Lac is a semi-enclosed lagoon located on the south-eastern side of Bonaire, and contains a diversity of shallow water coral reef associated habitats in close proximity such as mangroves, seagrass beds, Halimeda algal beds, the back reef and sand flats. These habitats support a diversity of fish and invertebrates. The bay has numerous international and national legal protections. The Bonaire National Marine Park regulations and various Island Decrees facilitate from the local perspective. However, despite all regulations, the bay faces several changes, and management and protection of the bay is hampered by a lack of scientific information regarding current environmental status.
Nutrient poor waters are a requirement for healthy coral reefs. When these become enriched with nutrients, it results e.g. in increased algae and affected reef condition. One area of interest for management is the eutrophication status of Lac. Eutrophication is a pressure that might explain some of observed changes in the bay. However, no baseline on the eutrophication status of Lac exists. IMARES and Environics NV conducted a snapshot assessment of the eutrophication status for current understanding and as a basis for future management. Environics conducted the field measurements at Lac, and most of the data analysis. IMARES analysed geographical data and together with Environics cowrited the report.
The purpose of this baseline study was to assess the trophic status of Lac by analyzing 4 potential indicators of eutrophication simultaneously:
- Nutrient levels
- Levels of fecal indicator bacteria (enterococci)
- Epiphyte loads of seagrasses,
- Benthic community composition of the back reef
The monitoring was performed at 32 sites within the bay and 1 control site outside the bay in December 2010.
In this study, three of the four observed indicators point towards an ecosystem that is under stress from eutrophication. The levels of nutrients in the bay exceeded thresholds for open coral reef systems due to lack of better. Overall, concentrations show that enrichment with nitrogen was widespread and levels commonly exceeded threshold values. No clear source or “hotspot” could therefore be identified in this study. Phosphate only exceeded threshold values at a few locations, but no clear source was identified. The diffuse enrichment of nutrients across the bay probably results from multiple factors such as water circulation, residence time, freshwater input, rainfall, groundwater contamination, tidal range, and geology. Besides the (semi-) natural conditions the nutrient status is likely to be affected by human impacts as greywater inputs and lacking of proper sewerage. All these factors should be considered regarding the future state and measures to tackle the eutrophication of the bay.
Enterecocci bacteria were detected at levels above acceptable levels as determined by ISO for bathing waters. The mean levels of enterococci decreased as the distance from shore increases with the highest levels found at groundwater sites and zero enterococci found on the back reef sites. Based on this dispersion we assume that sources of enterococci in this study are most likely birds and cattle (donkey and goat manure). The identification of the true sources of enterococci in Bonaire is however compelling and further study on this aspect is necessary to protect public health.
The levels of epiphytes on seagrass blades, showed differences in biomass among studied stations. This could mean that seagrass beds in different regions of the bay are experiencing different levels of water column nutrients but no clear relation between nutrient levels and epiphyte cover was observed in this study.
The benthic composition monitoring revealed high abundance of calcareous algae (Ramicrusta sp.). This abundance is likely to be a bloom (pers. observations over time). The bloom of Ramicrusta sp. might be indicative of nutrient enrichment and uptake occurring in Lac. The alga is currently taking over habitat where hard corals lived and changes the benthic composition of the back reef and potentially affecting the integrity of the reef crest. The degradation of the reef crest will diminish the protective role provided by the structure and increase exposure to wave and storm action from the adjacent sea.
Despite the current eutrophic state of Lac, studies elsewhere indicate that eutrophic bays may begin to recover within months after implementation of proper measures. To do so, natural sources of nutrients should be distinguished from anthropogenic sources. Based on the results of this study and historical accounts of other bays in the Caribbean that have been degraded by eutrophication; the following recommendations for Lac are suggested:
- a. Reduction of nutrient and fecal bacteria inputs by removing donkeys and goats from the watershed, and ensuring adequate toilet facilities and sewerage at Cai and Sorobon, including greywater disposal.
- b. Continuation of nutrient monitoring nutrient in order to locate clear sources and fate of the eutrophic state of Lac. We recommend adding urea to the suite of nutrients monitored in this study.
- c. Implementation of a regular monitoring program to identify sources and fates of fecal bacteria in order to support public health. Effectiveness of above measures can then be assessed as well.
- d. In general, to understand the outcomes of the water quality management plan it would be of great value to have an understanding of groundwater flows, circulation patterns and residence time of water in Lac.