Jamaica is the third-largest island in the Caribbean, has over 1000 km2 of reef area, and sees over 2 million visitors annually. The National Environmental Planning Agency has established a network of parks and marine protected areas.

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Reefs in Jamaica

Jamaica, in the Greater Antilles is the third-largest island in the Caribbean. Reefs cover 1,40 km2; well-developed 1-2 km wide fringing reefs occur along the north and east coasts and patchy fringing reefs are found on the broader (20 km) shelf of the south coast. Reefs are also found on the neighbouring banks of the Pedro Cays, 70 km to the south, the Morant Cays, 50 km to the south-west and the Formigas Banks to the north-east. The health of Jamaica’s reefs has been severely affected by cumulative impacts over recent decades; hard coral cover declined from 50% in the 1970s to less than 5% by the early 1990s as a result of hurricanes, die-off of Diadema antillarum, coral diseases, and over-fishing. Reef health improved in the following decades, but impacts of elevated sea surface temperature and hurricanes have been evident. In 2005, sea surface temperatures were as high as during the 1997-9 bleaching event and up to 95% of corals bleached at some locations. On average, 34% of corals bleached in 2005 but less than half (13%) suffered subsequent mortality. Hurricane Katrina that same year further degraded reefs through physical damage. By 2008, live coral cover averaged 15%, but the coral cover on shallow reefs is lower. Due to unsustainable fishing practises, fish populations have been in decline for decades; there is evidence of depletion of near-shore fish stocks and a change in community composition. Overall snapper, grunt and parrotfish densities average 1.4 fish per 100 m2 (range 0-31.5 fish per 100 m2). Coupled with low numbers of herbivorous fish, low Diadema densities (20 per 100 m2) have led to high macroalgal cover (island-wide average 24%), but there are indications that the urchin Echinometra viridis is controlling algal growth in Portland Bight Protected Area.  

Recreational and commercial use

Over 2 million foreign tourists visit Jamaica annually; in 2002 it was reported that tourism generated $2.02 billion, accounting for 27% of GDP. Many of these tourists engage in activities in the marine environment, including snorkeling, SCUBA diving and fishing. Jamaica had 15,336 registered fishermen in 2004. Although most finfish (e.g. snappers, parrotfish, doctorfish) are consumed locally, lobster and conch has a valuable export market. Jamaican fisheries contributed approximately 0.4% to GDP in 2001. The Pedro Banks are very important for conch and lobster harvest; accounting for 95% and 60% of the catch, respectively.

Threats to reefs

Jamaica’s reefs are highly exposed to threats and Jamaican people depend heavily on reef ecosystem services but the nation is considered to have a high level of adaptive capacity. Overfishing has can be traced back over a century and has targeted not only large predators, but also herbivorous fish. Watershed-based pollution affected 60% of reefs, while coastal development affects 50% and marine-based sources affect 30%. Poor agricultural practices and extensive coastal development for tourism has increased land erosion and sedimentation on reefs. Natural threats to Jamaica’s reefs include hurricanes and coral bleaching and disease. Climate models suggest that reefs in the area will experience thermal stress severe enough to cause bleaching every year after 2040. Projections of ocean acidification suggest that declines in coral calcification by 2040 are likely to be ~10%.    

Reef management

A National Protected Areas system, an integrated system of parks and marine protected areas, has been initiated by the National Environmental Planning Agency (NEPA). Although the number of MPAs was listed as 12 in 2008 (World Bank), many suffer from lack of enforcement and capacity. The most notable MPAs are Montego Bay Marine Park, Ocho Rios Marine Park, Negril Marine Park and Portland Bight Protected Area. Montego Bay was the first marine park to be established (1992) and is managed under a local NGO, The Montego Bay Marine Park Trust. Montego Bay MPA encompasses the entire 15.3 km2 of Montego Bay, and includes examples of mangrove forests and islands, white sand beaches, river estuaries, seagrass beds and corals. Montego Bay is a multi-zone reserve legislated under the Natural Resources Conservation Authority Act (Marine Park Regulations), and under the ‘Fish Sanctuaries’ regulations of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries Division. The Oracabessa Bay Fish Sanctuary was established in 2010 to increase biodiversity in the Bay to improve livelihoods in the local community. The Fish Sanctuary has reintroduced sea turtles to the area and has out-planted thousands of pieces of staghorn coral through its Coral Propagation Program. Under the ‘Caribbean Challenge Initiative’ Jamaica has committed to protecting 20% of its marine habitats by 2020.


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

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: Jamaica

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.

Wilkinson, C. and Souter, D. (2008) Status of Caribbean coral reefs after bleaching and hurricanes in 2005. Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, and Reef and Rainforest Research Centre, Townsville, Australia. 148 p.