Could bombing benefit Vieques reefs?

Edwin Hernandez-Delgado coral_giac at
Sat Nov 20 22:54:44 EST 1999

Dear Coral Listers.

This is in response to the comments of Dr. Doug Fenner (AIMS) regarding the 
destruction of the coral reefs of Vieques Island (Puerto Rico) caused by the 
bombing activities carried out by the U.S. NAVY and other NATO countries.  
Dr. Fenner seems to defend the idea that it's better to keep the U.S. Navy 
blowing out our coral reefs than to have Puerto Ricans developing Vieques 
island.  That view was also supported by Les Kaufman.

I agree with the idea that we can not allow Vieques to become another San 
Juan(P.R.) or another St. Thomas (USVI), in terms of the model of touristic 
development. As a matter of fact, the local Vieques NGO, Comite Pro Rescate 
y Desarrollo de Vieques (Committee for the Rescue and Development of 
Vieques) has already prepared an alternative sutainable development plan for 
a Vieques Island free of the U.S. Navy.  But, I completely disagree with 
Fenner's point of view of keeping the U.S. NAVY in Vieques.

Vieques Island is part of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and has a 
permanent population of nearly 10,000 residents. It is one of the most 
important touristic destinations in the entire Caribbean. But at the same 
time, it has been used as a target ground since 1941 by the U.S. Navy and 
other NATO countries. 58 years of bombing!!!  Bombing areas are located just 
9 miles upwind of Isabel Segunda, the Viques downtown area.  Sometimes, U.S. 
Navy pilots have missed targets by up to 10 miles, dropping off bombs just 1 
mile off downtown Isabel Segunda!

Residents of Vieques Island also suffer a 26% incidence of cancer, which is 
way higher than the average for the main island of Puerto Rico. This means 
that almost one of every three viequenses will die from cancer!!!!!  Can 
anybody has an explanation for that?

Furthermore, all of the most weird type of weapons developed by the U.S. 
Navy have been tested in Vieques, including napalm, all kinds of missiles 
and bullets with uranium casings!!!!! And what about biological weapons????  
The U.S. Navy keeps residuals of uranium everywhere around the target 
areas!!!  And there is also a lagoon which has been used as a dump-site of 
toxic wastes.  It has been known for more than two decades that it is 
severely polluted (Sanchez, 1978). Has anybody ever questioned if toxic 
pollutants are leaching into the coral reefs and segrass beds in the area?  
Are edible species incorporating toxics?  Is this related in any way to the 
high cancer rate in Vieques? That lagoon became flooded by the sea during 
the  2-m storm tide and 6-m waves of Hurricane Lenny last Wednesday.

The U.S. Navy also smashes turtle nesting beaches by its amphibious 
vehicles.  What about all conservation agencies?

This is not only a matter of corals and fish, it's politics!  And, 
furthermore, it's about people!!!  The U.S. Navy is slowly killing 
Viequenses and just killed a civilian on April 19, 1999 because one of their 
pilots missed the target (again) with a live bomb.  Although a Puerto Rican 
was blown out and split in two pieces by the U.S. Navy, nobody is in jail 

But, let's get back to the reef problem and bombs!

Fenner cited (without mentioning them) the studies of Antonius (1982) 
published in the Proc. 4th. Coral Reef Symp. Manila (1981), and probably 
those of Antonius and Dodge (1982), which concluded that hurricanes are more 
damaging to coral reefs than bombing activities.  These studies focused only 
on shallow reef zones (reef front and backreefs), which by the time of the 
studies were just smashed by Hurricanes David and Frederick (1979), so their 
conclusions were obviously biased.  Moreover, these studies were requested 
by the own U.S. Navy.

However, independent studies carried out by Rogers et al. (1978) and 
Carrera-Rodriguez (1978) concluded that there was: 1) severe destruction 
coral reef frameworks within the maneuver areas; 2) craters were abundant; 
3) severe pulverization and fragmentation of coral heads; 4) damage by 
sedimentation caused by blasting; 5) impacts from shock waves; 6) toxic 
pollution from chemicals carried out in bombs (Lai, 1978); and 7) 
significant solid waste disposal in the coral reefs, including, bomb 
fragments, flare casings, shells, bullets, parachutes, and other military 

In addition, according to Cintron (1980) and Vicente (1980), there was also 
severe damage to seagrass beds in the area due to bombing and by being 
smashed by amphibious vehicles.

Some of my studies in Vieques (Hernandez-Delgado, 1994; 1996; Chapter 2, 3 
PhD Dissertation) have shown that Vieques supports coral cover values 
ranging from about 5% in shallow flat eolianite reefs, to about 45% in 
deeper reefs.  It has been estimated, however, that shelf edge coral reefs 
support coral cover values of approximately 50-90%.  These supports one of 
the most important reef-based fisheries of the region. So, coral reefs 
outside of maneuver areas are still in preety good shape. But fringing reefs 
along the northern Vieques shoreline are suffering the chronic effects of 
touristic and housing development (Hernandez-Delgado, 1994, 1996, 1997), 
including the construction of a
private resort.  This is mostly caused by sedimentation and turbidity. But 
bombing areas also suffer from severe run-off, which not only carry out 
sediments to the coastal waters, but possibly toxic and radioactive wastes.

