Nature Foundation Again Expresses Concern on the Unsustainable Use of Sint Maarten’s Beaches. Residents Being Restricted from Using Certain Beach Sections

The Sint Maarten Nature Foundation has again expressed concern regarding the way beaches, beach access and beach recreation have been managed in the country. The Foundation has had to respond several times to issues affecting beaches on the island ranging from beach construction, heavy equipment and other vehicles driving and parking on the beaches, structures such as fences and buildings being built, significant amount of trash being left on beaches, and beach access being restricted.

“Over the past few months we have again been continuously faced with having to respond to issues occurring on the beaches. We would like to remind both the public and decision makers that beaches are our most important natural resource and all must be done to protect and sustainably develop this resource. Unsustainable activities such as beach construction, driving on beaches and littering on beaches not only has significant environmental effects but also affects the economy and the image of Sint Maarten as we are trying to rebuild, ” stated Nature Foundation Manager Tadzio Bervoets.

Bervoets continued by stating that the protection, conservation and proper management of beaches should be established in law, “The Nature Foundation would like to again call on Parliament to come with concrete legislation on how beaches should be managed and protected in terms of their ecological and economic importance. There is, or was, a Beach Policy in place but for all intents and purposes this policy is non-functioning or not being taken into consideration. Poor trash pick-up, parking and driving on beaches, the unrestrained placement of beach chairs, and beach construction are fundamental issues hampering the sustainable use of one of our greatest natural assets and is hampering our recovery post hurricane Irma,” concluded Bervoets. Lately, the Nature Foundation has been fielding significant complaints about businesses not allowing residents to place personal affects at locations they deem as ‘theirs’ to place beach chairs and umbrellas.

The Nature Foundation is again calling for the structured management of the country’s beaches, protecting and managing the resource sustainably in order to increase and support the recovery of Sint Maarten.

beach chairs on a beach
Mullet Bay beach
food stand on beach
Food stand on beach at Mullet bay

Two Dutch Caribbean Tagged Tiger Sharks Follow Similar Migration Patterns in the Caribbean

captured shark on a hook

Two years ago the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA) organized the first of its kind shark tagging expedition to the Saba Bank and St Maarten as part of the Dutch Postcode Lottery funded “Save our Sharks” project. Eight shark researchers with a support crew and two camera teams captured and tagged tiger sharks on St Maarten and the Saba Bank using an expedition ship. During the expedition, scientists and conservationists from the Saba Conservation Foundation (SCF), Nature Foundation St. Maarten (NFSXM), Florida International University (FIU) and Sharks4Kids equipped five tiger sharks with satellite tags in order to track their movements and presence to determine how best to manage and protect these important apex predators.

plot of a tagged shark
The track of Tiger shark Quinty through the Caribbean

Wildlife Computer SPOT (Smart Position or Temperature Transmitting) satellite tags were attached to the first dorsal fin of large tiger sharks. These tags transmit to satellites, which allow the sharks to be tracked through the ARGOS satellite system for up to 4 years. The tag uses radio transmissions, so the satellite unit must be exposed to air in order to transmit. Each time the dorsal fin breaks the surface a geo location provides an approximate location with an accuracy of up to 250 meters.

Up to now, two tiger sharks with satellite tags named ‘Sea fairy’ and ‘Quinty’ have provided the research team with some interesting preliminary results. The sharks indicate a similar migration track following the Aves ridge, a ridge in the Eastern Caribbean Sea of about 500 km in length probably of volcanic arc origin.

“The preliminary data we have been receiving is starting to show some interesting results in terms of the migratory patterns of tiger sharks in the Eastern Caribbean Sea. Not only is this data important but it is also critical for the transboundary management of a marine species critical to the health of our Caribbean Sea. Sharks are apex predators and as such keep the ocean food chain healthy, a food chain which in turn supports regional fisheries for example. With recent shark finning and fishing activities occurring in the wider Caribbean including incidents in Curacao, Dominica and Aruba it behoves nation states in the Caribbean to establish a Wider Caribbean Managemant Plan for the species,” commented Tadzio Bervoets, Project Manager for the Dutch Caribbean Alliance Save our Shark Project.

Shark Quinty was tagged under the supervision of Dr. Mike Heithaus on the Saba Bank. This 3.43 meter female tiger shark provided regular location updates. Quinty left the Saba Bank following the Aves ridge down south and subsequently swam all the way to Trinidad and Tobago, a territory known for its shark finning activities. The last received location of Quinty was close to Barbados about a year ago.

