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The coral reefs of Curaçao and Bonaire have undergone large-scale ecological degradation since the 1970s. This degradation is mainly caused by population growth on the Caribbean islands and the effects of climate change. These are some of the gloomy conclusions drawn by Didier de Bakker, SENSE PhD candidate at Wageningen Marine Research, in his thesis which he defended on 17 April. But it appears that there is still hope for the coral reefs.
For his thesis, De Bakker studied how the coral reefs around Curaçao and Bonaire have changed over the past 40 years. The results show that coral cover has declined substantially at depths between 10 and 40 metres: from an average of 32.6% in the 1970s to only 9.2% in 2013.
Coral has been replaced at an alarming rate by opportunistic organisms such as algae and cyanobacterial mats that are thriving under the changing environmental conditions. This was widely known about algae, but De Bakker’s description of the rise and harmfulness of cyanobacterial mats is a major novelty. His research also shows that the reefs have flattened as a result of the decline of large reef-constructing corals. This poses a risk to the rich biodiversity there.