The Nature Foundation has been working closely with the National Recovery Program Bureau (NRPB) and its contractors during the removal of the shipwrecks from Hurricane Irma in 2017 that still remain in the Simpson Bay Lagoon. Foundation staff has been providing assessments, advice, and assistance to ensure that the removal of these wrecks is done with as little impact to the natural environment as possible.
Prior to removal of wrecks found to be in vulnerable areas the Nature Foundation assesses if any endangered species are surrounding or on the wrecks. Based on the results of these surveys, guidance and recommendations are made to prevent unnecessary damages to the island’s ecosystem. “Due to the extended period the wrecks have been submerged in the marine waters and their location, several surveys need to be conducted to report and assess if any native seagrass beds, corals, surrounding mangroves, or other species of importance could be at risk during salvaging. Recommendations are made taking in consideration the salvaging methods to ensure maximum environmental protection and this has led to a successful collaboration” stated Melanie Meijer zu Schlochtern Manager of the Nature Foundation.
In addition to the surveys and advice on shipwreck removal the foundation staff has been transplanting endangered and vulnerable corals from the wrecks onto the coral reef surrounding the island. During the lengthy time the shipwrecks have been underwater in the lagoon some have had corals affixed and begin growing to their submerged hulls including Starlet, Golfball, Cup, and Brain corals. Several coral species have been transplanted successfully from the shipwrecks to the dive site ‘Frenchman’s reef’, hopefully resulting in high coral survival rates.
The Simpson Bay Lagoon is a unique ecosystem that is home to many juvenile fish, important native seagrass beds, mangroves, and marine life. Both mangroves and seagrass play a large role in the health of the island in several ways including; flood prevention, acting as shelter for animals living in and around the lagoon, and helping to absorb the carbon that is responsible for globally rising temperatures. An estimated 60% of St. Maarten’s original mangroves have been lost over the years and an interest in waterfront properties and expansion is a constant threat to those that remain. Protecting the surviving mangroves is essential to the health of our island’s ecosystem.
Coral transplantation has been used for several decades as a restoration method which consists of relocating coral fragments to areas where they would be more likely to survive. “To successfully transplant a coral fragment, it is first gently removed from the wreck by our Dive Crew. The fragments are then quickly transported in ocean water to the site they will be placed. Corals will be affixed to the prepared seabed with a special underwater epoxy. Overtime the corals with grow over the epoxy and naturally attach at their base. Corals are very sensitive creatures and extreme care is taken by our crew during the transplanting process to ensure higher survival rates” explained Melanie Meijer zu Schlochtern.
While coral transplantation is a lengthy and labour-intensive process, it is essential to promote coral growth on St. Maarten where the health of our coral reef is at risk. Several factors have negatively impacted the health of our marine ecosystem in recent years including; Hurricane Irma, coral disease, pollution and rising water temperatures. Removing corals from the shipwrecks in the lagoon and replanting them on our island’s coral reefs provides the opportunity for these corals to survive and thrive in our waters and benefits the biodiversity of the natural environment.