Everton Simpson squints his motorboat into the Caribbean and scans the dazzling color stripes for clues as to what lies beneath. Emerald green indicates sandy soil. Sapphire blue lies above seagrass meadows. And deep indigo features coral reefs. He's heading there.
He steers the boat to an unmarked spot, which he calls "Coral Tree School." "It's like a forest under the sea," he says, strapping on blue fins and closing his oxygen tank before he tips over backwards into azure waters. He swims down 7.6 meters and carries metal scissors, a fishing line and a plastic box.
On the seabed dangle small coral splinters on hanging ropes like socks on a clothesline. Simpson and other divers maintain this underwater gardening while gardeners look after a flowerbed ̵
When each stump reaches about the size of a human hand, Simpson collects it's box for individual "transplanting" onto a reef, a process in which each blade of grass is individually planted in a lawn.
Even fast growing coral species contribute only a few centimeters per year. And it is not possible to simply spread seeds.
A few hours later, Simpson reappears at a location called Dickie's Reef, using fishing lines to bind groups of staghorn corals to ledges – a temporary bond to the limestone of the coral. The skeleton grows and fixates on the rock. The goal is to promote the natural growth of a coral reef. And so far it works.
Almost everyone in Jamaica is dependent on the sea, including Simpson, who lives in a modest house he built himself near the north coast of the island. The energetic 68-year-old has reinvented himself several times, but always lived off the sea.
Simpson began working as a "coral gardener" two years ago as a spearfisher and then an instructor.
Coral reefs are often referred to as the "rainforests of the sea" because of the amazing biodiversity they provide.
Only 2 percent of the ocean floor is filled with coral, but the branched structures, shaped like everything else, from reindeer antler to the human brain, carry a quarter of all marine species. Anemonefish, parrotfish, groupers and snapper lay eggs and hide from predators in the corners and corners of the reef, and their presence attracts eels, sea snakes, octopi and even sharks. In healthy reefs, jellyfish and sea turtles are regular visitors.
This is a synonymous relationship with fish and corals – the fish rely on the reef structure to avoid danger and lay eggs, and they also devour the coral rivals.
] Life on the ocean floor is like a slow motion competition for space or an underwater game with music chairs. Tropical fish and other marine animals like sea urchins eat fast-growing algae and algae, which could otherwise outpace the slow-growing corals. If too many fish disappear, the coral suffers – and vice versa.
After a series of natural disasters and man-made disasters in the 1980s and 1990s, Jamaica lost 85 percent of its once lush coral reefs. In the meantime, fishing has dropped to one-sixth, bringing families dependent on seafood closer to poverty. Many scientists believed that Jamaica's coral reef had been permanently replaced by algae, like the jungle that overtakes a ruined cathedral.
But today, corals and tropical fish slowly reappear, thanks in part to a series of careful interventions.
] The delicate work of the coral gardener is only part of the restoration of a reef – and the easiest part for all its complexity. Convincing lifelong fishermen to shorten when and where they fish and controlling the rising waste thrown into the ocean are more difficult aspirations.
But slowly the comeback is gaining momentum.
"The corals are coming back; The fish are coming back, "says Stuart Sandin, marine biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. "It's probably one of the liveliest coral reefs we've seen in Jamaica since the 1970s."
"If you give nature a chance, she can repair herself," he adds. "It's not too late."
Sandin is studying the health of coral reefs around the world as part of a research project called "100 Island Challenge." His initial assumption was that the most densely populated islands would have the worst degraded habitats, but instead he found that humans can be either a blessing or a curse, depending on how they use resources.
Over a decade ago, Jamaica has spawned more than a dozen grassroots coral gardens and fish sanctuaries backed by small donations from foundations, local businesses such as hotels and diving clinics, and the Jamaican government.
In the nearly two-year-old White River Fish Sanctuary, where Simpson works, the clearest evidence of its early success is the return of tropical fish living in the reefs, as well as hungry pelicans flying over the water surface to feed on them.
Jamaica's coral reefs were once among the most famous in the world. They attracted the attention of travelers from Christopher Columbus to Ian Fleming, who wrote most of them with their golden branching structures and native colorful fish. His James Bond novels on the north coast of the island nation in the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1965, the country became the site of the world's first coral reef research center, the Discovery Bay Marine Lab, which today is associated with the University of New York's West Indies. The groundbreaking marine biologists Thomas and Nora Goreau have completed basic research, including the description of the symbiosis between coral and algae, and pioneering the use of marine study diving equipment.
