Storm waves of 30 feet (9 meters) in height destroyed as much as 80% of the coral cover in some areas of the Soufrière Marine Management Area (SMMA) off the Caribbean island of St. Lucia on November 17. The SMMA, profiled in a 1997 Coral Reefs (16:150) article for one of its reservesí remarkable enhancement of fish biomass, has now lost much of its marine life, according to early damage assessments.
SMMA Manager Kai Wulf said his staff has conducted daily dive assessments since the storm waves, which had been triggered by Hurricane Lenny but were not accompanied by abnormal wind or rain. Divers have attempted to repair coral damage where possible, including by re-attaching pieces.
"I don't know where the fish have gone," said Wulf. "Of the surrounding islands' MPAs, we appear to have been hit the hardest."
The waves were unexpected. Not only had locals anticipated that the worst of hurricane season was already over by the time the waves hit, but it was the first time in recorded history that a hurricane had sent such storm waves along this path. "We were absolutely unprepared for it," said Wulf.
Lost facilities, lost revenue
The waves wiped out shoreline buildings of the town of Soufrière, causing an estimated EC $8-9 million (US $3-3.3 million) in damage and destroying the SMMA's new office, completed in October. Damage to the SMMA's infrastructure has been estimated at EC $600,000 (US $220,000).
The SMMA may now be in danger of losing much of its revenue base, according to Wulf, who said that management depended in large part on revenue from diving. "The storm will have a big impact on the dive industry," he said.
Making the situation more difficult, fishermen -- many of whose homes were destroyed by the waves -- have requested that the SMMA's reserves be re-opened to fishing, due to the industry's hardship. SMMA managers have been working with local fishermen for years to encourage fishing in deeper waters, off the reefs.
"We lost all around with this storm," said Wulf.
The deeper areas of the SMMA were not hit as hard by the waves, and the beaches -- though currently barren of sand -- should recover soon. "We're not too worried about the beaches," said Wulf. "The sand will come back eventually."
As for a full recovery of the ecosystem, Wulf said he expected not to see one. "Certainly not in my lifetime," he said. "But we'll do what we can with what we have."
In their 1997 Coral Reefs article, Callum Roberts and Julie Hawkins of the University of York (UK) reported that in one small reserve within the SMMA, the total biomass of commercially important species was more than double that in nearby non-reserve areas with similar habitat. The tiny 2.6-hectare (6.5 acre) reserve was home to, among other species, three large and easily caught species seen nowhere else along the heavily fished coast.
For more information:
Kai Wulf, Soufrière Marine Management Area, P.O. Box 305, 3 Bay Street, Soufrière, St. Lucia, West Indies. Tel: +1 758 459 5500; E-mail: smma [at] candw.lc; Web site: www.smma.org.lc.