Antigua and Barbuda is home to 32 species of stony corals, and beds of staghorn corals are common on shallow and deep bank reefs. There are currently six marine parks protecting approximately 13% of the marine habitat in the area.

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Reefs in Antigua and Barbuda

The islands of Antigua and Barbuda are characterized by low-lying coral and limestone formations. Large bank reefs, patch reefs, and fringing reefs cover 180 km2. Antigua has a deeply indented coastline surrounded by reefs except on parts of the west and south coasts. On Barbuda, reefs are found along most of the coast, and an extensive algal ridge runs along the east coast. Much of the reef structure consists of large, interlocking branches of dead elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), indicating previous luxuriant growth. In 2006, 32 species of stony corals covered 2–19% of the reef benthos at 2-10m but cover on deep reefs was less than 3%. Macroalgal cover by Dictyota, Lobophora and Halimeda averaged 33%. Although only 1% of coral colonies showed signs of disease, more that 20% of shallow Montastraea colonies displayed yellow blotch disease. The 2005 bleaching event resulted in average coral cover being reduced from 16% to 7% by 2007. Although previous large stands of A. palmata are no longer present, there are some colonies on shallow and deep reefs and there are some new recruits. The staghorn coral Acropora cervicornis is common on shallow and deep bank reefs and there are A. cervicornis recruits in many habitats.

Recreational and commercial use

Coral reefs and their associated resources are essential to the economic sustainability and growth of Antigua and Barbuda, which is said to have the highest reef dependence in the Caribbean. Famous for its 365 beaches ‘one for every day of the year’, tourism dominates the economy and accounts for over half of the nation's GDP. Tourism in Antigua and Barbuda accounted for over 70% of GDP in 2002 and was valued at $528 million. Boating tourism is particularly popular, due to the numerous sheltered bays and inlets ideally suited to fishing, snorkeling and SCUBA diving. A popular shipwreck dive site is the Andes, a three-masted merchant ship that sank in 1905 and now rests in Deep Bay in less than 10 m of water. Dive facilities in Antigua are much more established than in Barbuda, hence most dive operations are based in Antigua. Fish consumption is high and commercial fishing accounts for 1.48% of GDP (2003) and employs over 1,000 people (2% of population). Catch includes conch, lobster and finfish and total export in 2001 was 368 metric tonnes. There are 9 export facilities in Antigua and 2 in Barbuda (2004). Fisheries Regulations, revised in 2013, limit the fishing of certain protected species like lobsters, marine turtles, conch and parrotfish. Fishing these species requires special permits for spear guns and beach seine nets that have minimum mesh sizes.

Threats to reefs

Key environmental threats include hurricanes and coral bleaching events. Hurricanes Hugo (1989),  Luis and Marilyn (1995) caused extensive damage to reefs in the south and southeast. Shallow branching corals were affected especially severely by these storms. All reefs are threatened by human activities and key threats include overfishing and recreational diving. 70% of reefs are threatened by coastal development and 30% by marine based pollution and sedimentation, resulting in turbid coastal waters and elevated algal cover. According to climate modelling, reefs in the area will experience thermal stress severe enough to cause bleaching every year after 2040. Ocean acidification is expected to cause declines in coral calcification by 2040 of approximately 10%.

Reef management

Marine Parks are established and legislated under the Marine Parks Act 1972. They are managed by the Fisheries Department under the Ministry of Aquaculture, Lands and Fisheries. The Antigua National Trust also assumes responsibility under The Antigua National Trust Act (1972). Six Marine Parks have been established, encompassing 13% of the total reef area. These include: Diamond Reef Marine Park; Palaster Reef Marine Park (both gazetted in 1973); the Cades Bay Marine Park (gazetted in 1999); and the Codrington Lagoon and the North Sound (gazetted in 2005). However, there is little active management of these reserves. Good examples of mangroves, seagrasses and corals are found within Nelsons Dockyard National Park (NDNP); the Environmental Unit of the NDNP has created a Snorkelling Reef Trail to help raise awareness of the types of reef species found in the area.

The information used to prepare this report was compiled from the following reports and articles:  

Bouchon, C., Portillo, P., Bouchon-Navaro, Y., Louis, M., Hoetjes, P., De Meyer, K., Macrae, D., Armstrong, H., Datadin, V., Harding, S., Mallela, J., Parkinson, R., Van Bochove, J-W., Wynne, S., Lirman, D., Herlan, J., Baker, A., Collado, L., Nimrod, S., Mitchell, J., Morrall, C. and Isaac, C. (2008) Status of Coral Reef Resources of the Lesser Antilles: The French West Indies, The Netherlands Antilles, Anguilla, Antigua, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago. In: Wilkinson, C. (ed.). Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2008. Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network and Reef and Rainforest Research Centre, Townsville, Australia. pp 265-280.

Burke, L., Reytar, K., Spalding, M. and Perry, A. (2011) Reefs At Risk Revisited. World Resources Institute, Washington DC. 114 p.  

Burke, L. and Maidens, J. (2004) Reefs at Risk in the Caribbean. World Resources Institute, Washington DC. 80 p.

Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism. Quick Facts: Antigua and Barbuda