The Bahamas has the third most extensive coral reef system in the world and is famous for its deep water sponges and for its Nassau Grouper spawning aggregation sites. The Bahamas is popular with tourists but recreational use of marine areas is managed and there are currently 17 marine protected areas.
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Reefs in The Bahamas
The Bahama Archipelago stretches over 1,223 km from northwest to southeast and comprises 30 inhabited islands, 661 cays, and approximately 2,387 exposed reefs. Total land area is approximately 13,934 km2 and total reef area is 3,580 km2. The Bahamas has been described as having the third most extensive coral reef system in the world and include extensive examples of patch reefs, fringing reefs, and some bank barrier reefs. The reefs are most prominent on the windward north and eastern sides of the islands and cays. The Andros Barrier Reef extends approximately 200 km and can be zoned as; lagoon (including mangrove areas), back reef, reef crest, inner fore reef, and outer fore reef. Over 164 species of fish and coral make up the reef community. The Andros Barrier Reef exhibits an almost vertical wall to over 2,000 m; this deep trench is known as the ‘Tongue of the Ocean’. This area is famous for its deep water sponges, large schools of Red Snappers and presence of Nassau Grouper spawning aggregation sites. At Rainbow Gardens Reef, Iguana Cay, Exumas, a study from 1991-2004 documented a decline in live coral cover from 13-3%.
Recreational and commercial use
The Bahamas' well-developed economy is driven largely by tourism, which accounts for approximately 60% of the nation's $7 billion GDP, and a rapidly expanding financial services industry. The balance of economic output comes from retail and wholesale trade, fishing, light manufacturing and agriculture. Local and export markets for snapper, grouper, lobster and conch generate millions of dollars, supplying demand far afield. Tourism is concentrated on New Providence and Paradise Island, in Grand Bahama, Abaco and a few other islands in the northern part of the archipelago. Reefs are the base for commercial and recreational activities like fishing, sports-fishing, cruising, snorkelling and SCUBA diving. These industries bring in over $150 million per year. The vertical wall and sunlight penetration due to its east-facing aspect makes Andros Barrier Reef one of the most spectacular diving experiences in the region.
Threats to reefs
The country is an archipelago of small islands that are mostly uninhabited, and more than 80% of the land surface is only a meter or less above mean sea level.
Reefs of the Bahamas are threatened by environmental disturbances and human use. Key environmental threats include hurricanes and coral bleaching events. Key threats from human use include overfishing, marine debris, sewage, ballast discharge, oil spills, ship groundings, erosion from coastal development and invasive species like lionfish. Projections from climate models suggest that reefs in the area will annually experience thermal stress severe enough to cause bleaching after 2040. Coral calcification may decline as much as 10% by 2040 due to ocean acidification.
Management of coral reefs is shared by The Department of Marine Resources (DMR) and the Bahamas National Trust (BNT). Reserves regulated under the Bahamas Fisheries Act are enforced by the Department of Marine Resources; all forms of extractive fishing and fishing gear are prohibited within the boundaries of the reserves. Areas within the national parks system are managed under the Bahamas National Trust Act; these areas are classified according to IUCN’s categorization scheme. Presently, recreational use is encouraged in all of the reserve areas and extractive fishing is only prohibited within marine reserves and national parks with exception to the Andros West Side National Park. These can change based upon completion of management plans. Reef management is also supported by local NGOs such as The Nature Conservancy's Northern Caribbean Office (TNC), Bahamas Reef Environment Education Foundation (BREEF), FRIENDS of the Environment (FRIENDS), Andros Conservancy & Trust (ANCAT), Nature’s Hope for South Andros and the San Salvador Living Jewels. In 2004, Bahamian reefs were protected within 9 MPAs (representing 2% of Bahamian Reefs), but now there are 17 MPAs throughout the country; 13 managed by BNT and 4 managed by the Department of Marine Resources. In recent years, The Bahamas has identified a number of additional marine areas to be protected under the Bahamas National Protected Area System. The protection of these areas will enable the country to meet the it’s CBD commitments to protect 10% of the near-shore habitat and its ‘Caribbean Challenge’ goals of protecting 20% of its near-shore habitat by 2020.
The information used to prepare this report was compiled from the following reports and articles:
Burke, L. and Maidens, J. (2004) Reefs at Risk in the Caribbean. World Resources Institute, Washington DC. 80 p.
Creary, M., Alcolado, P., Coelho, V., Crabbe, J., Green, S., Geraldes, F., Henry, A., Hibbert, M., Jones, R., Jones-Smith, L., Manfrino, C., Manuel, S., McCoy, C and Wiener, J. (2008) Status of Coral Reefs in the Northern Caribbean and Western Atlantic GCRMN Node in 2008. 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 239-252.