In October of 2015, the Puerto Rican island of Culebra celebrated 40 years since the Navy was officially removed from the small island by the federal government. As a young girl growing up on the Puerto Rican island of Culebra, my mother was exposed to a strong U.S. Naval presence. Their scheduled bombing practices had significant impacts on local diverse coral reef ecosystems. The reefs were hugely important to tradition, culture, and economy of Culebra, including supplementing food supplies for the local community. Tensions exploded (literally and figuratively) on Flamenco Beach when my mother, a mere toddler in the year 1970, witnessed unscheduled bombings hit the beach populated with family, friends, and neighbors. Sixteen mortar rounds were shot that day. The devastation scarred not just the land, but the hearts and minds of those who had witnessed it.
These past decades have been an era of recovery for Culebrans. They have since created and partnered with multiple institutions dedicated to marine science and coral reef protection. Several beaches are off limits to the public in order to protect local endangered species like sea turtles. They have developed mitigation and restoration programs that have great potential for success. Currently, there are efforts around the island to replant Elk Horn corals and foster their growth in protected areas until they can achieve a level of resilience that allows them to self-sustain.
However, the local ecosystems are still struggling to reestablish themselves. This has negatively impacted the health of these communities as it puts them at greater risk of food/water shortages and disease. These areas have been so adversely affected by waste left behind that they have officially been identified as "Superfund" sites for environmental restoration. Without mitigation efforts to protect and revive these ecosystems, we endanger them and the people who depend upon them. It is increasingly necessary that we implement effective policies of safe munitions waste removal and ecological restoration in the most contaminated areas. The U.S. government can work with local stakeholders and/or fund programs designed by locals that will address these issues. This way, communities may tend to their environments in ways that are culturally and environmentally appropriate utilizing local knowledge.
Our oceans are affected by anthropogenic disturbances now more than ever before. This is a pivotal point in human history as we are forced to face the consequences of our actions. Ignoring the ill effects of our behavior will only perpetuate abuses of our environment. These ecosystems will not recover without our direct involvement in their success.
Gabriela Ayad is a student at UC Davis, majoring in Marine & Coastal Science.
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