Changing Planet

A First Impression of Montserrat, from Below the Surface

Dispatch from the field, by Waitt Institute Science Manager Andy Estep:

If you’re a geology nerd like me, hearing of Montserrat makes you think “the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean, precariously perched on the Lesser Antilles Volcanic Arc along the eastern subduction zone of the Caribbean plate.” The incredible volcanology that has been forming and shaping Montserrat since the Pleistocene is fascinating. But as a geologist who has become a marine biologist, I can tell you Montserrat is also very alive and fascinating underwater.

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Soufriere Hills volcano viewed from the water. Photo: Courtesy Waitt Institute

As Science Manager of the Waitt Institute, I was in Montserrat recently working with the government and community on next steps for Blue Halo Montserrat. I also had a more specific mission for this trip: photographing large sections of the coral reef to be able to characterize their current state. This will give us a baseline for what the reefs look like now so we can understand why and how they change in the future.

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A secretary blenny (Acanthemblemaria maria) pokes its head out of a worm tube in a massive star coral (Siderastrea siderea). Photo: Dr. Phil Matich

Nathaniel Hanna-Holloway, a masters student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO), led the research, and Chad Koll (another SIO masters student), Dr. Phillip Matich of Florida International University, and Stephanie Roach (Waitt Institute’s Program Manager) and I assisted.

We went on 42 dives, took nearly 100,000 high-resolution photos of large sections the reefs, and had our eyes opened to the diverse and robust coral reef communities of Montserrat. These photos are being stitched together into large “photomosaics” of the reefs.

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Andy Estep, Waitt Institute Science Manager, swims the camera rig over the reef to collect images that will be used to generate photomosaics. Photo: Dr. Phil Matich
MNI - Acer on reef
The orange, branching staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis), pictured here among a host of other hard and soft coral species, is listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Photo: Dr. Phil Matich

This is part of a larger effort by the Sandin Lab at SIO, to create photomosaics of coral reefs on 100 islands around the world. We are working with them on this research in Barbuda and Curaçao, our other two Blue Halo Initiative sites.

The health of Caribbean coral reefs has declined dramatically in the last few decades, but during our week of diving around Montserrat we saw a few exciting signs of hope. Here are my initial observations, based on almost a decade of working and diving in the Caribbean:

  1. Coral cover (i.e., the percent of the reef covered in living corals) is around 10-25%. For context, many Caribbean reefs once had more than 50% coral cover and now have less than 5%! On Montserrat, many of the corals are babies, a sign of regrowth and recovery.
  2. There were a lot of juvenile reef fish, again a sign of populations that can rebuild and recover.
  3. Coral species diversity is relatively high, and includes six of the seven Caribbean coral species designated as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
  4. Diversity of reef fish appears to be relatively high as well.
  5. There are deep reefs (at 100-150 feet) with abundant living coral and really interesting structure and shapes.
A large school of Brown Chromis (Chromis multilineata) and Black Durgeons (Melichthys niger) swimming above a coral reef. One day, we hope to see large parrotfish, snappers, and groupers in this school. Photo: Andy Estep

Reflecting upon this trip, resilience is the word that comes to mind for the people and natural resources of Montserrat, which was dealt a one-two punch by Hurricane Hugo in 1988 and then again by the eruptions of the Soufrière Hills volcano through the mid 1990’s. Around the island, on land and underwater, are signs of strength, regrowth, and a bright future.

We’re looking forward to coming back later this year for a full assessment of the coral reefs and fisheries, and continuing to build our partnership with the people of Montserrat to support them as they develop a plan to use their ocean without using it up.

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Polyps open up and tentacles extend from the great star coral (Montastraea cavernosa) as it feeds on zooplankton and detritus. Photo: Andy Estep

To follow the progress of Blue Halo Montserrat and the overall work of the Waitt Institute, find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, or sign up for our newsletter.

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, policy expert, conservation strategist, and Brooklyn native. She is founder and president of Ocean Collectiv, a consulting firm for ocean conservation strategies grounded in social justice. She teaches at New York University as an adjunct professor, and was co-director of partnerships for the March for Science. As executive director of the Waitt Institute, Ayana co-founded the Blue Halo Initiative and led the Caribbean’s first successful island-wide ocean zoning effort. Previously, she worked on ocean policy at the EPA and NOAA, and was recently a TED resident and Aspen Institute fellow. She envisions and works toward a healthy ocean that supports food security, economies, and cultures. Find her @ayanaeliza.
  • James Hewlett

    We have 10 years of data (2003 – 2013) from these reefs and I can tell you that the average hard coral cover is actually 11.4%. In addition, the “babies” that are mentioned to suggest regrowth and recovery are most likely all part of a single genus (Porites) so diversity is low, and when those colonies grow to about 20cm, they start suffering the same mortality as other species.

  • Christopher

    Thank you for a wonderful post about your work and observations. Keep up the good work!

  • Andy Estep

    Professor Hewlett, thank you for this comment and for making us aware of your valuable dataset. Because we were diving primarily for the photomosaic project, we visited sites expected to have higher coral cover. We should have been more clear about that. So we expect that when we return to conduct an island-wide, quantitative assessment we will find that average coral cover is lower than what we observed at these first 8 sites, and likely more similar to the results that you have found. The reefs we visited were indeed generally dominated by Porites astreoides; however, we did see a great deal of coral species diversity. As we tried to make clear in the title, this article is simply to share our first impressions, not a rigorous analysis by any means. We will be in touch with you over email, hoping to see and discuss your data and reports so we can to better understand the details and trends you observed in your decade of research.

  • Alwyn

    Where there is life there is hope. Thumbs up to the Waitt Institute for bringing to light, life under the sea to the local communities. It’s great news to see that the coral reefs are still a hot spot for scientific research. Now that we know that there is a wealth of valuable data available to assist the Govenment of Montserrat effort to improve its knowledge and understanding of the ocean ecosystems services, it would be good if Professor Hewlett can share that data if not already done.

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