Haitian divers make a splash with coral reef protection

Posted: 09/14/2011 in all marine news

Brent McDonald – 

It was an immaculately clear midsummer morning, a perfect day for diving. No trash had yet washed up on the beach. A dozen volunteers, all excited, some a bit apprehensive, donned flippers and masks and shimmied into the bathtub-warm sea, eager to join a team of eco-divers responsible for surveying, and perhaps one day helping save, Haiti’s endangered coral reefs.

Only one thing stood in their way: For most of them — like Jessika Laloi, 21 — this was their first time swimming in the ocean. Until a few months ago, Laloi had not even known how to dog paddle.

Now she was wading into the ocean in shorts and a tank top, with a life preserver strapped to her torso, a welcome distraction from the tumult of life since her home collapsed in the earthquake a year and a half ago.

“Diving and swimming is a way of showing you that you are in the environment,” Laloi said. “You are part of it. You don’t have to destroy it.”

Environmental degradation is rife in Haiti — deforestation, erosion, pollution — and for the most part it is hard to miss. But for decades the country’s marine environment has suffered unseen. Its extensive coral reef system, an attraction to foreign scuba divers in the 1970s and ’80s, has largely died off — partly from sedimentation and climate change, but mostly from overfishing.

“It’s probably the worst overfishing I’ve seen anywhere in the world,” said Gregor Hodgson, the director of Reef Check, a nonprofit organization in California that monitors reef health around the globe. Hodgson, who has been leading the training of Laloi and her fellow Haitians, said his organization had worked on reefs in 90 countries.

Months after the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince, this nation’s capital, Hodgson flew to Haiti to inspect reefs, checking for quake damage. Instead, he found something more alarming: dead coral as far as the eye could see, and almost no fish. He estimates that about 85 percent of the coral reef has died.

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