After a series of natural and manmade disasters in the 1980s and 1990s, Jamaica lost 85% of its coral reefs. Now the corals and tropical fish are slowly reappearing thanks to the work of local gardeners

Everton Simpson squints at the Caribbean from his motorboat, scanning the dazzling bands of colour for hints of what lies beneath. Emerald green indicates sandy bottoms. Sapphire blue lies above seagrass meadows. And deep indigo marks coral reefs. That is where he is heading. He steers the boat to an unmarked spot he knows as the coral nursery. Simpson started working as a coral gardener two years ago as part of grassroots efforts to bring Jamaicas coral reefs back from the brink.

On the ocean floor, small coral fragments dangle from suspended ropes. Simpson and other divers tend to this underwater nursery as gardeners look after a flower bed, painstakingly plucking off snails and fireworms that feast on immature coral. When each stub grows to about the size of a human hand, Simpson collects them in his crate to individually transplant on to a reef. Even fast-growing coral species add just a few inches a year.

A few hours later, at a site called Dickies Reef, Simpson dives again and uses bits of fishing line to tie clusters of staghorn coral on to rocky outcroppings, a temporary binding until the corals limestone skeleton grows and fixes itself on to the rock. The goal is to jumpstart the natural growth of a coral reef. And, so far, it is working.


  • Everton Simpson untangles lines of staghorn coral at a nursery inside the White River fish sanctuary. The coral fragments dangle from ropes, like socks hung on a laundry line.




  • Simpson grabs a handful of staghorn harvested from a coral nursery for planting inside the the sanctuary.

Coral reefs are often called rainforests of the sea for the astonishing diversity of life they shelter. Just 2% of the ocean floor is filled with coral but the branching structures sustain a quarter of all marine species. Clownfish, parrotfish, groupers and snappers lay eggs and hide from predators in the reefs nooks and crannies, and their presence draws eels, sea snakes, octopuses and even sharks. In healthy reefs, jellyfish and sea turtles are regular visitors.

With fish and coral, it is a co-dependent relationship. The fish rely on the reef structure to evade danger and lay eggs, and also eat up the corals rivals. When too many fish disappear, the coral suffers, and vice versa.

The delicate labour of the coral gardener is only one part of restoring a reef and for all its intricacy it is actually the most straightforward part. Convincing lifelong fishermen to curtail when and where they fish and controlling the surging waste dumped into the ocean are trickier endeavours.


  • Fisherman turned Oracabessa fish sanctuary warden and dive master Ian Dawson dives while spearfishing outside the sanctuarys no-take zone.

Slowly, the comeback effort is gaining momentum. The coral are coming back, the fish are coming back, says Stuart Sandin, a marine biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. Its probably some of the most vibrant coral reefs weve seen in Jamaica since the 1970s. When you give nature a chance, she can repair herself. Its not too late.

Sandin is studying the health of coral reefs around the world as part of a research project called the 100 Island Challenge. His starting assumption was that the most populated islands would have the most degraded habitats, but what he found instead was that humans can be either a blessing or a curse, depending on how they manage resources.


  • Wardens and fishermen push themselves through shallow water while heading out to sea.


  • White River fish sanctuary wardens patrol through the reef of the sanctuarys no-take zone.

In Jamaica, more than a dozen grassroots-run coral nurseries and fish sanctuaries have sprung up in the past decade, supported by small grants from foundations, local businesses such as hotels and scuba clinics, and the Jamaican government.

At White River, which is only about two years old and where Simpson works, the clearest proof of early success is the return of tropical fish that inhabit the reefs, as well as hungry pelicans, skimming the surface of the water to feed on them.

Jamaicas coral reefs were once among the worlds most celebrated, with their golden branching structures and resident brightly coloured fish drawing the attention of travellers from Christopher Columbus to Ian Fleming, who wrote most of his James Bond novels on the islands northern coast in the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1965, the country became the site of the first global research hub for coral reefs, the Discovery Bay Marine Lab, now associated with the University of the West Indies. The groundbreaking marine biologist couple Thomas and Nora Goreau completed fundamental research here, including describing the symbiotic relationship between coral and algae and pioneering the use of scuba equipment for marine studies. The same lab also provided a vantage point as the coral disappeared.

