By Leslie Hickerson
The Nature Foundation St Maarten is reminding residents and visitors to stop driving on the beaches of St. Maarten, which causes damage to wildlife and the environment. Beaches all around the island have long been used as an extension of parking areas as well as a common place for 4-wheelers or off-road bikes to ride, especially in areas like Kim Sha Beach and Mullet Bay. This can lead to a significant impact on our environment for several reasons including; severe damage to sea turtle nests and nesting females, endangerment of shorebird species, as well as loss of beach sediment, increase in over wash during storms resulting in less protections for us during storms.
One of the most vulnerable species that is affected by this behavior are sea turtles. All female turtles return to the place they hatched on to lay their own nests, this means that every beach on St. Maarten has the potential to be a nesting beach. Nesting season lasts from March until November with some nests hatching as late as January. When she is ready to lay her eggs, the turtle will come ashore in the late evening to dig out her nest before laying her eggs inside and covering them with sand. These shallow nests are enough to protect the eggs from natural predators and events but even small vehicles would easily crush them. The vibrations from even small quads or just parking a car on the beach can cause the eggs to die.
Additionally, even with a completely undisturbed nest only 1 in 1,000 turtles make it to adulthood. When you add in human impact the odds of these creatures surviving becomes even less likely. It is for this reason that St. Maarten is protecting sea turtles and their nesting habitat, the Nature Conservation Ordinance Articles 16 and 17 prohibits to kill, wound, capture or pick up sea turtles. However, it is also illegal to disturb, damage or destroy sea turtle nests and lairs or breeding places. Driving on beaches damages and kills sea turtle nests directly, therefore the Nature Foundations is stressing out to park your car or other type of transport before you enter the beach.
Seabirds, like turtles, sometimes nest or hunt for food along the shoreline of our beaches. They also have the added risk of being easily affected by garbage left behind by beach goers. Digging through garbage for food or materials for nests many birds pick up harmful things like plastics or Styrofoam left behind by people that visited the beach. Young birds can also fall into ruts in the sand from tires and find the terrain more difficult to navigate exposing them to predators.
An additional factor that should be very important to the residents of the island is the protection the beach offers from storm surge during hurricanes and tropical storms. Sand that has been driven on or used as a parking area becomes loose and erodes easily. Then during storms the wave break point is closer to us, which means easier flooding and higher storm surge. Over time those beaches that are treated most harshly by drivers and builders loose their sand as can be seen all around the island. Homes that were once safely back from the crashing waves are now very vulnerable due to erosion of our shorelines. Other research also have found out that driving on beaches makes the beach more susceptible to over wash during storms and hurricanes.
It is time for the residents and visitors of St Maarten to act responsibly and protect the environment and animals of their island. As tourism is our primary source of income protecting the environment (which is the draw for our visitors) should be a top priority, not only of the government, but of our people as well.
Picture 1 and 2. Last weeks tire track of a quad beside a sea turtle nest
Picture 3. Regularly cars are parked on the beach and many tire tracks all visible.