Another Shark dubbed Sea fairy was the first shark which was equipped with a satellite tag in this region and surfaced very frequently, providing researchers with a wealth of location and movement information. Sea fairy was a 2.40 meter female tiger shark at the moment it was tagged in the waters of St Maarten. She stayed the first months around St Maarten while doing forays to Anguilla, St Barths, Saba and the Saba Bank. In May 2017 Sea fairy migrated south following the Aves ridge in a similar movement pattern as tiger shark Quinty. After spending two months at the Aves ridge Sea Fairy explored the open Caribbean Sea and headed to Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic. The last location received for Sea Fairy was close to Puerto Rico also about a year ago.

“Sea fairy’s movement patterns can indicate a nursing area for tiger sharks around St Maarten, spending their juvenile years in sand and seagrass habitat before migrating around the Caribbean when large enough in size and maturity. It is interesting to see that both actively tracked sharks are showing similar migration routes following the Aves ridge, which may supply the sharks with an abundant food source” stated Nature Foundation’s Project Officer Melanie Meijer zu Schlochtern.

“In the coming year, we will expand our shark movement study and will install another satellite tag on a tiger shark on St Maarten and two more sharks will be equipped with a satellite tag on Aruba. This research will improve our understanding of the life characteristics of sharks and will provide knowledge about the population structure, abundance and migration of sharks in the Caribbean” explained Melanie Meijer zu Schlochtern.

Sharks are often portrayed as being dangerous killing machines, however the facts show the opposite. Occasionally shark bites do happen, however no unprovoked attack has been ever recorded on St. Maarten. It is more likely that one gets killed by a coconut falling on ones head than by a shark. The species are actually the victims of human impacts such as poaching, finning, overfishing and irresponsible coastal development pressure. Worldwide over 100 million sharks are killed per year resulting in half of all shark species being threatened or endangered with extinction.

captured shark on a hook
A tiger shark being tagged in St Maarten waters (photo credit: Melanie Meijer zu Schlochtern)

Nature Foundation Warns That Residents of Guana Bay, Point Blanche Starting to Experience Adverse Health Effects Due to Large Amounts of Decomposing Sargassum Seaweed

sargassum seaweed on beach

COLE BAY – The St. Maarten Nature Foundation is warning that residents of coastal communities are starting to experience adverse health effects due to gasses released by decomposing Sargassum seaweed. In particular residents of Guana Bay and Point Blanch have requested the Nature Foundation to look into the matter: “We have been coordinating our monitoring efforts with local stakeholders and our partners in the region on how best to approach the issue. We know a lot has been said of using the Sargassum as fertilizer but at this point there is no feasible option without government support to tackle the issue. We need to find a way to coordinate the removal of the seaweed with heavy loaders which causes serious risks to nesting sea turtles and hatchlings while the grass itself can be a hazard to the animals,”

We are advising as much as we can residents in especially Guana Bay and Point Blanche to keep windows and doors closed as much as possible. But unfortunately based on weather predictions and aerial surveys there is a significant amount of the seaweed still headed in our general vicinity,” commented Nature Foundation Manager Tadzio Bervoets.

When the Sargassum lands and starts to decompose hydrogen sulfide gas is released. The gas is colorless, toxic and highly flammable gas and spreads an unpleasant odor much like the smell of rotten eggs; “Inhaling the gas in small doses can trigger irritation of the eyes and the respiratory system, especially among people who are sensitive to it. The groups at risk are people with respiratory problems, asthma patients, elderly people, babies and pregnant women. Certain animals, especially dogs, are also sensitive to the inhalation of hydrogen sulphide,” continued Bervoets

Sargassum first plagued the Caribbean and St. Maarten in 2011 and 2012, with the Foundation having to warn swimmers to avoid swimming in Guana Bay in August and September due to the large amount of Sargassum weed and many beachfront residences and hotels having to continuously clean washed up Sargassum.

The Nature Foundation will continue to monitor the situation and will issue updates as information becomes available.

sargassum point blanche
Aerial photo of freshly landed and decomposing Sargassum in Point Blanche

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

St Maarten Nature Foundation First To Launch Online Marine Park Tag System

reef support feeSince 1997, the St. Maarten Nature Foundation, together with other islands of the Dutch Caribbean, has been the worldwide example for charging an environmental user fee to users of the national “Man of War Shoal” Marine Park. However, the current dive tag system has issues keeping up with the demand. Production costs, administration, risk management, and logistics are becoming more and more costly and time consuming.

To overcome the current issues described above for the “over the counter” divers tag, the payment method and to profit from new trends in how tourists use Internet to plan their vacations, the St. Maarten Nature Foundation has been working with Reef Support BV to develop an online payment system. The Nature Foundation is proudly the first to launch this new online system for their marine park tags.

