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 – firstname.lastname@example.org – 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.
During its annual Coral Reef Monitoring activities the Sint Maarten Nature Foundation has recorded incidents of coral bleaching both inside and outside of the Man of War Shoal Marine Protected Area. The Foundation started it’s monitoring dives on Tuesday and discovered numerous coral colonies showing signs of coral bleaching.
Coral bleaching occurs when coralpolyps expel algae that live inside their tissues. Normally, coral polyps live in an endosymbiotic relationship with this algae crucial for the health of the coral and the reef. The algae provides up to 90% of the coral’s energy. Bleached corals continue to live but begin to starve after bleaching. Some corals recover.
Above-average sea water temperatures caused by global warming is the leading cause of coral bleaching. However the Foundation does not rule out increased coastal pollution and the impacts of Hurricane Irma and Maria a year ago as contributing to the bleaching; “We have been recording coral bleaching unfortunately. This has us worried since our corals have already suffered quite a bit because of last year’s hurricanes. The Nature Foundation has a coral bleaching response plan and we will monitor the situation and decide whether or not to put the plan into effect. Coral reefs provide approximately 50 million dollars to our economy, and the continued stress on the ecosystem is giving us some concern,” commented Nature Foundation’s Tadzio Bervoets.
The corals that form the great reefecosystems of tropical seas depend upon a symbiotic relationship with algae-like single-celled flagellateprotozoa called zooxanthellae that live within their tissues and give the coral its coloration. The zooxanthellae provide the coral with nutrients through photosynthesis, a crucial factor in the clear and nutrient-poor tropical waters. In exchange, the coral provide the zooxanthellae with the carbon dioxide and ammonium needed for photosynthesis. Negative environmental conditions thwart the coral’s ability to provide for the zooxanthellae’s needs. To ensure short-term survival, the coral-polyp then expels the zooxanthellae. This leads to a lighter or completely white appearance, hence the term “bleached”. As the zooxanthellae provide up to 90% of the coral’s energy needs through products of photosynthesis, after expelling, the coral may begin to starve.
Coral can survive short-term disturbances, but if the conditions that lead to the expulsion of the zooxanthellae persist, the coral’s chances of survival diminish. In order to recover from bleaching, the zooxanthellae have to re-enter the tissues of the coral polyps and restart photosynthesis to sustain the coral as a whole and the ecosystem that depends on it. If the coral polyps die of starvation after bleaching, they will decay. The hard coral species will then leave behind their calcium carbonateskeletons, which will be taken over by algae, effectively blocking coral re-growth. Eventually, the coral skeletons will erode, causing the reef structure to collapse.
Reef monitoring data has been scientifically analyzed to assess the impacts of hurricane Irma and Maria on Sint Maarten Coral Reefs following the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN) guidelines. The hurricanes caused reduction in coral cover on St Maarten reefs; however reef health improved due to a decrease in coral bleaching. Unfortunately, macroalgae cover increased after the hurricanes. This high algae cover threatens coral recruitment and coral growth. Caribbean coral reefs have been deteriorated to a macro algal state due to several factors such as the die off or overfishing of herbivores (such as parrotfish), climate change, human and natural disasters. Three months after the hurricanes water quality was decreased on all our reefs, water visibility was reduced by about sixteen meters.
“Coral cover (hard corals) has been significantly reduced from 6.1 % to 3.7% since the passage of the hurricanes, which is unfortunate but expected considering the intensity of Irma. Coral cover is still higher than observed in 2016 (3.5%). Scientific research found that coral cover mostly declines the year after large hurricanes, therefore we are concerned to observe a larger reduction of coral cover for this year. The decrease in coral bleaching could be favorable for the health of our corals and is likely caused by the lower sea water temperatures and the decreased visibility after the storms. We are worried about the higher algae cover, this could deteriorate our coral reefs even more” explained Nature Foundation’s Projects Officer Melanie Meijer zu Schlochtern.
The strong surge and swells of the storms caused gorgonian corals (soft corals) and fleshy algae to be ripped of from our reefs, leading to more exposure of coral recruits, sponges and calcareous coralline algae (CCA). After the hurricanes higher carnivorous fish biomass was found on the reefs. This increase of larger fish, especially groupers and snappers, was found to be extraordinary high in the Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) mostly healthy reefs, such as Proselyte Reef and Mike’s Maze. Herbivorous fish biomass did not change significantly after the hurricanes, however fewer fish species were found.
“More accessible CCA can be profitable as it is used by juvenile corals to settle on in the future and these juveniles can grow into larger corals and build our next generation of coral reefs. Larger pelagic fish can travel long distances. They may look for the best shelter against the impacts of the hurricanes and therefore moved to the reefs with the highest coral cover to find their needs”, stated Achsah Mitchell GCRMN data analyst.
