In the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, scientists and environmentalists leapt into action researching mangroves on Grand Bahama and Abaco, their health, and how those ecosystems function. Some collected propagules (another name for mangrove seeds) and galvanized communities into establishing backyard nurseries and burrowing tiny mangrove plants called seedlings into areas hard hit by the Category 5 storm.
As Dorian’s anniversary approaches, scientists and conservationists are slowly beginning to pick up the pace in remedying the devastation wrought on these “living shorelines” three years ago come September.
Up until the last week in July, no permits were issued to conduct any mangrove restoration work in The Bahamas. The slowdown was linked to the Biological Resources and Traditional Knowledge Protection and Sustainable Use Act, 2020, which came into force last year.
The new law seeks to prevent the country’s natural resources from being exploited by foreign interests under the guise of research. Ironically, the legislation has made it more challenging for international organizations with local ties and even Bahamian environmental groups with foreign partners to execute environmental research and restoration work in the country.
It’s a state of affairs that has impacted many well-known organizations in some shape or form, resulting in very little restoration work taking place in The Bahamas from January 2021 until very recently.
Fanning out mangrove restoration work
There are at least four major players in mangroves restoration efforts post-Dorian – the Perry Institute for Marine Science (PIMS), The Bahamas National Trust (BNT), Waterkeepers Bahamas, and Bonefish and Tarpon Trust.
Each organization has its own strands of private and public sector partners helping them to achieve their goals of bringing back wide swathes of nature’s buffer against hurricane force winds and surging waves.
“There are an awful lot of areas to restore. No one organization can do it all, so we are trying to really make sure that we are spreading out our efforts, so that all major areas receive attention,” said Dr. Craig Dahlgren, executive director of PIMS, a leading ocean research, conservation and education nonprofit.
“With concerted, sustained efforts over the next couple of years, we can jumpstart that recovery process enough, so that nature can then take its course, but it’s going to take a decade or more for those mangroves to fully recover, based on how fast the new ones start to grow and how long it takes for them to reach maturity. It will take a decade or more for that full recovery.”
Back in June, Waterkeepers Bahamas, an advocacy group for “swimmable, fishable, drinkable waters”, feared it would fail to meet its timeline and thus lose funding for its effort dubbed, “Mangrove Mania”, a community outreach program which would see Grand Bahama residents and visitors grow and plant 30,000 mangroves in the first phase of the project.
After months of waiting, the Department of Environmental Protection and Planning (DEPP) denied the organization’s request for a license to replant mangroves in the nation’s second city. Fortunately, when responsibility for granting permits shifted to another government agency, its application was approved by the Department of Forestry.
“We have over 5,000 mangroves already and we have over 10 teams who have their own nurseries. The timeline is to have as many of those seedlings as possible in the ground by November,” said Rashema Ingraham, executive director of Waterkeepers Bahamas.
The initiative is being carried out in conjunction with Earthcare Bahamas with the assistance of Blue Action Lab and Coral Vita.
The plan is to restore and replant a section of Grand Bahama’s northern shore.
“We focused on the Dover Sound area because it’s an eco-tourism center on Grand Bahama that really needs revitalization,” said Ingraham, who holds a management degree with a focus on ecotourism.
“A lot of fishermen use that canal system. For now, we’re focusing only on one hectare [2.47 acres] over a phased period. This is a restoration effort where we will begin to see the results of the work that we are doing today … five to 10 years from now.”
There is plenty to keep everyone busy. To date, Bonefish and Tarpon Trust (BTT) says it’s planted over 20,000 mangroves.
“The goal is to hit 100,000 mangroves over the next five years,” said marine biologist Justin Lewis. The Grand Bahama native is The Bahamas initiative manager of the Florida-based organization.
The BTT’s mission is to “conserve and restore bonefish, tarpon and permit fisheries, and habitats through research, stewardship, education and advocacy.”
In the wake of Dorian, its initial surveys suggested 73 percent (representing 21,000 acres) of mangrove forests on Grand Bahama and 40 percent (or 20,000 acres) on Abaco were damaged or destroyed.
The organization launched its Northern Bahamas Mangrove Restoration Project to boost the health of the vital ecosystems which, aside from sustaining livelihoods in fisheries and tourism, provide recreational opportunities for locals and tourists in search of nature-based experiences.
