Coral reefs bolster island economies. Coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse and productive ecosystems on earth, providing tropical communities with wealth in the form of tourism, recreation, employment, fisheries production, shoreline protection, beach creation, and cultural heritage (Fig. 1). Some of the best reefs remaining in the entire Caribbean region are found around Dutch Caribbean islands, especially Bonaire and Curaçao [1-3]. The economic revenue derived directly from coral reefs accounts for 21-63% of total gross domestic product across the six islands of the Dutch Caribbean (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, St. Eustatius, and St. Maarten) [4-7]. However, as coral reef health continues to decline region-wide due to local and global stressors (especially wastewater, pollution, fertilizer, run-off, coastal development, overfishing, and global change), communities in the Dutch and wider Caribbean risk losing an increasing proportion of the economic, social, and cultural benefits provided by coral reefs.


Figure 1. Physical, biological, economic, and cultural benefits derived from coral reefs. Marine ecosystems such as coral reefs provide human society with an array of high-value benefits including food, employment, tourism, beach creation, recreation, inspiration, and cultural value.


Coral reefs respond to terrestrial and open ocean processes. Coral reefs and connected ecosystems (including seagrasses and mangroves) are heavily affected by onshore human activities. In the Caribbean, coastal development, urbanization, and daily life cause unnaturally high fluxes of pollutants and potential pollutants into the sea. These inputs include pesticides, pharmaceuticals, oil, metals, plastics, trash, sediments, detritus, nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers), dissolved organic material (DOM, including dissolved sugars), pesticides, and microbes (including viral and bacterial human pathogens) [8-10]. The final concentrations and effects of these inputs depend on a cascading series of physical, chemical, and ecological processes along the land-sea continuum. Terrestrial geology, hydrology, groundwater transport, water run-off, and vegetation affect the initial arrival of these inputs. Next, water column and open-ocean physics, hydrodynamics, ocean chemistry, and biological activity influence the flows, forms, and residence times of terrestrial inputs. Together these processes interact at the interface between land and sea to drive the ecology of coral reef ecosystems and determine their ultimate growth or decline.
Reef science rarely integrates terrestrial or hydrographic knowledge. Despite the links between land, sea, and reef, traditional conservation initiatives generally address the land and sea in isolation from one another. Similarly, and regrettably, scientific research has largely failed to recognize, investigate, and communicate the fundamental links between terrestrial inputs, ocean hydrodynamics, and nearshore ecosystem health (Fig. 2) [8]. This is particularly surprising given that coral reefs in the Caribbean are highly patchy, with some reefs thriving just hundreds of meters from others that are functionally dead [3, 11]. This patchiness and spatial structure is the starkest in known cases of coral reef death that occurred immediately after coastal development [e.g., 12, 13]. Ignoring critical land-sea connections prevents resource managers from identifying clear, targeted, effective scenarios for conservation. For example, a Marine Protected Area may fail to rebuild coral cover if sediment and pollution from coastal construction thwart the arrival and survival of coral larvae. Herbivore protections may fail to reduce algal overgrowth if city wastewater carries heavy fertilizer loads to the sea. Tourists may fail to return for a second trip if their first visit leaves them with an antibiotic-resistant skin infection from swimming at a popular beach near a sewage outfall.
Coral reef growth is patchy and still largely unexplained. In a comprehensive review of Caribbean coral survey data, the IUCN concluded that local factors still outweigh global factors in determining the health of an individual coral reef [1]. Yet most coral reef research to date has ignored the role of terrestrial inputs and hydrodynamics, leaving managers with virtually no ability to predict or control the future trajectory of an individual reef. Why does a thriving coral reef recover in front of a busy, polluted harbor while another coral reef becomes smothered in toxic cyanobacteria along a remote, rural coastline? The urban reef may be highly flushed by a nearby cruise ship terminal, while the remote reef may be poisoned by sewage seeping from rural cesspits. Yet, scientists generally fail to measure these factors. This knowledge gap leaves management recommendations unspecific, untargeted, and largely unsuccessful. It is therefore highly warranted and extremely timely to change research practices in marine ecology by integrating geosciences, ocean sciences, coral reef sciences, computer modeling, and the social science of human activities on land, thereby formally linking coral reef studies to land, sea, and society (Fig. 2).


Figure 2. Key processes connecting terrestrial, marine, and human systems in coastal areas. Human activities on shore affect diverse, interlinked physical and biological processes along the land-sea continuum. These processes in turn affect the benefits that humans derive from coral reefs (also see Fig. 1). Despite their critical importance, terrestrial and water column processes are largely ignored in studies of coral reef growth, decline, and recovery.


The SEALINK Program will establish an integrative, transdisciplinary research program merging geology, hydrology, ecology, and sociology. This program will bring together a diverse consortium of scientists to create a new tradition of integrative, transdisciplinary science in the Dutch and wider Caribbean. Our program will leverage the remarkable scientific value that exists across the six islands of the Dutch Caribbean due to their existing differences in geology, coastal morphology, freshwater abundance, erosion, coastal development, and sewage infrastructure. By bridging multiple fields of research, we will reveal how natural processes and human influences along the land-sea continuum interactively shape the future of coral reef communities, and how this in turn affects the ability of coral reef systems to provide valuable benefits back to the human communities that live, work, and play just steps away.

Overall Program Aim and Key Objectives

The SEALINK Program will use a transdisciplinary research approach to (i) elucidate the complex transport of a variety of resources and stressors across the land-sea continuum and (ii) quantify their functional effects on nearby coral reef communities. The resulting scientific information will be used to (iii) model alternative land-use and water management scenarios to benefit and rebuild nearby coral reefs, (iv) contribute to increased stakeholder awareness of conservation options, and (v) develop policy recommendations to secure the economic and societal benefits provided by functional coral reef systems for the long term.

The SEALINK Program is comprised of five interrelated Work Packages (WPs) with the following aims:

WP1: Determine how hydrological and hydrogeological processes (including surface flow and subsurface groundwater flow) transport natural and unnatural inputs (including pollutants, pathogens, fertilizers, and DOM) from land to sea.

WP2: Determine how water column processes subsequently affect the distribution of inputs in coastal waters.

WP3: Determine the impact of terrestrial inputs on the ecological dynamics of historically-dominant and currently-dominant organisms in coral reef communities, including corals, sponges, algae, and cyanobacteria.

WP4: Apply integrative computer modeling to the results of WP1-3 to predict the effects of alternative land-use and water management scenarios on coral reef health, and design a suite of affordable, actionable, science-based management recommendations for coral reefs in the Dutch Caribbean.

WP5: Determine the cultural and social conditions and communication best practices that ensure effective uptake of scientific findings into local awareness and decision-making frameworks