We cannot achieve sustainable economic or tourism development if we do not take care of our nature and environment.’ That is exactly why this conference is so important explained Gershon Lopes, assistant manager of the St. Eustatius Marine Park: ‘Everyone is saying that there is no money, but by pooling resources with our neighboring islands and by organizing things together we can save money. And time. Not every island needs to discover which types of moorings are best. You can learn from each other. It is important to keep in contact.’

In this context, Jill Meyer of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, USA) Coral Reef Program called on the participants to keep the momentum and follow up on the successful conference. The NOAA runs and finances several monitoring programs in the Caribbean.

Coastal development

For the French islands, it was the first time that they were in contact at this level with so many other islands in the Caribbean. Since the French islands are provinces of France, policymakers are more oriented towards Paris than towards the neighboring islands. Franck Mazéas (French Department of Environment on Guadeloupe) was impressed by the large number of participants involved with the coral reefs and was willing to actively help protect them. At the same time, he was surprised that development right up to the edge of the sea is still allowed on Curaçao in spite of the amply proven detrimental effects on the coral reefs.

George Warner of the University of the West Indies and the CARICOM Data Center in Jamaica was satisfied with the many contacts made during the conference. ‘I enjoyed it and I am optimistic about the future of this group of participants. I am not sure whether I can be optimistic about the future of the coral reefs. But I am hopeful.’

Ecological balance

During the conference, it became clear that even world-acclaimed coral reefs like those of Bonaire are gradually declining. Causes are mostly human. Bonaire for instance still has no wastewater treatment system, so nutrients eventually end up in the coastal waters, causing algal growth detrimental to corals. The number of large fish such as groupers has declined alarmingly due to overfishing. Overfishing removes the big predatory fish from the reefs, thus disturbing the ecological balance.

During the conference, the island of St. Lucia was presented as a country that has regulated its fisheries well. The reefs remain intact, while there is still enough fish for local fishermen.

The successful conference showed how local initiatives may succeed in earning support and appreciation from other Caribbean islands as well as international organizations which were also present, like CARICOM, WIDECAST, Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, and Greenpeace Netherlands. After consultation with the other participants at the conference, the collective Antillean coral reef organizations gathered in the NACRI presented a number of projects to promote the protection of the coral reefs as well as awareness among local people. To start with three projects, an amount of 35.000 Antillean guilders is needed. Over the coming three years a much larger amount of about 350.000 guilders will be needed

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