The ecological effects and implications of coral mining and natural disturbances

In Kunya-Yala of the Caribean Panama, mining coral reefs has been a major part of the indigenous (The Kuna) people’s culture and tradition there. Due to constant mining and land-filling practices, during the 1980s, a problem began to rise where the indigenous people started mining the coral reefs more to support to tradition and also the population has been rising in Kunya-Yala which increases the frequency at which they are mined; if this process persists, we may see coral reefs becoming endangered or even going extinct in this area. Not only is this the problem, but due to the lack of coral reefs, which serves as a coastal barrier on the coastline, erosion becomes more frequent and the sea level has been rising, which forces the residents to move out. The Kuna and non-Kuna must interact and must work together to find a balance between using coral reefs for traditional purposes and preserving them in order to maintain the sustainability of this crucial natural resource. Hector M. Guzman and colleagues from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute have observed the coral reef coverage on the coastline, the number of inhabitants, and the sea level with respect to time to carry out a study on their relationship and also the fate of the coral reefs.

This is extremely important in the big picture because not only does the lack of coral reefs affect the people that inhabit the islands, but it will have an effect on animals and vegetation inhabiting the islands as well. Of course, not all the organisms will be affected. But the ones affected by the rise in the sea level will eventually die off or leave the habitat. The ecological equilibrium that had before will be broken and cause an imbalance in the new ecosystem which can lead to other ecological problems. The finding itself is important in that people residing in other islands around the world can take note of this research. It can save their coral reefs, or whatever coastal barrier resources they have on their coastline. If they haven’t before, the people will start taking good care of their marine life organisms serving as coastal barriers. This seemingly simple research is critical in that it can save many species from encountering endangerment. In this case study, not only are they saving the coral reef species, but they’re also saving the terrestrial species that live on the islands; this study will save others from running into a problem that could lead to a cascade effect of multiple species diminishing in number.

Hector Guzman and colleagues from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute laid out his study in The Journal of the Society for Conservation Biology (Volume 17) published by Blackwell Publishing, Inc. They assessed the impact of coral mining and migration of people on the islands with respect to time (in years) and they compared this to the sea level rise (in millimeters) and the percentage of live coral cover (in percentage, %). They measured the width, length and height of the coral walls using a metric tape in order to accurately measure the volumes of the coral walls. Also aerials photos were used to compare the surface area of the islands exposed throughout different time frames in order to observe how the rise in sea level has been affecting the islands; a UMAX Powerlook-3000 scanner was used in the process. From the data collected from these experiment methods, Guzman and colleagues were able to come up with two tables, the first table which shows the estimate of the length and volume of the coral walls measured at several islands (21), and the other table representing the change in surface area of inhabited and uninhabited islands between two years (1966 and 2001). To briefly summarize, the research showed that as inhabitants increased, the live coral cover decreased; there is a negative correlation between the two variables). And as expected, the sea level rose due to more frequent erosion from the loss of coral reefs.

Human intervention however is not the only factor causing the loss of coral reefs; there have been natural factors/disturbances contributing to the degradation of coral reefs. For example, there were coral diseases in the 1990s that wiped out the Acropora coral species. These can also contribute to endangering the coral reef species and hence to the erosion of the coastlines of islands. Due to the discussed natural and human interventions, the Kuna people have observed a loss in reef habit on inhabited islands. This has forced the people to start mining offshore of uninhabited islands. Table 2 on change in surface area of inhabited and uninhabited islands demonstrates that for the uninhabited islands, from 1966 to 2001, the surface areas have decreased in all cases due to all these people being forced to mine there. And again, having done this research, we are now all aware of the fact that removing coral reefs intentionally will lead to more erosion of island coastlines. Because we have no control over the natural disturbances that kill of the coral reefs, the most we can do is stop, or at least, control the amount of coral reefs that we mine.

And again, one of the greater challenges to this problem is that there is a lot of emphasis on the cultural and tradition organization of these indigenous people. And so, it is up the Kuna people to decide on their management plans in regards to how they are going to deal with the coral reefs.

For the Kuna people it is a choice between carrying out their traditional rituals and sustaining these valuable resources (that clearly were not fully appreciated by these people). One of the ways to tackle this problem is obviously to get outsiders to convince these people, educate them on the importance of marine life as it will have an impact on the inhabitants on the island if handled carelessly. Their attitude towards biological diversity needs to change if they want to survive or remain on the islands.



Mining of Panamanian Coral Reefs by Indigenous. The Journal of the Society for Conservation Biology. The Open Conservation Biology Journal. 17 (6): 1396-1401.

This entry was posted in Conservation Biology Posts, Conservation Blogs 2012-2013. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s