I am a Canadian, a marine biologist and former professor at Acadia University, Nova Scotia. I have been coming to the Abaco’s since 1967, built my dream home on Man O War in 2007, and now I spend the winter here. Since 1967 I have been walking the shores and diving on the reefs around MOW and Elbow Cay. I used to bring my students annually so they could experience tropical marine biology and we could study the ecosystem. Things have changed over the years but nothing like they have since 2010.
There are some wide spread problems in the Caribbean that have affected the Bahamian reefs. During the 1980’s a disease arrived that killed off the long-spine, black sea urchins a keystone species on Caribbean reefs. They cleaned the reef of algae allowing coral to grow. Storms broke many of the Elkhorn coral heads and they never seem to have recovered. Do you remember the large, pen shells that used to live among the turtle grass and the pistol shrimp that made diving noisy, clicking as you passed them? Apparently gone! In the 1960’s and until recently the beach sand in the wave swash zone was full of mole crabs, washing out and burrowing back into the sand with each wave. I have not seen one this year! Where are the tree oysters on the mangrove roots?
The coral rock in the intertidal zone that fringes all the islands used to be covered with a high diversity of organisms that could cling to the rocks even in areas of high-energy waves (nerites, top shells (whelks), dog winkles, chitins and large blue grapsid crabs). At the low tide mark were sea urchins that bored into the rock, many small crab species and abundant fish diversity in the tide pools. Mostly gone! I know Bahamians eat some of these organisms but the real problem is they have been largely gone since 2011 with few juveniles recruiting to the populations. The shells that these animals and others produced used to litter the beaches for the shell collectors. Also now largely missing! No more bubble shells, cowries, flame tongues, dove shells, trivias, wentletraps, olives, turkey wings, calico scallops or thorny oysters washing up. All shells that covered Abaconian beaches until 2011!
Last week in THE ABACONIAN, Jeffrey Gale wrote a letter to the editor in support of improved adherence to fishing regulations because he, like myself, has seen the fish disappear. I agree completely that there should better policing of the fishery but as a marine biologist I think the problem is much larger than that. The ecosystem seems to have collapsed since 2010. The loss of many small organisms from the food chain has left little for the fish to feed on!
What happened in 2010? One possibility was that BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico exploded on April 27 causing the largest oil spill in history (4.9 billion barrels). But that oil was not the real problem. Numerous studies have asserted that the tons of oil dispersants (1.8 million gallons) that were spread on the Gulf of Mexico to clean up the oil are harming marine life in the Gulf and causing severe health problems among the workers involved in cleaning up the spill. If you do not believe me Google it!
These dispersants probably would have spread in the Gulf Stream to the northern Bahamas. When I left MOW after the winter of 2010, things seemed normal. When I arrived back in 2011 the collapse of the rocky shore ecosystem was obvious, even to an untrained eye. Also, corals and other marine life largely disappeared on the offshore reefs I dive on.
BP used the dispersant Corexit 9527 on the Horizon spill. A study published in 2012 found that Corexit mixed with oil was 52 times more toxic than oil alone. Another study published in the UK found that Corexit was particularly harmful to marine life found on rocky shores and Corexit has been banned from the UK since 1998. A further study found Corexit was particularly harmful to corals, preventing fertilization and hindering development. And finally, a study published in 2012 from the University of Louisiana found that crabs and shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico were being born without eyes.
The impact on Abaco may be declining after seven years, much like it took many years for the effects of DDT in North America to decline. This year I am observing better recruitment of rocky shore marine life. Also to-day, I found 98, juvenile conch in the turtle grass bed I have been monitoring off MOW. Last year I only found five! The problem is that the loss of the organisms at the bottom of the food chain for the last seven years will be felt among the fish, lobsters and conch that Abaconians will harvest for some years to come. Paradise may not be lost, but it will probably be awhile before it recovers completely.