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Hope for TCI’s Future

Climate change resilience and East Caicos coral reefs.

By Kathleen Wood, Don Stark and Marsha Pardee

In January 2017, the Turks & Caicos Reef Fund (TCRF), in association with SWA Environmental and Marine Environmental Services (MES), received a Swift Small Grant from the European Union’s BEST 2.0 Project. Entitled “East Caicos KBA’s Corals and Coasts: A Key to Safeguarding TCI’s Future,” the project’s primary objectives were to study the coral reef ecosystems at East Caicos and to develop preliminary conservation management recommendations.

East Caicos reefs contain a reservoir of biodiversity.

Coral reef ecosystems across TCI and the wider Caribbean region are suffering from the ravages of climate change, poor fishing practices and impacts from land-based development; however, preliminary studies, conducted in May 2017, revealed that East Caicos coral reefs were healthy, with high levels of live coral cover and limited evidence of disease or coral bleaching. The research team had cause for hope that East Caicos could be a reservoir of coral climate resilience in this changing world.

Then disaster struck. On September 7, 2017, Hurricane Irma slammed into the Turks & Caicos Islands as a Category Five storm. A mere fortnight later, Hurricane Maria pounded ashore, adding insult to Irma’s injuries. On South Caicos, the inhabited island closest to East Caicos, more than 90% of buildings were damaged or destroyed. Although thankfully, no lives were lost in TCI, the catastrophic storms inflicted a scale of human suffering on TCI not seen in recent memory. The East Caicos research team was concerned that a similar level of devastation may have been visited on the natural environment, particularly on East Caicos reefs.

Project background and history
The scientific research conducted at East Caicos is among the most extensive ever undertaken for coral reef ecosystems in TCI. Initially, aerial and open-access satellite imagery were analyzed to identify potential areas of interest for investigating in person.
Then preliminary field studies were conducted by dragging a snorkeler behind a boat and recording observations of the seafloor. Using this method, 442 survey points were assessed. Following preliminary field studies, the marine habitats at East Caicos and their ecological characteristics were assessed to create preliminary maps using open-access (QGIS) GIS software. This information was then shared during a workshop with stakeholders, where preliminary conservation zones and management recommendations were developed. All this took place before the arrival of the 2017 hurricanes, and the research team had to wait for almost a year before they could discover if their original optimism regarding the exceptional ecological qualities of East Caicos reefs had been dashed to pieces in the turbulent storms.

Divers conduct a survey of the East Caicos reef.

In August 2018, the research team, aided by Explorer Adventures, the Department of Environment & Coastal Resources (DECR), the School for Field Studies (SFS) and TCI residents from the dive and scientific communities, were finally able to conduct in-depth monitoring at sixteen dive sites and five snorkel sites across the north shore of East Caicos. The quantitative surveys examined coral cover, coral diversity, algal cover, coral recruitment rates, fish biomass and diversity.
To the team’s extraordinary relief, East Caicos reefs are still vibrant and thriving, in spite of the impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Live coral cover on all reefs averaged approximately 20%, with the instance of diseased or bleached coral being negligible. Results confirmed the research team’s earlier observations, that East Caicos reefs represent a significant reservoir of coral reef biodiversity that could prove to be resilient to climate change. These are important findings for TCI, the region and the world.

Coral reefs and climate resilience
Why are East Caicos reefs doing well when other reefs are struggling to survive? Resilience is the capacity to recover from or adapt to impacts and/or change. Although coral reefs have been in existence for approximately 500 million years, they are struggling to keep pace with the rapid environmental changes that humans are inflicting on the planet. Corals are particularly sensitive to changes in temperature and water chemistry. Warming water, coupled with pollutants from human development and agriculture have been catastrophic to coral populations on a global scale, and scientists estimate that most of the world’s coral reefs will be gone by the end of the century. Resilient populations, such as those at East Caicos, may be all that are left to repopulate the world’s oceans, if they can survive.
East Caicos corals stand a better chance than most for a number of reasons. The main factor is probably the fact that there is no land-based development at East Caicos; therefore, land-based pollution is negligible, allowing offshore reefs to enjoy close-to-pristine water quality. Diverse fish populations are also a critical factor. Herbivorous fish maintain healthy coral populations by eating competing algae and creating space for corals to grow and prosper. Although East Caicos is an important fishing area for South Caicos fisherfolk, fish species that are critical to coral reef health, particularly herbivorous parrotfish, are not targeted. Furthermore, overall fishing pressure is light, due to prevailing weather conditions, which allow for fishing only a few days of the year. A final factor protecting East Caicos reefs may be cold water, which upwells from the depths of the adjacent 7,000-foot-deep Columbus Passage, bathing north shore East Caicos reefs in cool water and protecting them to some extent from the rising ocean temperatures that are killing off corals worldwide. In spite of these factors, which offer East Caicos reefs a fighting chance, they are still vulnerable to human activities.

Developing a conservation management plan

East Caicos is an area of great natural beauty.

With the exception of only a small portion of marine habitat contained within the Ramsar Nature Reserve, none of the coral reefs surrounding East Caicos have any conservation status. East Caicos’ remoteness and inaccessibility have thus far protected it from major development schemes, but with other land areas rapidly developing in TCI, East Caicos is viewed as a reservoir for future major development. Many development proposals for East Caicos have been suggested, such as trans-shipping and cruise ports. Another project that may be detrimental is the proposed “link road,” which will connect all the Caicos Islands via causeways and bridges. The link road will undoubtedly open up the island to large-scale and uncontrolled development, as land grabbers flock to get a piece of newly accessible land. Industrial commercial fishing interests have also engaged from time to time in large-scale trap fishing off East Caicos. Such practices threaten the integrity of coral reef ecosystems via physical damages to the reefs and indiscriminate trapping of all fish species, including those important to coral reef health.
In order to address these issues, the project developed conservation management recommendations for four conservation zones at East Caicos. These recommendations were presented to stakeholders on South Caicos in September 2018 and have been delivered to DECR and the TCI Government (TCIG). Interested parties can view the final project report and recommendations at
Specifically, while traditional fishing should be allowed to continue, the research team recommends a ban on commercial-scale trap fishing across the northern coastline of East Caicos. The team is also recommending that the island be developed lightly, focusing on ecotourism activities, which benefit small business owners and operators, rather than on large-scale developments, which will benefit only a few wealthy elites. The link road should also bypass East Caicos, if the island’s intact but fragile ecosystems are to stand any chance of survival. Most importantly, these reefs need to be monitored over time to identify any changes that may be occurring.
In order to ensure long-term monitoring takes place, an NGO/Public/Private partnership has been outlined between the TCRF, DECR and Explorer Adventures to conduct regular monitoring at the established permanent monitoring sites at least every two years. The ratification and implementation of the recommended conservation zones and management plans falls within the remit of the TCIG. History will record if decision-makers are able to set aside short-term political and financial expediency to save East Caicos coral reefs for the world’s future generations. We can but hope.

Special thanks to the Explorer Adventures Fleet, operators of the Turks & Caicos Explorer II for supporting this effort by providing the vessel for completing the quantitative survey work in August 2018. Thanks are also offered to the DECR, the School for Field Studies and Timothy, Marley and Vonne Hamilton for their assistance with this project.
This document has been produced with the financial assistance of the European Union. The contents of this document are the sole responsibility of Wangeningen Marine Research and the Turks & Caicos Reef Fund and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Union.

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