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Linking terrestrial pollutants and inputs to nearshore coral reef growth to identify novel conservation options for the Dutch Caribbean

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Water quality is often cited as a key driver of coral reef health, yet this topic is rarely studied in the Dutch Caribbean. In coastal waters, the origin, abundance, and distribution of pollutants and other compounds can positively or negatively affect the survival of coral reef communities. These inputs are influenced by terrestrial processes (including groundwater effects, geological features, and coastal development) and water column processes (including hydrodynamics, boundary layer effects, and nutrient stoichiometry). The SEALINK Program will build an interdisciplinary research team to assess how land-derived and waterborne inputs (including sediments, nutrients, pollutants, organic carbon, and pathogens) affect the growth and survival of coral reefs in the Dutch Caribbean. We will integrate this information into a mathematical modeling and community co-design process to test how novel management approaches (on land and in the sea) can enhance the ecosystem services provided by coral reefs to local communities. The interdisciplinary project team includes geologists, geochemists, oceanographers, marine ecologists, microbiologists, environmental geographers, and social scientists. We will standardize methods from land to sea in order to fully track (for the first time) the pathways and fates of diverse inputs and stressors. Using this information, we will develop a suite of models to forecast future coral reefs under a variety of land-use and ocean management scenarios. These scenarios will be refined through stakeholder engagement and a community co-design process. We will also explicitly study the cultural and economic factors that promote the uptake and use of scientific information in policy and education. By integrating natural and social sciences across the land-sea continuum, the SEALINK Program will produce the first comprehensive understanding of land-sea interactions in Dutch Caribbean coastal zones, thus securing the local knowledge base needed to maintain functional coastal ecosystems, protect infrastructure, and support economies across the region.


Examples of terrestrial inputs to coastal waters. (A) Groundwater outflow occurs on a reef bottom near Blauwbaai, Curaçao. The brown color is due to sewage water and organic material originating from land. (B) Sewage outfalls (like this one on Curaçao) are still common on the islands. Many coastal houses and hotels are still not connected to sewage systems and sewage is dumped in poorly-maintained septic tanks and cesspits. (C) A run-off event on Bonaire. While sediments are clearly visible, pollutants and nutrients also enter coastal waters during these events. (D) The above threats are exacerbated on the Windward Islands, such as St. Eustatius (pictured), which receive more rain.

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