research

Old Power Plant on Saba to be converted to Marine Research Station

On January 17th, 2022, Mark Zagers, Managing Director of the Saba Electric Company (SEC), officially handed over the keys to Peter Johnson, President of the Saba Conservation Foundation (SCF), the new tenant of the old power plant at the Fort Bay harbor. Also present were commissioner, Bruce Zagers, other SCF board members, resident researchers, and staff. After the handover, the group toured and inspected the newly renovated facility.

Due to climate change, overfishing, coastal development and other stresses, coral reefs worldwide are drastically in decline and scientists are racing to save the “rainforest of the sea” from extinction. The facility will provide novel opportunities to conduct coral reef research at an ideal location, adjacent to the Saba Marine Park and near the Saba Bank. The project was initiated in collaboration and with support of the island government.

Kai Wulf, managing director of the SCF, explained: “Our plans are to enhance the building to provide a controlled environment, so called mesocosms, to grow and study reef organisms, to better understand and control factors that impact and promote their wellbeing, with the aim to develop practical solutions to restore marine ecosystems.”

Official key handover; from left to right: Ayumi Kuramae Izioka, Saba Bank Science Coordinator, Lynn Costenaro, Board Member, Saba Conservation Foundation Mark Zagers, Managing Director, Saba Electric Company Peter Johnson, President, Saba Conservation Foundation Alwin Hylkema, Resident Researcher, Van Hall Larenstein University, Bruce Zagers, Commissioner, Saba Island Government. Credit: Kai Wulf

Services provided by Saba’s marine and terrestrial ecosystems are vitally important to the island’s fisheries and tourism industries, with an estimated total economic value of US $29 million per year (TEEB Study, Wolf’s Company 2014).

For example, by cultivating and restocking Diadema sea urchins, important herbivores decimated in the Caribbean by a viral disease during the early 1980s, algae growth that is now smothering and choking corals, could be vastly reduced. Scientists may also be able to develop new techniques to propagate stony coral that is more resilient to rising ocean temperatures and C02 induced acidification.

Successful research and coral restoration practices could bring much publicity and elevate Saba’s visibility internationally. Additionally, the research facility will create a new form of sustainable tourism for Saba, attracting scientists, students and coral reef restoration practitioners to the island. These visitors usually stay for longer periods and often bring family and friends, contributing substantially to the economy to the island. Further benefits will not just include guided tours, but could also provide career options for local students interested in marine biology and engage interested residents in meaningful citizen science.

The finalization of the building modifications approved by SEC and full operational capacity depend on the ability of the SCF and its partners to raise the necessary funding.

Concept drawing of future research station. Credit: Kai Wulf

 

 

Published in BioNews 51

Date
2022
Data type
Media
Theme
Research and monitoring
Geographic location
Saba
Author

Vegetation Study informs Spatial Planning on Sint Maarten

Commissioned by Sint Maarten’s Ministry of Public Housing, Spatial Planning, Environment and Infrastructure (VROMI), a color vegetation map produced by CARMABI and Wageningen University & Research shows a 25% decrease in overall vegetation cover of the Dutch side of the island since 1956.  Results show that this loss can be attributed to massive urbanization and touristic development, overgrazing by introduced mammals (goats), the impact of hurricanes and the negative effect of invasive plant species. By investigating and mapping the vegetation of the island, spatial planning strategies can work to protect and connect the remaining sensitive landscape ecological units, to prevent further loss of biodiversity and vital natural resources.

 

Usefulness of vegetation maps

Credit: Marjolijn Lopes Cardozo: SHAPE/DCNA

Vegetation maps are a useful tool in understanding the status of the biodiversity and species make-up of a particular area (e.g. of an island). These maps are used by a wide variety of actors, -from scientists to policy makers- and are key to spatial planning and designing nature management and conservation strategies. This gains extra relevance based on the fact that St. Maarten is a biodiversity hotspot in the Caribbean area: the island is inhabited by over 100 species which can only be found within the Lesser Antilles region and 12 species which can only be found on St. Maarten.  Furthermore, the vegetation types that are associated with the hilly landscape (the dominant landscape of St. Maarten) belong to the most threatened ecosystems in Latin America and worldwide.

A well-developed natural vegetation plays a critical role in securing balanced and healthy ecosystems. Areas with such a vegetation influence soil properties, prevent erosion, aid in water retention and provide important buffers between land and sea (preventing damage to coral reefs by sedimentation).  Not to mention the importance they play in providing food and shelter for a wide variety of the island’s native animal populations.

Changes in the islands’ natural vegetation since 1956

Credit: Christian König: SHAPE/DCNA

The results of an island-wide field study done at the end of 1999 shows that in comparison to a vegetation map published in 1956, a 25% decline in vegetation cover has taken place. In addition, five different vegetation types -found in coastal areas- have disappeared beyond recognition over those 40 plus years.  The interconnectedness of ecosystems on islands make them vulnerable to the impact of habitat loss and fragmentation as well as the negative impact of grazing by introduced mammal grazers and invasive plant species. Of course, we must not forget the detrimental effects of hurricanes and global warming.

Over time, habitat loss and fragmentation on St. Maarten have been caused by agriculture, grazing by introduced mammals and since the 1960s by an explosive growth in tourism. Particularly since 1980 tourism has skyrocketed on the island. Some vegetation units described in 1956 have also disappeared due to actual vegetation regeneration and succession to a more diverse state following the decline in agriculture and livestock grazing.

