Since 2021, the Nature Foundation has worked as the environmental authority for the National Recovery Program Bureau (NRPB)’s Simpson Bay Lagoon Cleanup, a long-term project tasked with removing over 155 shipwrecks from the lagoon as a result of Hurricane Irma in 2017. This role involves environmental assessments and species relocation.

This partnership necessitates the Nature Foundation’s role as the scientific and environmental authority of St. Maarten. The Nature Foundation is responsible for assessing the environmental impact of removal activities in order to guide the shipwreck cleanup process, as well as carrying out any necessary relocation efforts for protected species. The components involved in shipwreck removal, such as dredging, dragging, crushing, and cutting, can threaten mangroves, seagrass, and coral if not done correctly.

The Simpson Bay Lagoon Cleanup Collaboration is funded by the National Recovery Program Bureau.

Objective

The Nature Foundation aims to provide assessments, advice, and assistance to ensure that the removal of the Simpson Bay Lagoon shipwrecks is done with as little impact to the natural environment as possible. Serving as a consultant and collaborator in the Simpson Bay Lagoon Cleanup, the Nature Foundation additionally works to relocate and ensure the safety of protected species of coral, mangrove, and seagrass.

Background

In September 2017, Hurricane Irma directly impacted St. Maarten/St. Martin as a Category 5 hurricane. Considered the most severe natural disaster in the modern history of the island, Hurricane Irma devastated the island and sank dozens of vessels in the lagoon and offshore. For several years, the shipwrecks remained in the lagoon, polluting the surrounding environment and acting as a maritime hazard for passing vessels. In the years since Hurricane Irma sank dozens of vessels in the lagoon, a variety of marine life has grown on and around them, including protected species of coral, mangrove, and seagrass.

In March 2021, the National Recovery Program Bureau (NRPB) announced the launch of the Simpson Bay Lagoon Cleanup. With the funding for over 150 shipwrecks, the removal process began immediately with the assistance of the Nature Foundation, who surveyed and assessed the wrecks before their removal, relocating protected corals, mangroves, and seagrasses if necessary.

Process

The Nature Foundation’s work. forthe Simpson Bay Lagoon Cleanup has two main components: assessment and relocation.

In the assessment phase, Nature Foundation staff survey the shipwreck and the area around it to determine the presence of any protected or vulnerable species that could be impacted by its removal. These surveys are conducted from the surface and underwater. After the initial assessment, the Nature Foundation makes a series of recommendations to the National Recovery Program Bureau to reduce the environmental impact of the removal.

Relocation is the next step in the process, depending on the species:

Coral

These individuals are safely removed by staff and immediately transplanted onto an appropriate reef in the ocean. Staff regularly check on the transplanted corals in order to monitor their progress and growth. The main types of coral transplanted include golfball coral (Favia fragum), lesser starlet coral (Siderastrea radians), massive starlet coral (Siderastrea siderea), sun corals (Tubastraea), and brain corals (Mussidae and Merulinidae), all of which are protected under the SPAW Protocol.

Mangrove

The Nature Foundation has also relocated red mangroves (Rhizophora mangle), which are similarly protected under SPAW with other mangrove species and cannot be removed without permit as part of the new local coastal development law. Some wrecks are located so closely to established mangroves that they cannot be removed without putting the vegetation in danger, emphasizing the need for intervention from the Nature Foundation.

Seagrass

In addition to coral and seagrass, vital seagrass species located in the lagoon, including manatee grass (Syringodium filiforme), paddle grass (Halophila decipiens), and turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum). The dragging and dredging activities associated with shipwreck removal can easily kill seagrass. To give them a better chance of survival, Nature Foundation staff removes the seagrass surrounding the area and transplants it away from the wreck.

The technique used to transplant turtle seagrass for the Simpson Bay Lagoon Cleanup project.

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