Nature Foundation Facilitating Research on Post Irma Response and Recovery Processes

people clearing debris

Cole Bay – The Sint Maarten Nature Foundation has started a new research project under the lead of Master student Joey de Hamer, who is studying Development and Rural Innovation at the Wageningen University located in the Netherlands, concentrated on disaster studies and in particular disaster governance. His research is focused on disaster governance on St. Maarten in the wake of hurricane Irma, which devastated the island in September 2017.

De Hamer is researching how the island has responded to Irma and what this response has resulted in. Knowledge will be gathered about how St. Maarten has proceeded in the recovery process in the aftermath of Irma and to what extent this has led to the development of several situations affecting life on the island.

Both the response and recovery process will be researched and analyzed by planning several interviews with involved stakeholders. Therefore the Nature Foundation is encouraging involved stakeholders and interested persons to share their experiences and ideas on both the response and recovery processes in the aftermath of Irma.

If you would like to participate and talk to de Hamer about your experiences and opinions or if you know someone who would like to contribute, you can contact him via his e-mail – joey.dehamer@wur.nl – or via his phone number – (721) 581-5121 (no WhatsApp). All the gained research data will be treated confidential, names and locations will not be mentioned in the report and will not be retraceable.

 

Hurricane Irma Wreck JabJabs Lives on as Artificial Reef Habitat

Former popular floating bar JabJabs has received a new lease on life as an artificial reef. JabJabs, which was a popular floating bar housed on the 85-foot steel sailing ship SV Nightingale, was sunk during Hurricane Irma and subsequently salvaged after being submerged for three months in the Simpson Bay Lagoon. After the vessel was successfully salvaged the process was initiated to sink the ship as artificial reef habitat.

boat wreck at the surface
Jabjab before being sunk

“Since hurricane Irma we have been interested in obtaining suitable vessels to create an artificial reef habitat, so we were very excited when we were contacted by NAGICO Insurances about them being willing to donate the vessel to the Nature Foundation for this purpose. It was however very difficult to get the necessary permits to make this happen,” commented Tadzio Bervoets, Nature Foundation Manager.

The request for the sinking of the vessel was submitted to the Maritime Affairs Department and the Cabinet of Minister Stuart Johnson and “after a lengthy process we received permission from the Maritime Affairs Department and Minister Johnson to sink the vessel as an artificial reef habitat,” continued Bervoets.

“We are very pleased to see this project become a reality after so many months,” Lisa Brown Marketing Manager said. “The marine wildlife is an important part of our ecosystem in the Caribbean and we hope that by creating these artificial reefs, areas destroyed by natural disasters and other factors can be rehabilitated and at the same time contribute positively to the most significant pillar of our St. Maarten economy; tourism. NAGICO is extremely proud to be part of this project.”

The ship was thoroughly cleaned by the Nature Foundation staff, the young participants of the Kidz at Sea Program, Jorakhae Freediving School, staff of IGY Isle de Sol, Aquatic Solutions, Seacure Marine, and Aquamania dive center. The Dutch Caribbean Coast Guard was at the location during the sinking of the vessel. Also taking part in the process, and playing a crucial role in stripping the vessel and ensuring that all environmental contaminants were removed, were the previous owners of the vessel Stefan and Daniel Veraguas and Kristen Mcallister.

people standing on partially submerged wreck
Final drink on JabJab by the crew

Ships made out of steel are often sunk as artificial reef habitat. Sunken ships, which have been stripped and cleaned, provide surface for coral and algae to grow on and attract numerous fish species. The area will also serve as an eco-tourism attraction, serving as a dive site for divers visiting the island.

“We are very satisfied with all those who volunteered to make this project possible. It was a bit nerve wracking considering that we had a pressing time constraint with weather associated with Tropical Storm Isaac approaching, but through cooperation and very hard work by all those involved we made it a success. We would like to sink more suitable, steel Irma wrecks after they have been thoroughly cleaned and are appealing to the government to facilitate this process which would provide a solution to the issue of wrecks still being in the Simpson Bay Lagoon while at the same time creating suitable habitat for marine organisms and eco-tourism opportunities,” continued Bervoets.

The vessel was sunk approximately two kilometers outside of Simpson Bay on ‘The Bridge’ dive site in fifty feet of water. During follow-up dives after the sinking juvenile fish species were already found populating the area.

Researchers Record Significant Damage to St. Maarten’s Terrestrial Flora and Fauna Due to the Impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria

Hurricanes Irma and Maria have done considerable damage to buildings and infrastructure, but also St. Maarten’s nature has suffered a dramatic blow, researchers Wendy Jesse and Rotem Zilber recently discovered.

