Haiti's Coral Reef Could Feed Thousands

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Reef Check survey concludes that coral reefs should be part of long-term solution to food shortage

Haiti's coral reefs could help feed thousands of undernourished Haitians according to a preliminary survey by scientists from Reef Check, a non-profit organization focused on improving reef health worldwide. The rapid assessment completed on April 18th showed that the reefs most likely to be damaged by the monster 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010 were unaffected by the quake and could easily become an important source of desperately needed protein if they are properly managed to increase fish stocks.

Reef Check surveyed two areas:
1.  The Arcadine Islands north of Port au Prince
2.  Fringing reefs off Jacmel on the south coast

The seabed in both areas was covered with between 50 and 80% living coral, with a high biodiversity and excellent structure to serve as fish habitat. According to Reef Check Director, Dr. Gregor Hodgson, a coral reef ecologist, “The reefs surveyed are in better condition than those in Florida, and included large stands of the Elkhorn coral, now on the US Endangered Species List. Surprisingly, there was no evidence of direct earthquake damage to reefs just a few yards offshore of heavily damaged hotels.”

Like elsewhere in the Caribbean, Haitian reefs have been overfished resulting in a lowered abundance and small size of fish on the reefs. According to Reef Check, what is needed is the establishment of a network of marine protected areas, education of Haitians about the value of reefs and the benefits of reef conservation, and regular monitoring or reef status.

Healthy coral reefs can provide up to 35 metric tons of fish per square kilometer, whereas overfished reefs such as those in Haiti provide only one tenth this amount. By setting aside areas of coral reef where reef fish can grow and breed without disturbance, more fish and larger fish will produce millions of new young fish every year, increasing the available fish supply for hungry Haitians.

Even before the earthquake, Haitians were short of food with 58% of the population under-nourished and some children reportedly being fed mud cakes seasoned with salt. The 10 million people of Haiti make up 25% of the total population of the Caribbean and are growing rapidly at 2.5% annually. Sadly, one in five Haitians dies before the age of 40. Prior to the earthquake, Haiti was already trapped in a cycle of environmental degradation and ranks 148th of 179 countries on the United Nations Development Program Human Development Index; 76 percent of Haitians live on less than US$2 per day. Haiti imports 48 percent of its food. One third of newborn babies are born underweight.

According to Reef Check, most international relief has focused on terrestrial solutions, neglecting the potential that improved management of coral reefs and associated fisheries could play in improving food supply and nutrition. Haiti is an island country surrounded by coral reefs. Most experts have assumed that Haiti's reefs were destroyed long ago. “Our rapid assessment indicates that any long-term plan for food security in Haiti should include reef fisheries,” says Hodgson. Reef Check plans a more detailed reef survey later in the year with Haitian biologist Jean Wiener and is seeking funds to design a network of marine protected areas for the government that will help increase fish stocks.