80% of all the nesting of leatherback turtles in the Caribbean occurs in Trinidad and Tobago. Coral reefs are most extensive in Trinidad and Tobago along the Tobago coastline. Buccoo Reef is the only marine park in the area and was made a Ramsar site in 2005.

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Reefs in Trinidad and Tobago

The islands of Trinidad and Tobago are situated on the edge of the South American continental shelf and are the most southern of the Lesser Antilles. The influence of the Orinoco River bringing sediment-laden fresh water into the marine environment has prevented all but one fringing reef developing in Trinidad. There are numerous patch reefs near the offshore islands and in various parts of the north coast. These reefs are dominated by sediment-tolerant coral species such as Siderastrea and Porites. Tobago, which is more remote from such river influence, has developed 30 km2 of fringing and patch reefs along about 90 km of its coastline. Land-based sources of pollution such as agricultural runoff and poorly treated sewage from increased tourism development have resulted in high macroalgal cover on some of Tobago’s reefs. CARICOMP surveys at Eastern Reef Tobago showed little change in benthic cover 1996-2000; coral cover remained at 30% and macroalgal cover ranged from 32-45%. Many coral colonies were damaged during the 2005 mass bleaching event, and many of those that recovered were subsequently affected by coral disease; live coral cover on north-western reefs dropped from 21% in 2005 to 15% in 2008 at depths of 7-12 m. Trinidad and Tobago’s beaches are important nesting site for sea turtles, including the critically endangered leatherback. With approximately 6,000 leatherbacks nesting here annually, Trinidad accounts for 80% of all Caribbean nesting for this species. 

Recreational and commercial use

Tourism is the mainstay of Tobago’s economy. In 2002 it was reported that tourism generated $787 million, accounting for 9% of GDP.  In 2006, around 40% of visitors engaged in reef-based tourism which, through direct visitor spending (accommodations, reef recreation activities) and indirect supporting goods (boats, towels, beverages etc.) generated a total of $101-130 million. Tobago has developed its SCUBA diving industry in recent years; the island offers a diverse array of dives including drift dives, the opportunity to swim with pelagic fish species and to view some of the largest recorded brain corals in the world. Fishing is the main occupation in many coastal villages; in 2008 there were approximately 4,500 registered fishers. The inshore artisanal fisheries of both islands provide around 80% of the annual national fisheries production (Burke and Maidens, 2004). In 2007, fisheries export contributed to $0.6 million, accounting for 0.6% of GDP. 

Threats to reefs

All of Tobago’s reefs are threatened by human activities, especially overfishing and coastal development. Approximately 85% of reefs are affected by land-based nutrient and sediment runoff due to land clearance and coastal development, as well as terrestrial sources of pollution, poorly treated sewage and agricultural runoff. Natural threats include coral bleaching and disease. In 1999 there was a major fish kill around Trinidad and Tobago, correlating with flooding of the major South American rivers. At the national level, primary issues include the relatively low priority of environmental issues on the National Agenda, inadequate financial and human resources for proper management, and inadequate law enforcement. Climate models suggest that reefs in the area will experience thermal stress severe enough to cause bleaching annually 2040. Declines in coral calcification by 2040 due to ocean acidification are projected to be approximately 10%.    

Reef management

The Tobago House of Assembly (THA) through the Department of Marine Resources and Fisheries has direct responsibility for management of Tobago’s reefs. Under the Marine Areas (Preservation) Act of 1970, Buccoo Reef, the largest reef area in Tobago, was declared a restricted area in 1973. It remains the only marine park in Trinidad and Tobago, and was designated a Ramsar site in 2005. The park encompasses a 7 km2 area, and includes patch reefs, seagrass beds and mangroves. Buccoo Reef is considered an IUCN category IV protected area: 'Protected area managed mainly for conservation through management intervention [Habitat/Species Management Area]'. However, no effective management has been implemented since its designation as a protected area. The management plans for Buccoo Reef Marine Park (1995) and Speyside Marine Area (2000) have never been implemented. Although many tourism activities are regulated within the park, illegal fishing and reef-walking still take place. The Institute of Marine Affairs started monitoring in 1994. From 2007 to 2010 the Buccoo Reef Trust monitored reefs under the Integrated Watershed and Coastal Area Management project. 


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

Burke, L., Greenhalgh, S., Prager, D. and Cooper, E. (2008) Coastal Capital: Economic Valuation of Coral Reefs in Tobago and St. Lucia. World Resources Institute, Washington DC, USA. 76 p. 

Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism. Quick Facts: Trinidad and Tobago

Hoetjes, P., Lum Kong, A., Juman, R., Miller, A., Miller, M., De Meyer, K. and Smith, A. (2002) Status of Coral Reefs in the Eastern Caribbean: The OECS, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, and the Netherlands Antilles. In: Wilkinson, C. (ed.). Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2002. Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network and Reef and Rainforest Research Centre, Townsville, Australia. pp 325-342.

Kenny J. S. (1976) A preliminary study of the Buccoo Reef/Bon Accord Complex with special reference to development and management.  Unpublished report. Department of Biological Sciences, University of the West Indies, St Augustine: 123

Siung-Chang, A. M., Lum-Kong, A. (2001) Possible link between reef-fish mortalities in the southeast Caribbean and South American river discharge (July-October 1999). Bull Mar Sci 68:343-349

World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA). Mandate 2009-2012. International Union for Conservation of Nature (1999) www.iucn.org