Jesse and Zilber, associated with the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam and collaborating with the Sint Maarten Nature Foundation, visited St. Martin in August 2018 to measure the effects of the 2017 Hurricane Season on the natural environments of St. Martin and the most prevalent lizard species that inhabit them. The researchers also focused on lizards, which are a species that take up a very important position in the local food chain due to their high abundance and the fact that they eat many insects and serve as a primary food source for many birds. Any change in lizard abundance will therefore likely be a sign of overall ecological imbalance. Jesse already collected biological data on St. Martin In 2015 and 2016. This expedition aimed to collect data to compare the current situation to the one previous to Irma.

Forested areas experienced reductions of canopy cover as much as 90% meaning that the forest floor is subjected to considerably higher temperatures then before. Also vegetation height was dramatically reduced. Most trees that were uprooted were relatively old, so full recovery of the forest will likely take several decades. The changed vegetation structure of the forest has significant consequences for the lizard species that inhabit them. Previously, forests were primarily inhabited by species that are sensitive to high temperatures, and the shade that forest cover provided made them a sanctuary for a lizard species that is unique to St Maarten: Anolis pogus or the Anguilla Bank bush anole. Although the name suggest otherwise, St. Maarten is the only island the species is currently found and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature assesses the status of the species as vulnerable to extinction. The environmental damage caused by Irma has significantly reduced the abundance of A. pogus in forests and climate change and future hurricanes might push this species to the brink of extinction, like has happened on other islands.

Jesse and Zilber also observed other signs of ecological imbalance. Vine-like plants with burning hairs and painful spines have optimally profited from the increased sunshine reaching the forest floor, entangling other plants and trees in their path. The researchers also encountered remarkably high densities of (fire) ants, which could be a direct effect of the decrease of insect-eating lizards in these areas. They plan to come back periodically to monitor the situation and recovery of the environment and the status of the many unique species on St. Martin.

research being conducted
Jesse and Zilber conducting research at Little Key in the Simpson Bay Lagoon

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Nature Foundation Researching Pollution Related Algae Bloom in Simpson Bay Lagoon

The St. Maarten Nature Foundation has been monitoring an algal bloom within sections of the Simpson Bay Lagoon over the past few weeks. Boaters in the area have been complaining to the Nature Foundation of algae clogging the intakes of their vessel engines and a few isolated fish die-offs have been occuring due to the presence of the algae.

During two research dives in the Lagoon it was established that the probable identity of the algae is likely Ulveria oxysperma and Ulva Linza, both species are indicative of an increase in pollution levels and a decrease in water quality for the wider Simpson Bay Lagoon. Based on the probable identification of the species, water quality was tested in order to determine the possible cause of the algal bloom and a correlation to water quality.

“We are a bit concerned that we have seen an increase in algae in the Lagoon, which is related to a drop in water quality and in increase in pollution levels. Our preliminary results have shown that indeed there was a drop in water quality with an increase in temperature related to us entering the hottest part of the year. We are also trying to determine whether or not the current algae bloom is related to the effects of the hundreds of boats and other types of infrastructure being sunk or damaged after Hurricanes Irma and Maria. This is definitely possible considering the type of stress the Simpson Bay Lagoon has been undergoing as an ecosystem and we expected for some time now for the environment in the Lagoon to react to that huge environmental stress. For the time being, we will keep an eye on the situation and hopefully the bloom will dissipate in a few weeks,” commented Tadzio Bervoets of the Nature Foundation.

algae in water
algae floating underwater in Simpson Bay lagoon
algae in hand
Algae from Simpson Bay lagoon

Unknown Incident Causes Significant Damage To Nature Foundation ‘Fragments of Recovery” Coral Reef Restoration Program

Cole Bay- An unknown incident, more than likely caused by a large vessel, caused significant damage to the Nature Foundation Coral Reef Restoration Program. During inspection dives the two primary coral nursery structures sustained major damage and some coral fragments were affected. Foundation staff replaced the nursery to a safer location and replaced coral fragments at a new location.

The Foundation started to populate its first coral nursery structures again after most of the previous coral nurseries were damaged or destroyed by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The Foundation has slowly started to implement its ‘Fragments of Recovery” coral restoration projects with installing the first coral nurseries in an attempt to repopulate hurricane damaged reefs around the island with rare coral species. “We were very distressed to see that we received such damage to our coral nursery, especially considering that we put so much hard work into getting our corals back up to speed,” commented Tadzio Bervoets, Nature Foundation Manager.