“The online system will allow visiting divers and other Marine Park users to prepay their tags before arrival to their dive shop. With this system we hope to reduce the efforts of making “over the counter” sales of our Marine Park Diver tags. We expect not only to increase St. Maarten Nature Foundation revenue but also to save much of the valuable time of dive operators, whilst we provide our visitors with a modern, fast, and easy way to pay their tags” says Tadzio Bervoets manager of the Nature Foundation.

“The new system generates a unique tag for each user that is received by the buyer via email. Upon arrival in your dive shop, operators can check for validity through a print version, in the diver phone or by simply login into the system and scanning the QR code of the tag. After an initial marketing effort, dive operators won’t need to sell tags over the counter anymore and it will take only 3 seconds to check validity of customer’s tags” stated Ramón de León Founder and Director of Reef Support.

 “The help of the dive operators was instrumental in the past to make our Divers Tag a success, we are asking once again for the assistance of the dive operators to introduce this new system, which can only succeed with their help to spread the link of the payment page. Dive operators are asked to incorporate the link into their websites, bookings systems, and email communications with their customers. As we are trying to reduce our single-use plastics on the island, we are very happy to move to an electronic alternative to substitute the plastic Marine Park Tag”, stated Nature Foundation’s Project Officer Melanie Meijer zu Schlochtern.

The Internet based payment system is up and running and ready to be used, St Maarten Marine Park Tags can now be purchased directly online via our website or directly through Reefsupport.

Diver on the Proselyte Dive Site in the Marine Park
Diver on the Proselyte Dive Site in the Marine Park

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

 

Nature Foundation Closes Section of Dive Site Due to Danger of Collapse

The Sint Maarten Nature Foundation has announced that it has closed a section of one of the island’s most popular dive sites called the Carib Cargo, due to the risk it poses to divers visiting the site. “We have inspected a section of the Carib Cargo wreck at the stern of the ship by the wheelhouse. That section, through which visiting divers often swim, has become unstable. Therefore, in order to keep the diving public safe, we have sent out a notification that that section of the wreck is closed,” commented Nature Foundation Manager Tadzio Bervoets.

The Carib Cargo is a popular dive site in the Man of War Shoal Marine Protected Area. The wreck is often visited and the area which is off limits is a small section at the rear of the ship. Divers can still enjoy the rest of the shipwreck but swimming through the wheelhouse section is now off limits.

dive wreck
dive wreck Carib Cargo

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.

Shark Killed Illegally Within Man of War Shoal Marine Protected Area

dead shark on coral reef

Nature Foundation, Authorities Investigating Incident

The lifeless body of a juvenile Caribbean Reef Shark was confiscated by the Sint Maarten Nature Foundation after divers reported it on a reef just within the Man of War Shoal Marine Protected Area. The intentional hunting and harming of sharks has been made illegal in Sint Maarten Waters since 2011. Since 2012 there were 7 incidents of sharks being harmed or killed in the waters surrounding St. Maarten, two of which occurred in the Man of War Shoal Marine Park. The practice of intentionally fishing for sharks has been forbidden since October 12th 2011, when the Ministry TEATT banned the practice of intentionally poaching sharks in the territorial waters of St. Maarten. The act of trying to catch by  tracking, stalking, baiting, chasing, trapping, hooking, netting, shooting or otherwise hunting –  sharks, rays and skates is prohibited and therefore the animals may not be wounded, caught, landed, or killed. Violators may be punished with jail and a considerable fine may be issued. If Sharks are accidentally caught all steps should be taken to release the animal with as little harm as possible. The ban on intentionally harming sharks was further reinforced in June 2016 with Government announcing St. Maarten’s territorial waters as a shark sanctuary.

“It seems as if this animal was caught while fishermen were fishing illegally just inside the Marine Park at night. Instead of letting the animal go the fishermen killed the animal and threw it back on the reef. This is a complete waste and is illegal based on the protected status of sharks on the island. We have been working hard in changing the perception within the community in general and the fishing community specifically about the importance of sharks to our economy and to keeping healthy fish stock in balance,” commented Tadzio Bervoets, Nature Foundation Manager.

Previous Nature Foundation research has shown that a single live shark is worth up to USD $884,000 to the economy of the island, as is opposed to just a few dollars dead. “The majority of divers who come to the island pay top dollar to see sharks in their Natural Environment. These divers also rent cars, stay in hotels, eat at restaurants and drink in bars. Taking all of that into account and based on research conducted by the Nature Foundation a single live shark contributes $884,000 to the economy of St. Maarten annually. Sharks are an apex predator and are essential to the health of local coral reefs. If we do not have sharks we will lose our coral reef ecosystem. Sharks keep the reefs clean of unhealthy fish which in turn keeps the ecosystem in balance,”

The Nature Foundation is investigating the incident together with local law enforcement organizations.

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.