Scientists publish historic detailed map of all the coral reefs in the Caribbean

News > The Caribbean

By STEM Caribbean | Posted on December 20, 2020

An aerial drone is used to gather habitat imagery in Soufriere-Scott’s Head Marine Reserve in Dominica. © Steve Schill for TNC 

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and partners have published the first-ever detailed map of all coral reefs in the Caribbean, documenting key shallow underwater environments. A project like this could improve marine conservation practices and provide a wealth of information on the marine world in the Caribbean.  

The organization says that the maps were created with more than 38,000 high-resolution satellite images, much like putting together a large puzzle. Aerial fly-over technology, drones, and divers were used to corroborate the data collected in some areas.  

Scientists at TNC and the Arizona State University Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science (ASU GDCS) collaboratively worked with Planet Labs Inc. to stitch the satellite images together.   

Dr. Greg Asner, Director of ASU GDCS and ASU’s Global Airborne Observatory (GAO), developed the GOA, an airplane equipped with a laboratory that houses advanced Earth imaging technology. In some locations, researchers combined high-resolution satellite imagery from Planet Labs Inc. with data collected by the GAO.  

“The GAO maps provide details about reefs that cannot be gleaned from satellite data, such as the location of corals on the seafloor. We used these GAO maps, for example, to specifically delineate the best locations for coral outplanting,” said Dr. Asner.  

Arizona State University’s Global Airborne Observatory flies over St. Croix, USVI, collecting high-resolution habitat imagery. © Marjo Aho for TNC

TNC highlighted that the first country to utilize this new technology employed in the project was the Dominican Republic in 2019 as part of a test pilot using the maps in the field. TNC and local partners teamed up and led a coral planting event to help restore endangered staghorn corals using data gathered by the GAO’s fly-over to locate the best areas for planting corals. Using this data, the scientists were even able to identify areas that corals would most likely survive and have the most significant positive impact.   

TNC’s Coral Strategy Manager, Ximena Escovar-Fadul, outplants endangered staghorn corals near Bávaro, Dominican Republic. © Paul A. Selvaggio for TNC 
 

Dr. Joseph Pollock, Senior Coral Reef Resilience Scientist for TNC, pointed out that mapping all the coral reefs in the Caribbean region would take about 250 million diver hours to complete using conventional methods.   

“The scope of these maps is unprecedented in the region, and the opportunities they unlock to provide a better future for Caribbean ecosystems, and the millions of people who depend upon them, are astonishing,” expressed Dr. Pollock. “Using traditional approaches, it would have taken approximately 250 million diver hours to map such a large area. New technologies have helped deliver these desperately needed maps at a tiny fraction of the effort and cost,” he added.  

An aerial drone is used to gather habitat imagery in Jamaica’s East Portland Fish Sanctuary. © Steve Schill for TNC 

According to TNC, more than 60% of living coral in island nations has been lost in the past few decades alone. With the newly published detailed maps, the Caribbean can now clearly view the once obscured habitats in its waters and better protect and use its marine resources, which millions of residents depend on. A study published by the TNC in 2019 showed that every year coral reefs and reef-associated activities generate a near $8 billion economic value to the tourism industry while attracting almost 11 million visitors to the Caribbean.   

“You cannot protect what you don’t know is there. Having access to these maps is a game-changing achievement for the Caribbean. Thirty countries and territories finally have access to better, more detailed information about their underwater habitats to help them better protect marine areas, support sustainable livelihoods and prioritize their adaptation to potential climate change impacts,” said Dr. Robert Brumbaugh, Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Caribbean Division.  

“Understanding and protecting natural resources is critical to the economic success of these countries,” Dr. Brumbaugh added.  

Lead Scientist for TNC’s Caribbean Division, Dr. Steve Schill, indicated that the maps are now being distributed and will be used to enhance conservation practices.   

 “These maps are now being distributed and made widely available to a variety of stakeholders across the Caribbean. Working with partners, we will use these maps to strategically expand marine protected areas, inform smarter coral reef restoration, support nature-based solutions against the threats of climate change, and overall catalyze more effective conservation actions,” said Dr. Schill.  

The maps can be found here at CaribbeanMarineMaps.tnc.org



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