Regarding what is the condition of cratered reefs, there is no actual 
information from Vieques. The U.S. Navy has never allowed independent 
scientists to study the area, as pointed out by Juan Torres, from UPR-Dept. 
Marine Sciences.  Even, our Coral Reef Research Group tried to obtain a 
permit to study that area, which recieved no answer.

But, I've been able to document in some way the status of former target 
coral reefs of Culebra Island. Culebra is located 22 km north of Vieques, 
and 27 km off eastern Puerto Rico, and supports a population of about 2,500 
citizens.  It was invaded in 1901 by the U.S. Navy and kept bombing the 
Culebra arhipelago until 1975.

In summary, there is a striking difference in the coral reef epibenthic and 
fish assemblages, when cratered reefs are compared to control sites.

Epibenthic communities

Parameter                  Cratered      Control

Coral species richness     Low           High
H'n                        Low           High
Dominance                  Species       Massive
                           adapted to    corals
Coral cover                <5%           40-90%
Recruitment of massive     Absent        Common
coral species*

*There is coral recruitment within cratered areas, but the bottom was so 
much demolished that it is highly unstable and only high-recruiting species 
adapted to disturbance are common (i.e., Siderastrea radians, Porites spp., 
Millepora spp.).

There is no net recovery of coral reefs that were severely demolished by 
bombing activities more than 25 years ago.  This suggests that it will take 
several human generations to naturally recover these areas, if that can 

Fish communities

Parameter                  Cratered      Control

Fish species richness      Low           High
H'n                        Low           High
Average biomass            Low           High
Average sizes              Smaller       Larger
Abundance of predators     Lower         Higher
Availability of shelter    Rare/absent   High

Fish communities are also severely affected more thatn 25 years ago because 
of the lack of reef recovery, and because of the loss of the natural habitat 
heterogeneity.  Bombs are also known to produce massive fish kills (IDEA, 

In synthesis, I agree with Fenner's view that Vieques Island coral reefs 
must be protected from development, BUT SHOULD NOT BE CLOSED to Puerto 

There are several basic conditions that must be met by the U.S. Navy before 
leaving: 1) Give back ALL lands to Puerto Ricans; 2) clean all toxic wastes; 
3) remove all ordnance; 4) restore polluted areas, target areas, and 
destroyed coral reefs and seagrass beds; and 5) provide for the sustainable 
development of Vieques.

My recommendations regarding coral reef conservation in Vieques are: 1) 
carry out a general assessment of coral reefs and associated habitats within 
and outside of the target areas; 2) establish permanent monitoring stations; 
3) evaluate the possibility of restoring damaged reefs and segrass bed 
areas; 4) remove all unexploded ordnance; 5) evaluate the status of fish 
communities in order to identify priority areas for conservation through the 
designation as a Marine Fishery Reserve.  A possible network of MFRs could 
be an excellent approach to restore overfished stocks outside of the target 

Fenner's intention of protecting coral reefs is excellent. But Puerto 
Ricans, specially viequenses and culebrenses, are tired of the imperialistic 
approach to conservation issues.  We, as scientists, need to deal with the 
reality that we are not dealing only with fish and coral, it's about 
people!!!!!!!  And there are a complex array of sociological and 
political-historical issues that must be considered when conservation 
approaches are proposed. Anything must be discussed with the people of 
Vieques first.

Fenner's last question was who will replace the Navy?  It would have been 
easier to recommend why don't the Australian government recieves our bombs. 
They have plenty of reefs to destroy. Why don't they set a target ground 9 
miles off Townsville, just as in Vieques?  I agree with Fenner that we 
should not allow weird developers to destroy what Viequenses have been 
trying to rescue for 58 years.  But to replace the Navy with the Navy 
itself?  Please!!!!!!!!


Edwin A. Hernandez-Delgado, M.Sc., Ph.D.C.
Research Associate
University of Puerto Rico
Department of Biology
Coral Reef Research Group
P.O. Box 23360
San Juan, Puerto Rico 00931-3360

coral_giac at


From: Doug Fenner <d.fenner at>
Reply-To: Doug Fenner <d.fenner at>
To: coral-list at
Subject: Could bombing benefit Vieques reefs?
Date: Wed, 17 Nov 1999 09:17:52

Regarding the petitions to stop the bombing of Vieques Is, Puerto Rico,

    I seem to remember work some years ago reported in one of the
International Coral Reef Symposiums that looked at the reefs of Vieques, and 
found that they were in better shape than the reefs of Puerto Rico. The 
bombing had done surprisingly little damage to the reefs, and it had kept 
people out of the area, so they hadn't destroyed the reefs as on Puerto 

    In Hawaii it has been said that the military are unwittingly one of the 
islands' biggest conservation agencies, since the islands are dotted with 
disused military bases where people cannot buy land and build resorts, etc.

    Maybe it would be ideal to get the Navy to stop bombing and clean up 
everything, but leave the live ordinance lying around to keep people out. If 
you let people populate the Vieques as dense as the rest of Puerto Rico and 
don't have very effective controls of sediment runoff, fishing, etc, the 
reefs may be worse off than with the military there.  What will replace the 
military?  -Doug

Douglas Fenner, Ph.D.
Coral Biodiversity/Taxonomist
Australian Institute of Marine Science
PMB No 3
Townsville MC
Queensland 4810
phone 07 4753 4334
e-mail: d.fenner at

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