The islands and atolls of the northern Caribbean are home to a vast constellation of coral reefs. The region harbors 59 species of hard corals, representing about 7 percent of the world’s reef-building species. Very few of these species are found outside of the Caribbean, thus making the region an important hotspot for coral biodiversity. Numerous species of soft corals and sponges, including the well-known giant barrel sponges, are also found here. The fish and invertebrate communities are highly diverse, with the snapper, parrotfish, and conch among the best-known species.
Like many coral regions around the planet, the northern Caribbean has undergone widespread change over the past century, driven by coastal development, pollution, over-fishing, the introduction of invasive species such as lionfish, and increasing ocean temperatures. Overfishing favors algae over coral; sedimentation and coastal pollutants negatively affect seawater quality for corals; and tourism has lead to increasing physical damage to the reef. Additionally, the northern Caribbean is known as Hurricane Alley. Few regions on Earth are more prone to tropical cyclones, and yet we are only just starting to understand the role that these big storms play in shaping coral reefs.
Given so many challenges, the conservation community is emphasizing marine management as a pathway to protecting coral reefs into the future. Yet, a well-known problem among marine managers is that of “paper parks” – marine protected areas drawn on a map without detailed spatial planning and enforcement, both of which require investment and engagement from the stakeholder communities that depend upon the ocean and nearshore resources.
The island nation of the Dominican Republic is an important case-in-point. Located on the eastern five-eighths of the massive island of Hispaniola, the “DR” is the second largest Caribbean country (Cuba is the largest) with more than 10 million residents and a coastline of nearly 1,300 kilometers (800 miles). The DR coastline has also become a global tourism hotspot. For example, Puntacana International Airport serves about 7 million travelers each year, and there are several other international airports in the region. Most of these visitors set their sights on white sand beaches, turquoise waters, and outdoor sports ranging from golf to scuba diving. The DR coast is ringed with coral reefs in highly variable condition, some of which are rumored to be degraded from rapid coastal development and overfishing.
Earlier this year, we spent six weeks in the region examining the DR’s coral reefs, indeed finding a wide range of coral conditions, just as we had heard before our arrival. Many reefs appear disturbed with areas of exposed sand. In high-use areas, soft corals like gorgonians seem to have a heightened level of wear-and-tear, and certain spots appeared to have sustained physical damage, either from storms or the many boat anchors thrown overboard across the reefscape. We were hosted by Grupo Puntacana Foundation, which supports one of the largest coral nursery programs in the Caribbean, and Fundación Dominicana de Estudios Marinos (FUNDEMAR). FUNDEMAR monitors reef users such as tourists and fishers, and with them, we witnessed both good and questionable practices out on the reef. We also observed amazing coral gardens and the fabled giant elkhorn corals up to 3 meters (10 feet) in diameter, as well as inspiring work by FUNDEMAR and others to grow corals for reef restoration. Today, the DR reefscape is patchy and hard to assess even with weeks of diving effort, and marine protection remains a major challenge.
In the southeastern corner of the DR, the Cotubanamá Park (before known as East National Park) was established in 1975 to protect about 41,000 hectares (102,000 acres) of land and sea ecosystems. That area, which includes the well-known Saona Island, has long been a popular tourism destination, but today there are numerous hotels and resorts lining the coast from nearly 100 kilometers north of the Cotubanamá Park to nearly 100 kilometers west of it. The number of boats, tourists, fishers, swimmers, and divers is overwhelming the sea life along the coast, which in turn is threatening the tourism industry that relies on healthy reefs.
In response, a new and unique marine sanctuary, the Southeast Marine Sanctuary, has recently been declared. Combined, this new marine sanctuary and the existing Cotubanamá Park will amount to a whopping 300,000 hectares of protected area. A recent collaboration between the Carnegie Airborne Observatory and The Nature Conservancy in the Caribbean will yield high-resolution maps of the new sanctuary using data collected from satellites, aircraft, drones, and by scuba divers. These detailed maps will enable managers to make important marine spatial planning decisions that appropriately allocate conservation efforts throughout the sanctuary.
Yet even more impressive is the developing management of the new sanctuary. The protected area will be divided into two zones, each to be co-managed by a diverse group of stakeholders organized into a nonprofit. The Eastern zone will be overseen by the Alliance for the Eastern Reef Sanctuary. Its board will consist primarily of the Grupo Puntacana Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, Altagracia Hotel and Restaurant Association, Altagracia Tourism Cluster, Association of Aquatic Centers, and U.N. Blue Finance, which provided the start-up loan for the sanctuary. The Southern zone will be overseen by a similar entity, also supported by a complex group of foundations and stakeholders. Its board will consist of La Romana Hotel Association, La Romana Tourism Cluster, Fundación Dominicana de Estudios Marinos (FUNDEMAR), the Central Romana Foundation, U.N. Blue Finance, and The Nature Conservancy. Additionally, a larger, even more diverse board of government entities, foundations, community groups, and fishermen associations will advise the management of both the Eastern and Southern zones. Together, the Southern and Eastern zones will submit joint reports and management plans to the Ministry of Environment of the Dominican Republic.
The structure of its oversight – specifically the collaboration and engagement of such a huge range of stakeholders, from the federal government to local fishermen and from environmental groups to hotel associations – makes this new marine sanctuary remarkable. The buy-in from stakeholders who directly rely on marine resources, whether for their livelihood or for tourism, promises sustained commitment to ensuring that this is more than just a “paper park”. This oversight, in conjunction with a detailed understanding of the reefs distribution and condition provided by the high-resolution maps, are securing a promising future of effective conservation and management of this important biodiversity hotspot. As global-scale stressors like warming ocean temperatures and tropical storms increase pressure on the world’s coral reefs, conservation efforts are focused on reducing local pressures like overfishing, development, and pollution. Marine sanctuaries, such as this one that bring all voices to the table, provide a blueprint for other regions to follow.
About the authors and the Reefscape Project: Greg Asner is a Senior Staff Scientist with the Carnegie Institution for Science. His scientific interests span the fields of ecology, conservation science, remote sensing and climate change. Clare LeDuff is the program manager of the Carnegie Airborne Observatory at the Carnegie Institution for Science. Her interests range from conservation biology to the effects of climate change on agricultural systems. The Reefscape project is supported by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and partnering organizations.