The results of the St Maarten’s reef monitoring also show the significance of protecting our reefs, as coral reefs in the Marine Protected Area performed better and are healthier, with higher coral, gorgonian coral, CCA and sponge cover compared to other St Maarten Reefs outside the protected area. Reefs outside of the Marine Protected Area had significantly more macroalgae cover than reefs within the Park. Also, greater densities of coral recruits, which indicates a greater number of healthy and reproducing corals, were found. Moreover, carnivorous fish and herbivorous fish had a greater biomass within the Marine Protected Area.
“If we do not protect our coral reefs, health, fish biomass and coral cover will decrease and our reefs will shift to a macro algae state. Algae cover was the lowest inside the Marine Protected Area, showing us the effectiveness of protecting our coral reefs. Our results demonstrate clearly the importance of our Marine Protected Area ‘Man of War Shoal’ for our fish stocks and coral reef preservation” stated Nature Foundation’s Projects Officer Melanie Meijer zu Schlochtern.
The entire country benefits from reefs with higher coral cover and lower macro algae, these reefs are also more resilient regarding disaster events, such as Hurricane Irma. “The reefs in the Marine Protected Area showed greater resilience to hurricanes than reefs outside the protected area. Especially the lower macroalgae cover makes reefs better suited for coral growth and recruitment and would therefore have a higher resilience for hurricanes and other threats. I recommend increasing coral reef protection, management and monitoring, especially within the Marine Protected Area” explained Achsah Mitchell GCRMN data analyst.
Every year, the St Maarten Nature Foundation monitors St Maarten’s coral reefs scientifically using the GCRMN method to determine the health, composition and state of St Maarten reefs. With financial support made available by the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance, the Foundation was also able to monitor and analyze the reefs after the hurricanes in 2017.
Several dive sites in the Man of War Shoal Marine Protected Area and other important dive sites around the island were monitored pre-hurricanes in Augustus and post-hurricanes in December 2017. All measurements were conducted along a transect line and repeated five times on each dive site.
First, abundance and biomass of all fish species were determined, secondly the cover of reef organisms (corals) were analyzed based on photo quadrats made during the dives and photo quadrats were assessed for coral health. Monitoring is also done looking for coral recruitments (juvenile corals) and algae coverage and height. Lastly, invertebrate species were counted and water quality was measured. Results were assessed, scientifically analyzed and interpreted by GCRMN data analyst Achsah Mitchell; the full report can be downloaded here:
The Nature Foundation carried out water quality tests at seven sites surrounding St. Maarten. These tests, which were conducted for the first time since the passage of Hurricane Irma, were carried out in order to determine the levels of pollutants and other factors affecting wetlands and beaches on St. Maarten.
Nitrates (which shows that the water is polluted),
Phosphates and Coliform Bacteria (which shows the presence of Sewage),
Dissolved Oxygen, and
the acidity of the water.
Tests were carried out on seven sites; Cole Bay Lagoon, Simpson Bay Lagoon, Mullet Pond, Kim Sha Beach, Great Bay Beach, Belair Pond, Fresh Pond, and the Great Salt Pond. The sites of Great Bay Beach and Kim Sha Beach were particularly chosen to test the swimming quality of the beaches.
Phosphate and Nitrates
It was determined that the sites Cole Bay Lagoon, Kim Sha Beach, Mullet Pond, and Great Bay had medium to high levels of both phosphates and nitrates in samples tested. Elevated levels of nitrates and phosphates show that there is a presence of various types of pollutants and sewage which can cause toxic algal blooms and mortality events (large scale dying of fish, turtle and crabs) in wetlands and coastal areas. The highest level was recorded in the Great Salt Pond and indicates the presence numerous pollutants and sewage in the tested water. Considering this, water quality levels will regularly be monitored by the Nature Foundation.
It was further established that the sites Cole Bay Lagoon, Kim-Sha Beach, Mullet Pond, and Great Bay had low to medium levels of Nitrogen in samples tested. Elevated levels of Nitrogen, caused by pollutants, can cause massive fish die-offs in wetlands and coastal areas. The highest level was recorded in the Great Salt Pond at .6 ppm, which is a relatively high number and indicates the presence of elevated nitrogen levels. This can pose a threat to aquatic organisms and which may result in fish die-offs.
Almost all levels of oxygen recorded were at sufficient levels; however the lowest level was recorded in the Great Salt Pond and Belair Pond. These sites should be closely monitored for a further drop in oxygen levels which may result in fish kills and breeding of airborne insects (i.e. Midges).
Bacteria and Sewage
There is concern that four of the seven sites tested positive for the presence of coliform bacteria, an indicator for the presence of sewage as mentioned. Cole Bay Lagoon, the Great Salt Pond and the Fresh Pond all showed presence levels of coliform bacteria. Particularly worrying is the presence of coliform indicators at Kim Sha beach, which has been designated as a tourism focal point post Hurricane Irma. The Nature Foundation suggests lab-level testing to establish the level of coliform bacteria at particularly Kim Sha Beach. Great Bay Beach showed an absence of coliform bacteria indicators.
Despite the fact that many sites showed Medium readings, the Nature Foundation will follow up on a monthly basis to carefully monitor for changes in the respective levels.
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.
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).