Aruba, St. Eustatius Join Sint Maarten Nature Foundation in Conducting Shark Research Training

As part of the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance Save our Sharks Project marine conservation practitioners from St. Eustatius and Aruba joined with the Sint Maarten Nature Foundation in learning scientific research techniques related to shark conservation and research. Representatives from the St. Eustatius National Parks Office and the Aruba Arikok National Park spent a week with the Nature Foundation learning shark research methods, including shark tagging techniques, DNA sampling, biological measurements and the handling of the species. “We had an excellent week training together and learning from each other on the best ways to collect scientific data from various species of shark,” commented Sint Maarten Nature Foundation Manager and Save our Sharks Project leader Tadzio Bervoets. “Aruba and St. Eustatius are in the process of setting up their own shark research and conservation programs, so we thought it would be great for Aruba and St. Eustatius to come here to learn from the things we are doing on St. Maarten. At the same time we also learned from our colleagues and were able to add to our own data collection efforts here. Additionally, it is only through sound, properly gathered and strong information that we can continue to advocate for the protection of sharks locally and regionally,” continued Bervoets.

Both Aruba and St. Eustatius will be applying the techniques learned in St. Maarten in their own locations; “Caribbean Shark Conservation requires a regional effort, and this week was a step in the right direction,” commented Giancarlo Nunes, Research and Conservation Manager at the Arikok National Park in Aruba. “The team from St. Eustatius is very grateful for the opportunity to participate in shark research training. It was a good week with great learning experiences and we are eager to get started in St. Eustatius putting this all in practice,” commented Jessica Berkel, St. Eustatius Marine Park Manager.

The DCNA Save Our Sharks Project, funded by the Dutch National Postcode Lottery, has placed the focus on the conservation of sharks and rays in both the Caribbean and European part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The project has used science, education and community outreach and lobbying to establish shark sanctuaries, initiate science programs, and educate the public on the importance of sharks in the wider Caribbean. Initial data from satellite tags deployed on Saba and St. Maarten have shown that there is significant regional movement of the species in the wider Caribbean; “We need to have more research initiatives such as our project here and in Saba and the coming projects in St. Eustatius and Aruba so that we can get a better idea on the status of the species, their migratory patterns and their local distribution in the wider Caribbean. Sharks are critical to the health of the Caribbean Sea but are also one of the most threatened Large Marine Species on the planet,” concluded Bervoets.

Nature Foundation Resumes Shark Telemetry Study on St Maarten

Recently the Nature Foundation installed three new acoustic receivers to research the movement patterns of sharks in Sint Maarten waters.  Due to Hurricane Irma seven receivers were lost, stagnating the Foundation’s research into shark abundance and movement patters around the island, a project which started in October 2015. This telemetry study is part of the ‘Save our Sharks’ project and executed in collaboration with scientist Dr. Erwin Winter from Wageningen Marine Research of the Wageningen University. It is also part of a larger shark study around Saba, St Eustatius and the Saba Bank and funded by the Dutch Postcode Lottery.

“Due to additional funding made available from the Wageningen Marine Research, we were able to replace three acoustic receivers on the dive sites the Bridge, the Gregory and Carib Cargo. Four sharks are tagged with small electronic devises (acoustic transmitters) on St Maarten, these transmitters are sending out a unique signal continuously and when it is within 500-800m to a receiver, the shark is detected! This research will provide use essential information about movement patterns of sharks and the size of areas they use, which will help to better protect these significant species and understand their behaviour,”  stated Nature Foundations projects Officer Melanie Meijer zu Schlochtern.

The foundation will look into additional funding to replace another four acoustic receivers to extend the study back to its original size. Previous results of the study already suggested very local movement patterns of Caribbean Reef sharks and Nurse Sharks and movement patterns of tagged juvenile tigers sharks still need to be analysed.

Scuba divers are asked to keep their distance to the installed receivers and their setup, in order to be able to collect data successfully.

Picture: Nature Foundations projects Officer installs an acoustic receiver on the dive site ‘the Gregory’ (photo credit Ocean Explorers Dive Center).

Nature Foundation Starts Conch and Seagrass Research

The St Maarten Nature Foundation started their queen conch (Lobatus gigas) research with a survival experiment to determine if the survival of juvenile queen conchs, which  in many parts of the Caribbean are primarily associated with native seagrass beds,  differs between  native (T. testudinum) versus invasive seagrass (H. stipulacea). The Nature Foundation is collaborating with and supported by Ecological Professionals, Wageningen University and the Caribbean Netherlands Science Institute for this project (CNSI). The project is funded by Statia Terminals, NuStar Energy L.P. and the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs (EZ).

The invasive seagrass H. stipulacea is native to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean and was first sighted in Grenada in the Eastern Caribbean in 2002 and subsequently recorded on Sint Maarten in 2011. The species has since spread rapidly throughout the Eastern Caribbean. The invasive seagrass is known to be more competitive, have higher production rates and be less sensitive to environmental disturbance than native seagrass and is expected to spread even further throughout the region in the coming years. Current information regarding the effects off the invasive seagrass on our marine life and their survival, including juvenile queen conch, is very limited.

“The queen conch has a high cultural and economic value for local people and is an iconic species in the Caribbean region. However, the species has been heavily exploited throughout large parts of its natural range which has resulted in concerns for the species’ future.  A critical part of the survival of the species is determined by the success of juveniles which often use native seagrass beds. Therefore it is important to gain more information into the ecological function of the invasive seagrass and its effects on the life history of queen conch in order to be able to implement the necessary management actions if required. With this specific research we will compare the survival of juvenile conchs in native versus invasive seagrass beds” stated conch scientist PhD candidate Erik Boman from St Eustatius.