The Coral Nursery Project in St Maarten used to be part of the 3 year RESCQ project (Restoration of Ecosystem Services and Coral Reef Quality) funded by the European Union Best 2.0 Program. However, due to the effects caused by last year’s Hurricanes the Nature Foundation has had to step out of the project in order to focus on rebuilding and assisting Nature recover on the island; “The team, under the leadership of Melanie our Project Officer, worked hard to replace the nursery so fingers crossed that the coral will hold,. In the meantime we will try to ascertain what caused the damage to our post-Irma Coral Nursery.

diver near coral nursery
assessing damaged coral nursery

 

Sint Maarten Nature Foundation Responds to Sargassum Related Fish Die-Off in Oysterpond

The Sint Maarten Nature Foundation over the weekend responded to a significant fish-die off event occurring in the Oysterpond wetland. The event is related to the present sargassum invasion the country is currently experiencing. “We have been at the area in Oysterpond for a few days now monitoring the situation and it is serious. Due to the amount of sargassum decomposing in the Oysterpond Wetland there has been a drop in oxygen levels in the water resulting in numerous organisms dying. Up to now we have recorded about fifteen species of fish as well as lobster being affected significantly,” commented Nature Foundation Manager Tadzio Bervoets. The Nature Foundation is also urging the community not to consume the dead fish.

sargassum seaweed on beach
Sargassum Oyster Pond

The Sargassum is entering Oysterpond through the inlet at Dawn Beach and has been settling and decomposing in the area. Residents of the area have also been complaining about the smell released by the decomposing sargassum seaweed.

The present sargassum invasion affecting the wider Caribbean is one of the worst since the large-scale invasion began in 2011. Although there is no general consensus on the cause of the increased sargassum affecting the Caribbean it is generally believed to be caused by climate change and increased nutrients being introduced into the ocean, both of which are human influences.

‘We have been exploring options to have the seaweed removed and have it be turned into a profitable industry here on the island, however there has to be an investment from both the public and private sectors in combating the invasion. We should also realize that this event is related to Climate Change and again we are at the forefront of a climate induced issue, just like the 2017 Hurricane Season. We are constantly receiving updates on the status of the invasion and unfortunately there is quite a bit more sargassum on its way,” concluded Bervoets.

Nature Foundation Cleans Up Mullet Bay Beach With Passengers of Princess Cruise Lines and Fathom Travel

The Sint Maarten Nature Foundation teamed up with Passengers from Princess Cruise Lines, Fathom Travel and Carib Resorts in cleaning trash, single-use plastics and even hurricane debris from Mullet Bay Beach on Wednesday morning. Some 35 passengers removed 728.13 pounds of trash from the beach, using the Trash Tracker method developed by Ocean Cleanup Organization 4Oceans by weighing all the collected trash and using reusable bags and gloves.

The activity was a part of the Fathom and Princess Cruises Cruise for the Caribbean and it is the third time passengers from a cruise ship to Sint Maarten have participated in an impactful environmental activity with the Nature Foundation. During the cleanup the passengers also learned about several Nature Foundation projects, such as the ‘Reduce & Reuse St Maarten’ project which is designed to decrease the amount of single-use plastics on St Maarten. Single-use plastics impact our environment tremendously, never biodegrade and are easily substituted by biodegradable and reusable products.

“We were very pleased to have these environmental conscience guests to take time out of their holiday to clean our beaches. We are grateful for their positive attitude about decreasing single-use plastics and their pledge to assist in keeping our natural environments clean. We are looking forward into more sustainable tourism, a single-use plastic ban on St Maarten could really facilitate St Maarten as an eco-touristic destination and will help to protect our natural environment for the future generations,” read a Nature Foundation statement.

Nature Foundation Teaches Milton Peters College Students About Coral Reefs, Mangroves and Littering

Last week the Nature Foundation visited the second form of Milton Peters College to teach the students about the importance of our coral reefs and about the Foundation’s Coral Restoration Project. Worldwide coral reefs are declining due to global warming, pollution, overfishing and habitat destruction, St Maarten’s coral reefs are also facing several threats and Hurricane Irma left a large impact as well. The Coral Restoration Project is aimed to restore St Maarten reefs with Staghorn and Elkhorn coral species by establishing a coral nursery to grow coral and transplant them back to selected sites. “The students were amazed by the corals and their beauty; hopefully we inspired them to help protect our coral reefs!” says Nature Foundations Project Officer Melanie Meijer zu Schlochtern.

Additionally, the first form of Milton Peters Collage students visited Mullet Pond and learned about the importance of mangroves and wetlands, and how they protect us from storm surge. “Mullet pond is listed and protected as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Treaty. Wetlands, including Mullet Pond, are vital for human survival. They are among the world’s most productive environments; cradles of biological diversity that provide the water and productivity upon which countless species of plants and animals depend for survival. They also provide countless benefits or “ecosystem services” ranging from biodiversity, to flood control, groundwater recharge, and climate change mitigation. With the visit of Mullet Pond we created the opportunity for these students to see and learn about this important wetland habitat themselves” continued the manager Tadzio Bervoets.