Their work is being carried out in collaboration with the BNT, Friends of the Environment, and MANG, a mangroves-inspired apparel brand. The first planting of propagules and seedlings (young mangrove plants) occurred more than a year after Dorian, in December 2020.
“In Grand Bahama, survival rates of the propagules were only 19 percent and 63 percent for seedlings. So, in Abaco, we just did seedlings because their survival rates were so much higher. Seedlings’ survival rates in Abaco stand at 69 percent,” reported Lewis.
Baseline research offers key data to policymakers
While PIMS restoration work was stalled due to permit delays, its research has taken off. The institute utilizes advanced drone technology to produce habitat maps and 3D scenes of mangroves nationwide.
In 2021, PIMS mapped out 34 sites, encompassing 6,684 acres on two islands.
Its work has cleared up common misconceptions which could prove vital to the Bahamian government as it seeks to place a price tag on carbon sinks, like mangroves, which play a crucial role in extracting from the air the very greenhouse gas emissions responsible for intensifying flooding, droughts and other costly natural disasters taking place across the globe.
“Previous studies only looked at whether the mangrove was healthy or was it damaged or dead. Damaged and dead was a combined category. Using advanced technology and utilizing high-resolution satellite imagery, we are able to tease out the extent of that damage, seeing if it was indeed totally dead versus significantly reduced in the amount of live mangroves in an area. So, we are getting a lot more detailed information,” said Dahlgren, an expert in tropical marine ecology in The Bahamas and the wider Caribbean region.
The good news – the damage is not as extensive as first believed. The bad news – inordinate delays have pushed The Bahamas further away from full recovery since trees take years to mature.
“In Grand Bahama, 5,233 acres – and that is a total of 20 percent of all of Grand Bahama’s mangroves – is totally dead from Dorian. Close to 30 percent or 7,776 acres of Grand Bahama’s mangroves were damaged,” PIMS executive director reported.
That total is 20 percent less than initial estimates of the island’s dead and damaged mangroves.
“In the case of Abaco, which has a lot more mangroves, 4,753 acres or 7.6 percent of Abaco’s mangroves were damaged while 8,578 acres which is 13.7 percent of Abaco’s total mangroves were dead.”
According to the newly released findings, Abaco sustained damage to 21.3 percent of its mangrove population, 18.7 percent less than the 40 percent first floated.
In the coming weeks, PIMS is set to release The Bahamas’ Mangroves Report Card, a first-of-its-kind assessment of the health and functioning of the mangrove ecosystems that, at one stage or another, serves as a home to juvenile groupers, snappers, crabs and crawfish, providing native species with food, shade and protection from predators. It will cover Abaco, Andros, Grand Bahama and New Providence.
The mangrove report card isn’t PIMS’ first foray into this subject matter. Although known for its coral restoration and fisheries work, the organization’s mangrove research spans 20 years locally. Previously, PIMS tackled site-specific challenges such as mangrove creek blockages or locked focused on certain subject matters, like the value of mangroves for the fisheries industry.
The upcoming mangroves report card will be similar to PIMS’ coral reefs report card for The Bahamas, which is headed into its third edition. A new one is released every five years.
Those comprehensive, science-driven assessments provide a crucial baseline or reference tool to show where The Bahamas now stands and how it can better realize its vision of where it hopes to go and grow its environmental assets.
In the event of another hurricane, oil spill or new proposed development, that “before data” could provide a blueprint for policymakers’ rehabilitation goals.
Experts say it’s high time environmental assets such as mangroves, seagrass beds and salt ponds are assigned value, particularly as it relates to their much-publicized role as potential carbon sinks, providing a vital environmental service not only for The Bahamas but for the entire Earth.
“People can understand dollars a lot easier, especially government officials. It’s just one more thing to help people understand the value of our mangroves to us,” said Lewis, The Bahamas initiative manager of Bonefish and Tarpon Trust.
Ingraham of Bahamas Waterkeepers agrees.
“We should have always given a dollar value to all our ecosystem services: mangroves, coral reefs, see grass, pine forests. All of these areas should have a dollar value because it’s a product that we’re selling. But we can only count them if they are restored.”