Peter Gayle has been a marine biologist at Discovery Bay since 1985. From the yard outside his office, he points towards the reef crest about 300 metres (985ft) away, a thin brown line splashed with white waves. Before 1980, Jamaica had healthy coral, he says. Then several disasters struck.

The first calamity was 1980s Hurricane Allen, one of the most powerful cyclones in recorded history. Its 40ft waves crashed against the shore and basically chewed up the reef, Gayle says. Coral can grow back after natural disasters but only when given a chance to recover, which it never got.

The same decade, a mysterious epidemic killed more than 95% of black sea urchins in the Caribbean, while overfishing ravaged fish populations. And surging waste from the islands growing human population, which nearly doubled between 1960 and 2010, released chemicals and nutrients into the water that spur faster algae growth. The result: seaweed and algae took over.

There was a tipping point in the 1980s, when it switched from being a coral-dominated system to being an algae-dominated system, Gayle says. Scientists call it a phase shift.

That seemed like the end of the story until an unlikely alliance started to tip the ecosystem back in the other direction, with help from residents such as Simpson and his fellow fisherman Lipton Bailey.

The fishing community of White River revolves around a small boat-docking area about a quarter of a mile from where the river flows into the Caribbean Sea. One early morning, as purple dawn light filters into the sky, Simpson and Bailey step on to a 28ft motorboat called the Interceptor.

Both men have lived and fished their whole lives in the community. Recently, they have come to believe that they need to protect the coral reefs that attract tropical fish, while setting limits on fishing to ensure the sea is not emptied too quickly.


  • Fisherman Oswald Coombs is encircled by tarpon as he cleans his catch on the beach in the fishing village of Oracabessa Bay, Jamaica.


  • Belinda Morrow sits with the sanctuary diver and warden Raymond Taylor during a meeting with local fishermen.

In the White River area, the solution was to create a protected area, a fish sanctuary, for immature fish to grow and reach reproductive age before they are caught.

Two years ago, the fishermen joined with local businesses, including hotel owners, to form a marine association and negotiate the boundaries for a no-fishing zone stretching two miles along the coast. A simple line in the water is hardly a deterrent; however, to make the boundary meaningful, it must be enforced. Today, the local fishermen, including Simpson and Bailey, take turns patrolling the boundary in the Interceptor.

On this morning, the men steer the boat just outside a row of orange buoys marked no fishing. We are looking for violators, Bailey says, his eyes trained on the rocky coast. Sometimes you find spearmen. They think theyre smart. We try to beat them at their game.


  • Nicholas Bingham (l), grabs his speargun while leaving the home of Gary Gooden (r), as they prepare to go night spearfishing, which is banned, in Stewart Town, Jamaica. Bingham and Gooden say they have to resort to illegal night spearfishing to make up for lost wages from the sanctuarys restrictions.


  • Bingham spearfishes at night in Stewart Town, Jamaica.


  • The White River fish sanctuary warden Mark Lobban shines a spotlight on the protected reef while patrolling the no-take zone.

Most of the older and more established fishermen, who own boats and set out lines and wire cages, have come to accept the no-fishing zone. Besides, the risk of having their equipment confiscated is too great. But not everyone is on board. Some younger men hunt with lightweight spearguns, swimming out to sea and firing at close-range. These men, some of them poor and with few options, are the most likely trespassers.

The patrols carry no weapons, so they must master the art of persuasion. Let them understand this. Its not a you thing or a me thing. This isnt personal, Bailey says of past encounters with violators.

These are sometimes risky efforts. Two years ago, Jerlene Layne, a manager at nearby Boscobel fish sanctuary, ended up in hospital with a bruised leg after being attacked by a man she had reprimanded for fishing illegally. He used a stick to hit my leg because I was doing my job, telling him he cannot fish in the protected area, she says.

Layne believes her work would be safer with more formal support from the police, but she is not going to stop. Public mindsets can change, she says. If I back down on this, what kind of message does that send? You have to stand for something.

She has pressed charges in court against repeat trespassers, typically resulting in a fine and the confiscation of equipment.

One such violator is Damian Brown, 33, who lives in a coastal neighbourhood called Stewart Town. Sitting outside on a concrete staircase near his modest home, Brown says fishing is his only option for work and he believes the sanctuary boundaries extend too far.


  • Jerlene Layne (l), manager of the Boscobel marine sanctuary, talks with fisherman Damian Brown, a repeat violator of the no-take zone, while patrolling through the community in Stewart Town.


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