The students also learned about the impact of trash on marine life and therefore performed a cleanup at Mullet Bay Beach as part of the Reduce and Reuse St. Maarten project. About 25 students collected 370.95 pounds of trash in just half an hour, by using the Trash Tracker method developed by Ocean Cleanup Organization 4Oceans by weighing all the collected trash and using reusable bags and gloves. “We are proud on these students because of their hard work this day, achievements and willingness to help the environment of St Maarten. These students maybe the future generation to protect our natural environment and that is very much needed on St Maarten!” concluded a Nature Foundation statement.

Sint Maarten Nature Foundation Relaunches Save our Sharks Shark Conservation Project

Cole Bay— The St Maarten Nature Foundation has restarted its shark conservation program as part of the DCNA Save Our Sharks project funded by the Dutch National Postcode Lottery. The research is aimed at better understanding the life characteristics of sharks in St Maarten waters including population structure, abundance and migration.

The Foundation has had to suspend its shark research program due to the impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. With the relaunching of the Save our Shark Project for Sint Maarten the Nature Foundation aims to continue to conduct scientific research and monitoring into the shark population and changing perceptions about sharks through education and outreach programs.

“Because of books, movies and news reports sharks have gotten a bad reputation as mindless killers. This is very far from the truth. Although accidents do happen so do they with dogs for example, which kill about 100 times more people than sharks do a year. We have been working hard in terms of education, outreach and also science in this case to show the population that sharks are not mindless killers and are very important to the health of our oceans,” commented Tadzio Bervoets of the Sint Maarten Nature Foundation.

Sharks play a very important role in the oceans, on the reefs and taking care of healthy fish stocks. Sharks are at the top of the food chain in virtually every part of every ocean, also on St Maarten. In that role, they keep populations of other fish healthy and in proper proportion for their ecosystem. Sharks are also very important to the tourism sector with many divers traveling to Sint Maarten in order to dive with sharks.

The Foundation will also host its Third Annual Sint Maarten Shark week starting on June 8th, with various activities being organized centered on educating the public on the important role sharks play in the ocean environment. The public can keep up to date on shark week activities through the Nature Foundation Facebook page.

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Photocaption: shark being tagged in local waters

101 Vessels Still Abandoned or Wrecked in Simpson Bay Lagoon

Cole Bay-The Sint Maarten Nature Foundation together with inspectors from the VROMI Ministry last week to map the amount of vessels still abandoned or sunk in the Simpson Bay Lagoon after the passage of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. During the exercise the Nature Foundation mapped and geolocated 101 boats still abandoned or sunk in the Lagoon, including both salvaged and unsalvaged vessels. The Nature Foundation is very concerned regarding the vessels remaining in the Simpson Bay Lagoon some two weeks before the start of the 2018 Hurricane Season; “Last week we managed to map out the remaining wrecks in the Simpson Bay Lagoon and unfortunately there are still a significant number of wrecks in the Simpson Bay Lagoon. This is situation is quite worrying considering both the environmental effects of still having all of these vessels in the Lagoon but also in terms of what to do with the vessels considering the pending Hurricane Season. If there is a weather event with these vessels still in the Lagoon they can cause further damage to both the environment and infrastructure,” commented Nature Foundation Manager Tadzio Bervoets.

The Foundation is calling for a structured disposal plan for the vessels still in the Simpson Bay Lagoon; “Unfortunately, considering all of the issues going on concerning waste management , we do not suggest carrying wrecked vessels, including vessels larger than 30 meters, to the landfill. Considering this we suggest a coordinated and cooperative removal plan with St. Martin taking into account the environmental affects of removal,” continued Bervoets.

The Nature Foundation is also calling for legislation leading uo to the Hurricane Season regarding vessels entering and staying in the Lagoon during threatening storms; “There is a real need for legislation which outlines what happens in the Lagoon with regards to threatening storms and the use of the Simpson Bay Lagoon. Many vessels which have been abandoned belong to owners who have left the island. The other issue is related to the delay regarding the salvaging of vessels right after Hurricane Irma which has caused many vessels that were still salvageable to be completely written off. We have learned valuable lessons in the past few months and it is now necessary for us to apply these lessons learned in order to make thus country more resilient,” concluded Bervoets.

Picture 1: VROMI Inspectors on Nature Foundation Patrol Vessel Yellowtail documenting wrecked vessels.

Picture 2: A map generated by the Nature Foundation showing the location of abandoned vessels.