A Bleaching Response Plan Leads to Increased Protection of Tobago’s Reefs


Republic of Trinidad and Tobago

The challenge

Tobago represents the southern limit for reef building corals in the Caribbean. Two areas in Tobago are renowned for their coral reefs. The first, Buccoo Reef, is a fringing reef, enclosing the Bon Accord Lagoon. The second is in Speyside and hosts the western hemisphere’s second largest brain coral. Other smaller and lesser known reef areas fringe around Tobago’s shoreline. Approximately 30 km of semi-contiguous fringing reef surrounds the island, which supports rich biodiversity and provides ecosystem services, such as food, tourism and coastal protection that were valued at contributing to over 50% of Tobago’s GDP (in 2008). The reefs are characterized by seasonal pulses of river discharge from South America, in particular the Orinoco River during the rainy season (June–December). Riverine inputs include freshwater, sediment and nutrients, which result in sub-optimal reef building conditions during the wet season. As a result, Tobago’s reefs have evolved, developed and adapted to wide ranging environmental fluctuations, which include seasonal pulses of acute riverine disturbance.

Reef health on the island is threatened by a combination of natural (hurricanes) and anthropogenic factors acting on various scales. The key threats are land-based pollution, sedimentation, and habitat degradation. In recent years, climate change-induced events (such as bleaching) and subsequent disease outbreaks as well as invasive alien species (such as lionfish: Pterois volitans and P. miles) have become a serious challenge. The influx of nutrients from agricultural and sewage sources, as well as prolonged periods of high sediment loading of coastal waters from land-based runoff, are thought to be major local scale contributors to the overall degradation of reefs. The maintenance or restoration of water quality as a result of nutrient enrichment and sediment loading on the reefs is arguably the most critical marine environmental issue confronting Tobago. Unfortunately, there is no national overview of the extent and levels of nutrients and toxicants found in coastal waters and sediments. Neither is there national-scale information on the emission of toxicants from diffuse pollution sources. The degradation caused by diffuse sources remains largely unchecked and unidentifiable.

Prioritizing environmental and marine conservation, especially with direct users, is a major challenge. Tourism has declined dramatically, and fewer new visitors are coming to the island. While stakeholders recognize the importance of reef conservation, they struggle to keep their businesses afloat.

Buccoo Reef

Buccoo Reef restricted area.

Actions taken

Recognizing the socioeconomic importance of coral reefs to the island, the complexity of threats compromising reef resilience, and limited local capacity to manage the issues, the Tobago House of Assembly (responsible for the management of coral reefs around the island), in collaboration with other state and non-governmental agencies, has initiated various initiatives toward the preservation and improved resilience of the island’s reef resources. The reefs on the southwest side of the island (Buccoo Reef) have been designated a no-take marine protected area (MPA) and represent the only MPA on the island.

A coral reef monitoring and research program has been established to monitor reef health, temperature anomalies, and connectivity, and to guide restoration and management as well as identify resilient reef sites for future conservation. In tandem, community-based management programs (Speyside Marine Area Community Based Management Project, Tobago Coastal Ecosystem Mapping Project), education and awareness programs (“Sea, Sun and Science”, and “Sea and Me”) and capacity-building programs (Coastal and Marine Management and Education in the South Eastern Caribbean, tour guide training, Reef Check, Coral Reef Crime Scene Investigation, mooring buoy deployment and maintenance) have been streamlined to support reef conservation initiatives. Further, recognizing the conflicts between human use needs and the environment within the coastal zone, an Integrated Coastal Zone Management Policy framework is being generated in a collaborative effort supported by the THA to guide future coastal development in Tobago.

Jahson Alemu I

Photo © Jahson Alemu

Following the 2010 mass bleaching event, and guided by support from the Buccoo Reef Management Committee, The Nature Conservancy and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), developed a response plan to monitor and assess the impacts of bleaching events on the island. The plan consists of an early warning system (EWS), bleaching assessment and monitoring, and a communication plan. It also coordinates the response of stakeholder groups (state and NGO). Critical to the success of the EWS is a network of state, NGO, private sector (dive tour operators, boat tour operators, and hoteliers) and recreationalists that act as a first source of information for disturbances (coral bleaching, algal blooms, and invasive species) noted on the reef. Enhancing and expanding the potential of the Bleaching Response Plan are two IKON Coral Reef Early Warning Systems (CREWS) which will measure near real time SST and other ancillary oceanographic and meteorological data readily accessible to the public. On a national scale, these two tools will assist Tobago on its way to eco-forecasting and adapting to climate change impacts.

Jahson working

Photo © Jahson Alemu

How successful has it been?

In 2010, a mass coral bleaching event occurred on Tobago reefs, but unlike previous events the local managers were ready. An informal Bleaching Response Plan (subsequently formalized) resulted in the coordinated efforts of park managers, fisheries officers, marine scientist and dive operators to assess the impact of the bleaching, and communicate the implications to the public. This was the first time such an approach was used in regards to coral bleaching in Trinidad and Tobago. The implementation of the Bleaching Response Plan resulted in the identification of several potential nodes of resilience, as well as the identification of resilient species (three major sites are discussed in Alemu and Clement 2014). This information has, to an extent, been mainstreamed into the decision support system for reef management in the selection of future project sites and MPA locations.  However, various limitations continue to slow the pace of  reef conservation on the island.

Lessons learned and recommendations

  • A history of poor management, poor enforcement, and perceived neglect have made it difficult for new projects and programs to be easily accepted by communities. Securing and demonstrating government support to projects and to the stakeholders is key to overcoming this hurdle.
  • More success stories and fewer lessons learned will empower stakeholders, and reinforce that their efforts can have a positive and beneficial impact.
  • For the sustainability of projects like these where stakeholder participation is key, more effort should be invested in the conversation with stakeholders before project/program development rather than after, to ensure that their needs are being met, rather than trying to mesh a project’s needs with stakeholder wants.
  • Limited capacity and resources mean that any new plan results in more work for already strained agencies. Plans, protocols and projects should simply and clearly outline roles, responsibilities, and deadlines. Additionally, the success of a bleaching response plan will be more easily accepted if it can be incorporated into an existing work plan or existing project or budget line.
  • Continued communication with stakeholder groups, even after a reef disturbance (e.g. mass coral bleaching), is necessary to maintain strong relationships and support for future efforts e.g. lionfish invasion.
  • Not all stakeholders have the same feeling about reef conservation – the response plan should be flexible enough to incorporate the needs of the stakeholders.
  • Strong leaders should be identified within the local community or stakeholders to drive the process and ensure long term success.

Funding summary

The Nature Conservancy
The Institute of Marine Affairs, Trinidad and Tobago
Tobago House of Assembly
Tobago Department of Marine Resources and Fisheries

Lead organizations

Institute of Marine Affairs, Trinidad and Tobago


The Nature Conservancy
Tobago Department of Marine Resources and Fisheries


Managing for Disturbance
Mass Coral Bleaching in 2010 in the Southern Caribbean

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