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Haiti's Fish and Coral, An Untold Story Of Environmental Loss

Flying into Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, you see a wide, milky border stretching out to sea from the beaches. It is Haiti dying a little more, bleeding off more of its topsoil and turning the coastal waters into a disaster zone.

The mud that washes down from Haiti's treeless hills and stains the coastline settles over coral reefs and sea grass beds like a smothering blanket and drives away fish that once helped feed the impoverished country.

The damage to the coast is yet another chapter in a story of environmental degradation that has grown worse over the years.

Some aid projects have focused on restoring the country's forests, but no one has tried to fix the generations of harm that has been done to Haiti's coral, its mangroves, its beaches and, most of all, its fish. Most of those things are undersea and invisible except for the lifeless, milky border that so many people simply dismiss as further evidence of the country's loss of trees - forests destroyed to provide the only affordable fuel for cooking fires.

In a poor country where getting through each day is often a struggle, the environment has not been a high priority. But now in the aftermath of the earthquake in January that killed more than 220,000 Haitians, the United States and other countries are expected to pour billions of dollars into rebuilding the country, and some of the money will almost certainly be spent on environmental projects.

Jean Wiener is one of a few marine biologists who have taken an interest in Haiti and are hoping that restoration of the reefs and fisheries figures into the mix.

Attending to Haiti's reefs and fishing waters and mangroves, Mr. Wiener and the others say, would be good for the economy. A comeback of fishing would mean new jobs. It would provide food. Down the road, you could see how nice reefs and beaches and cleaned up water might help draw tourists.

For nearly 20 years, Mr. Wiener, who was born in Haiti but now lives much of the time in Maryland, has been working almost entirely alone on studying and restoring the coastal waters.

As a boy he explored the coral reefs and swam through clouds of Yellowtail Snapper and Nassau Grouper. He went on to earn a degree in biology at Bridgeport University in Connecticut and take graduate courses in marine biology. In the early 1990s, he started a foundation named FoProBiM using the initials of the French words, "Fondation pour la Protection de la Biodiversité Marine" of Haiti.

Over the years he has received a few grants. Two years ago he did a study for the United States Agency for International Development. The study may provide a foundation for a comprehensive environmental project - mostly on land - that is being undertaken by Columbia University and the United Nations Environmental Program. Dr. Gregor Hodgson, the founder and executive director of the Reef Check Foundation, a marine conservation and research organization in Los Angeles, has applied for a grant to the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to do the first thorough survey of Haiti's coastal environment.

The milky border that speaks so despairingly of Haiti has been an enduring obstacle for Mr. Wiener. For many people it is a sign of hopelessness. Obviously, the thinking goes, you can't do much about the coral reefs and fish if they are going to be inundated with mud and silt every time it rains. Trees, lots of trees and shrubs, must be planted. Something has got to make the soil stand fast.

"Everyone concentrates on reforestation," Mr. Wiener said, "and ignores the ocean."

But, he said, it doesn't have to be that way. While the mud and silt is right there in everyone's face around Port-au-Prince and other towns and cities, Mr. Wiener said, there are long stretches of Haiti's coast where the reefs have been damaged and snappers and groupers have been all but fished out, but where the water is fairly clear; silt is not a problem. Work could start right away in those places.

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