The Nature Foundation is looking forward to a successful collaboration and in determining whether invasive seagrass can cause a change in survival of juveniles and affect the regrowth of the conch population on St Maarten. The results will be of great importance into what possible effects invasive seagrass can have for the resilience of queen conch populations in the wider Caribbean.

Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance does first shark-tagging exercise

PHILIPSBURG–Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA) caught and tagged a total of 22 sharks in October as part of a region-wide “Save our Sharks” project.

Little is currently known about the status of shark populations in Dutch Caribbean waters, and tagging studies are a pivotal first step in determining which sharks are present, where they can be found, and most importantly, how best to improve management and protection of these important apex predators, it was stated in a press release.

On board the Caribbean Explorer II, which set sail from St. Maarten, were shark scientists and conservationists from Saba Conservation Foundation (SCF), Nature Foundation St. Maarten (NFSXM), Florida International University (FIU) and Sharks4Kids. The aim of the expedition was to learn as much as possible about shark abundance and diversity on the Saba Bank. Over the course of the six-day expedition, the team caught 22 sharks.

Sixteen of the sharks were Caribbean Reef Sharks, which were fitted with Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tags, a kind of bar coding, which can be used to identify sharks and track their movements. The other six sharks were Tiger Sharks (Galeocerdo Cuvier) and four of these received their own custom fitted satellite tracking device. Tiger Sharks spend quite a lot of time on the surface, which allows satellite tracking devices to be used to track their movements with pin-point accuracy, the release said.

The tagging expedition was organised as part of the Dutch Postcode Lottery funded “Save our Sharks” project, which aims to change the way we think about sharks, and to create safe havens for them by working with fishermen, local communities and scientists.

PIT tags were inserted under the sharks’ skin just below the dorsal fin. PIT acts essentially as a lifetime barcode allowing scientists to track their movements. Veterinarians also use this type of tag to microchip pets, such as cats and dogs.

Satellite tags were from Wildlife Computers Smart Position or Temperature Transmitting (SPOT) tags, which were attached to the first dorsal fin of the sharks. These tags transmit to satellites, which allow the animals to be tracked through the ARGOS system for up to four years. The tags use radio transmissions, so they must be exposed to air in order to transmit. Each time the dorsal fin breaks the surface, a geo location is given with an accuracy estimation of a few hundred meters.

Caribbean Reef Sharks (Carcharhinus Perezi) are throughout the tropical waters of the Western Atlantic and Caribbean and as far south as Brazil. The best place to see them in the Dutch Caribbean is around Saba, St. Eustatius and St. Maarten, where they cruise around the outer edge of coral reefs, pinnacles and near drop-offs. Young sharks prefer shallow coastal waters, such as lagoons, sea grass beds and shallow reefs. Caribbean reef sharks are really not aggressive, except if they are threatened and are typically curious, especially when they see divers, the release said.

Tiger Sharks are one of the largest sharks, with a bulky body, powerful jaws and razor- sharp teeth, strong enough to rip open the shell of a sea turtle. They are one of the oceans’ most powerful predators. Tiger sharks’ diet includes everything from jellyfish and sea snakes to stingrays and seals and their habit of snapping up human garbage has earned them the unfortunate nickname “wastebaskets” of the sea.

Tiger sharks are found all around the world in temperate and tropical waters and typically move into the Caribbean Sea in the winter. Tiger sharks have been sighted so often on the Saba Bank that they have been adopted as the Saba Bank mascot.

Sadly, like Caribbean Reef Shark, Tiger Sharks are classified on the IUCN Red List as “Near Threatened.” Their fins are in high demand in Asia for shark fin soup.

In the Dutch Caribbean, sharks are protected within the “Yarari Marine Mammal and Shark Sanctuary” and conservation groups are working with local fishermen to reduce catch and by-catch of sharks, and to establish a region-wide shark sighting network to learn more about where they live and how we can best protect them.

EU-funded Project to replant coral on local reefs starts

COLE BAY–Nature Foundation started to populate its first coral nursery structures last week in an attempt to repopulate depleted reefs around the island with rare coral species. The first Staghorn corals (Acropora cervicornis) have been transplanted to the coral nursery station on the dive site close to Simpson Bay called “the Bridge.”

The two nursery ladders from the Nature Foundation are now populated with coral fragments in order to raise new coral colonies to repopulate the coral reefs. In the next months, more nursery ladders will be placed and populated with Staghorn and also Elkhorn (Acropora palmata) fragments.

The coral nursery will be checked and cleaned regularly to prevent algae growth and to secure optimal growth conditions for the corals. Also the growth of the coral fragments will be researched and compared with other Caribbean islands.

“We are asking scuba divers to keep their distance to the coral nursery as the corals are fragile,” said Foundation Projects Officer Melanie Meijer zu Schlochtern.

The Coral Nursery Project in St. Maarten is part of the three-year Restoration of Ecosystem Services and Coral Reef Quality RESCQ project funded by the European Union Best 2.0 Program.

The Foundation is collaborating with IMARES Wageningen UR, the Saba Conservation Foundation, Stenapa St. Eustatius, and the Turks and Caicos Reef Fund to restore coral reefs on St. Maarten, Saba, St. Eustatius and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

large elkhorn coral
Large Elkhorn coral

The project will restore Elkhorn (Acropora palmata) and Staghorn (A. cervicornis) coral reef zones by establishing a coral nursery on each of the four islands to grow coral fragments and transplantation at selected restoration sites.

Nature Foundation received support and expert assistance from Jamaican Coral Restoration Expert Michelle McNaught during the initial stages of populating the fragments. The Foundation also received assistance from Ocean Explorers in populating the first nurseries.