Although there has been some regeneration, the overall process witnessed for St. Maarten is that of loss of natural and semi-natural vegetated areas in all parts of the island. The largest disappearance took place in the western parts of the island that in 1956 were characterized by the presence of two evergreen vegetation types. In the Low Lands area, a climax evergreen vegetation type covering a large part of the area in 1956 has disappeared almost totally except for a very small area still present but seriously threatened. Large areas of a vegetation type with a deciduous character to the west of the eastern hill range have been lost. One could observe that the general trend shows that the hills are regenerating while the low and coastal areas are degrading at a faster rate, resulting in a net vegetation loss. This trend demonstrates the economic shift from mainly agricultural practices towards an economy heavily reliant on tourism.

Towards a more sustainable future for St. Maarten

Vegetation maps similar to the one produced in the present report have been completed by Carmabi for other Dutch Caribbean islands as well.  This includes maps of Curaçao (1997), Bonaire (2005), St. Eustatius (2014) and Saba (2016).  Since the 1980’s land-use planning has become a hot topic, and understanding the current status of each island’s terrestrial areas is critical in both sustainable land development as well as implementing conservation and restoration strategies moving forward. The report ends with five recommendations to works towards a more effective terrestrial nature management on the island: establish a protected areas network, control of roaming livestock, protection of endangered plant species, an invasive species action plan and long-term vegetation monitoring. Findings of this report point to the importance of protecting and connecting rare and individual landscape units, such as those found in the Low Lands and at the remaining naturally vegetated beaches. It is also clear that the landscape ecological units that are characteristic of the high hills have a high conservation value that call for protection.

For more information, you can read the full report here

https://www.dcbd.nl/sites/default/files/documents/landscape_ecological_v...

 

Article published in BioNews 46

 

Date
2021
Data type
Media
Theme
Education and outreach
Research and monitoring
Geographic location
St. Maarten
Author

Research Expedition for Lesser Antillean Sperm Whales

The Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA) and World Wide Fund for Nature Netherlands (WWF-NL) are proud to support Caribbean Cetacean Society’s (CCS) new “Ti Whale An Nou” Project. This project will provide key insight which will be used to estimate population sizes, distribution, movements and social structure of sperm whales in the Lesser Antilles between the islands of Grenada and Anguilla, including the Yarari Marine Mammal and Shark Sanctuary, around Saba, Saba Bank, St. Maarten and St. Eustatius. These results will be valuable for improving marine mammal protection in the Wider Caribbean region.

Caribbean Hot Spot

Humpback whale calf
Photo credit: Tomas Kotouc

There are over 33 species of cetaceans (marine mammals) which can be found within the Caribbean region, representing over a third of the total global population. Marine mammals can be a valuable indicator for the overall health of oceans and help maintain balance within the very complex marine environment. As predators, they serve to thin out weak or injured fish, and as prey they provide an important food source for other species. They serve as a carbon pump, relocating nutrients ingested near the surface as nitrogen-rich fecal matter which settles along the ocean floor. This fecal matter is an important food source for phytoplankton, small animals that consume CO2 and convert into oxygen. In this way, marine mammals contribute in our fight against effects of climate change. Furthermore, when marine mammals die, their bodies sink bringing important nutrients to even the deepest parts of the ocean. Lastly, these species can have great economic impact, serving to improve local fish stock while also being a significant tourist driver.

 

Locally Driven Study

Unfortunately, still much is unknown about the marine mammals of the Caribbean. Luckily, studies such as the newly announced Caribbean Cetaceans Society’s (CCS) “Ti Whale An Nou” help fill in these knowledge gaps. This study will work to increase international collaboration and involvement of local Caribbean organizations (such as the DCNA and Saba Conservation Foundation), improving understanding and building capacity for years to come. This project builds off previous studies conducted in 2016 by the Dominica Sperm Whale Project and 2019/2020 by Dalhousie University. This research mission has received great support by not only DCNA and WWF-NL, but from Corail Caraibes, Orange, the EDF Group Foundation, Animal Wellfare Institute, and Parc Naturel Régional de la Martinique as well.

Sperm whale.  Photo credit: Alexis Rosenfeld

 

Ti Whale An Nou

“Ti Whale An Nou” is Haitian creole for “Our Little Whales” and serves as a reminder of how interlinked humans are to the ocean. The study will take place over six expeditions, focused on three main zones reaching between Anguilla and Granada. The goal is to improve understanding of the diversity, distribution and relative densities of marine mammal species, specifically sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) in the Lesser Antilles. This project will also provide new acoustic data to help improve the ability to identify species through an artificial intelligence system. Lastly, this project will provide new insight into the role of environmental variables in the diversity and distribution of marine mammals throughout the West Indies.

 

Importance of cooperation

As experts continue to learn more about these complex and dynamic areas, more impactful conservation strategies can be implemented. Transboundary species, especially those with migration routes as long reaching as whales, dolphins and sharks, require a network which crosses international borders. One such example is the Yarari Marine Mammal and Sanctuary, which helps to create safe passage for marine mammals and sharks throughout the waters of the Caribbean Netherlands. Through collaborative efforts, driven at the local level, the Caribbean can serve as a leader in international cooperation for marine conservation.

Report your Sightings

Have you (ever) observed whales in the Caribbean? Every sighting can provide useful data for researchers and provides critical information needed to protect these species. Help us by reporting your (old) nature sightings and photos on the website Observation.org or download the free app (iPhone (iObs) & Android (ObsMapp)). These tools are available in over 40 languages and can be used by biologists and citizens and tourists alike.

More information

To find out more, visit the project’s website (https://www.ccs-ngo.com/ti-whale-an-nou-2021). Outcomes of this expedition will be made available in Obsenmer, FlukeBook, Dutch Caribbean Biodiversity Database, Observation.org and Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF).

 

Article published in BioNews 44.

Date
2021
Data type
Media
Theme
Education and outreach
Research and monitoring
Geographic location
Saba
Saba bank
St. Eustatius
St. Maarten
Author