Varadero, The Heroic Reef

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“Show me a hero, and I will write you a tragedy” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Earth is undergoing a period of accelerated human impact, the scale of which threatens the life-supporting systems of the biosphere. Extinction rates now exceed background rates by up to 1000 times. Tropical coastal areas are particularly vulnerable to excessive population growth, climate change impacts, disruption of fishing-based livelihoods, and other human-made pressures. This post briefly describes a small reef in the Bay of Cartagena, Colombia, that is an anomaly of ecological resilience in the face of intense anthropogenic pressure. The reef, Varadero, may hold a key to understanding what actions could be taken to help corals become more resilient in other areas of the planet. This knowledge is of vital importance, as coral reefs are of immense importance to the marine ecosystem, and the ecosystem as a whole.

Dr. Carter Hunt at the Varadero Reef

A brief history of the Veradero reef

The post-Colombian history of Varadero involves of constant progression of environmental disturbance due to human behavior. An intense sedimentation gradient has existed in Cartagena Bay since colonial times, when the Magdalena River was rerouted via the Canal del Dique late in the 16th century, linking the city’s port with the interior of Colombia. Massive engineering upgrades to the canal throughout the last century have increased the sedimentation rate, facilitated greater agricultural runoff, induced eutrophication, all of which dumps directly into Cartagena Bay and onto Varadero at the harbor’s Bocachica entrance. When this sedimentation is added to the chronic point-source pollution from Cartagena’s port and other local industries, it is no wonder biologists were astonished to find this “heroic” reef, complete with extensive coral coverage, hiding out of sight just below the sedimentation layers. Where is the bleaching and coral coverage loss being experienced so dramatically among coral reefs around the globe? How can this reef persist in the mouth of one of South America’s busiest and most contaminated shipping ports?

Future of the Varadero Reef in Colombia

What has fate in store for Varadero?

These types of questions gained greater urgency when the Colombian government, partly in response to the expansion of the Panama Canal, approved plans for a corresponding expansion of shipping access to Cartagena, plans that involved dredging directly through Varadero! Has the heroic reef endured all prior forms of anthropogenic pressure only to be torn out by yet another unchecked, and almost entirely unneeded, economic growth-driven infrastructure project that does little to address impoverished local residents? Has it survived chronic disturbances only to be obliterated by this acute dredging event? Will this anomaly of resilience that holds much promise to science be destroyed before ecologists can cull the important insights regarding its resiliency that may hold promise for the protection of other reef systems?

Ocean Guardian Opportunity Varadero

A team of Ocean Guardians tackle the issue

A dedicated and passionate group of scientists, activists, and citizens all hope this will not be the case, but they are nevertheless working urgently to gather baseline data about Varadero. I am working with a team at Penn State to gather not only ecological data directly from the reef and its corals, but also working in neighboring communities to understand how they cope with the chronic and acute disturbances endured by Varadero. We hope this research will provide further answers to the question of what has led to this reef system’s “heroic” resiliency, and also how its ecological resiliency translates to resiliency of local communities whose fishing and tourism livelihoods have been displaced and disrupted by the same human-made disturbances that Varadero has withstood. Stay tuned!

Written by Carter Hunt

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The article is from a guest contributor. If you would like to contribute on the Bodhi Surf + Yoga blog, please email us at [email protected]

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