The same laboratory also provided a viewpoint for the disappearance of the coral.
Peter Gayle has been a marine biologist at Discovery Bay since 1985. From the courtyard in front of his office he points to the reef ridge, about 300 meters away – a thin brown line with white waves. "Jamaica had healthy corals before 1980," he notes. Then several catastrophes occurred.
The first disaster was Hurricane Allen in the 1980s, one of the strongest cyclones in history. "His 40-foot waves hit the shore and basically chewed the reef," Gayle says. Corals can regrow after natural disasters, but only if they have a chance of recovery – which they never got.
In the same decade, a mysterious epidemic killed more than 95 percent of Caribbean sea urchins, while overfished fish were devastated populations. And the increasing waste of the island's growing human population, which nearly doubled between 1960 and 2010, released chemicals and nutrients into the water that accelerated algae growth. The result: seaweed and algae took over.
"In the 1980s, there was a turning point when the system became one of coral-dominated algae-dominated systems," says Gayle. "Scientists call it a" phase shift. "
That seemed to be the end of the story until an unlikely alliance began to turn the ecosystem in the other direction – with the help of residents such as Everton Simpson and his fisherman colleague Lipton Bailey.
White River's fishing community revolves around a small boating area about a quarter mile from the mouth of the river into the Caribbean Sea. Early in the morning, Simpson and Bailey climb onto a 30-meter powerboat named Interceptor as the light of the purple dawn shines into the sky.
Both men lived and fished all their lives in the community. Recently, they have come to the conclusion that they must protect the coral reefs that attract tropical fish while at the same time limiting fishing to ensure that the sea is not emptied too quickly.
A protected area – a "fish reserve" – should be created in the White River region, where immature fish grow and reach reproductive age before being caught.
Two years ago, fishermen teamed with local companies, including hotel owners, to form a marine association and negotiate the boundaries for a fish-free zone stretching two miles along the coast. A simple line in the water, however, is hardly a deterrent – to make the limit meaningful, it must be enforced. Today, local fishermen, including Simpson and Bailey, patroll alternately at the border of the Interceptor.
This morning, the men steer the boat directly in front of a row of orange buoys labeled "No Fishing" violators, "Bailey says, looking at the rocky shore. "Sometimes you find spearmen. They think they are smart. We try to defeat her in her game. "
Most older and more established fishermen who own boats and put on linen and wire cages accept the non-fishing zone. In addition, the risk of their equipment being confiscated is too great. But not everyone is on board. Some younger men hunt with light harpoons, swim out to sea, and shoot at close range. These men – some of them poor and with few options – are the most likely intruders.
The patrols do not carry weapons, so they have to master the art of persuasion. "Let them understand – it's not a du thing or a me thing, it's not personal," Bailey says of past encounters with violators.
These are sometimes risky endeavors. "Two years ago, Jerlene Layne landed a manager at the nearby Boscobel Fish Sanctuary, with a bruise in the hospital after being attacked by a man she had reprimanded for illegally fishing in the sanctuary. "He hit me with a stick on my leg because I did my job "- and told him that he can not fish in the sheltered area," she says.
Layne believes her work would be safer if she was more formally supported by the police, but she will not stop.
"Public Attitudes may change, "she says." When I come back to what kind of message that sends? You have to stand up for something. "
She has been indicted in court against wi It has raised intruders, which has usually led to a fine and confiscation of equipment.
One such offender is Damian Brown, 33, who lives in a coastal area called Stewart Town, Village. Brown, sitting outside on a concrete staircase near his humble home, says fishing is his only option for work – and he believes the boundaries of the reserve extend too far.
Rick Walker, a 35-year-old spearfisher, is cleaning his motorboat at the White River dock. He remembers the early opposition to the fish reserve when many people said, "No, they are trying to end our livelihood."
Two years later, Walker, who does not participate in the sanctuary's leadership but supports its limitations, says he can see the benefits. "It's easier to catch snapper and barracuda," he says. "At least my great-grandchildren will see some fish."
When Columbus landed in Jamaica, he sailed into Oracabessa Bay – now a 20-minute drive from the mouth of the White River.
Oracabessa Bay Fish Reserve was the first ground-based attempt to revive Jamaica's coral reefs. His sanctuary was legally incorporated in 2010, and his approach to engage local fishermen as patrols became a model for other regions.
"The fishermen are mostly on board and happy – that's the difference. That's why it works, "says wildlife district manager Inilek Wilmot.