It explains in an inspiring way how a smelly murky mangrove is just as magnificent as some better known habitats. This approach can also be used for less glamorous, but just as vital, habitats like seagrass meadows.
Certainly something to try at my next public talk and outreach effort!
Trinidad's Hidden Garden of Eden
Christopher Broadbridge, Trinidad and Tobago Newsday 5 Jul 09;
Imagine a beautiful garden, lush with greenery, coloured with flowers and vibrant with animals of all kinds, with clean water flowing in abundance. It is the very embodiment of life.
Now think of the African grassland that you’ve seen on television, covered with a vast layer of animals, large and small, with birds swooping and circling in the air above. Each creature is vitally linked to the next. Some are prey and others predators, but one depends on the other for its best survival. The plants provide shelter, food and water for the non-predators, and in return the animals spread the seeds of the plants. It’s just one example of nature’s perfect self-sustaining system – what we call an “ecosystem”.
Now picture the African grassland with all its inhabitants under the sea. This is another three-dimensional world. Here, as birds master the heights of the atmosphere, fish traverse the “heights” from sea bed to the water’s surface. Below, marine plants grow, and other animals moving about in large numbers, interplay between hunters and hunted. As with the grasslands of Africa, the nature of this place is one of perfect balance.
So, why bother to compare grassland and undersea ecosystems? The answer is to impress that each is as rich and magnificent a natural habitat as the other. Each holds abundant wonders and secrets. And each is a natural resource fulfilling needs for the intricate chain of life, which, even in this millennium, people are still trying to understand.
Claxton Bay, at the mid-point of Trinidad’s west coastline and just north of busy Pointe-a-Pierre, is home to one such undersea grassland. Off shore, and despite its cloudy brown water and neighbouring oil and gas refineries, this place is alive with all the variety that we find in the richest of ecosystems. These waters are fed with nutrients flowing out of South American and Trinidadian rivers and swept by currents through the shallow Gulf of Paria.
Bhadose Sooknanan, a 54 year-old fisherman, grew up in Claxton Bay, and has enjoyed its mangroves for the last 44 years. He recalls, “Guana Point was known for the numerous iguanas climbing the mangrove roots and trunks. There were nice beaches, and animals everywhere.”
One can still see a range of creatures during a typical visit: mudskipper fish, small caiman (alligators), mangrove crabs—both the blue and red variety.
There are also thousands of oysters clinging in long clumps to the spreading mangrove roots, often remaining exposed to the air until higher tides submerge them again. These are harvested regularly as the main ingredient in local oyster cocktails. Unfortunately, oysters, like shrimp, are “filter feeders”, which means that they are as clean—or dirty—as the waters they inhabit.
Sooknanan’s boat passes Bikini Beach, a popular weekend spot for decades for the residents of nearby “Crab Village” (now named, Prance Gardens). “Those who used it,” he recalls, “came with their families to enjoy the clean sand and sea water. Here was a nice place to be. People would make ‘a cook’ and tell stories, and just have a good time.”
They would access the beach using an old mule path, which is now blocked by the oil refinery, YARA Ltd. Bikini Beach is still a lovely two-mile stretch of beach, but is littered with plastic bottles and old truck tyres, and much of the shady mangrove cover has been cut down.
To demonstrate the Bay’s large fish harvests, Kishore Boodram, president of the Fishermen’s Association of Claxton Bay, produces receipts of payment from Sea Foods Enterprises Ltd, which bought 53,900 pounds of mullet caught in 2008, and 98,800 pounds in 2007. “An additional sixty to a hundred thousand pounds of mullet go to the National Fisheries market each year,” said Mr Boodram. “And the Venezuelans have been buying mullet too.” He added, “We also catch lots of carite, salmon, ballahoo, and catfish.”
Aside from the fishing depot, roadside stands mark picturesque spots for selling the mangrove’s bounty.
There’s a stack of large mussels, king fish, fresh shrimp, and two huge tarpon. Shon Ramkumar said of his catch, “It getting harder to find these fish in the waters around Claxton Bay. We find these tarpon in Moruga.”
This is not such a great surprise to biologists, since mangrove forests now struggle along Trinidad’s shoreline. Nature’s breeding grounds for sea life, even for several deep-water fish, they offer a special source of nutrients and shelter during vital stages in the life cycle of many species. Millions of fish hatchlings emerge from a healthy mangrove every year. They represent hundreds of thousands of mature fish that become available for harvesting later on. Lose the mangrove, lose the fish.
Many people think of mangroves as dirty or smelly places. The fact is, though, that without these places, Trinidad would not have been blessed with vast fisheries. The bad smells that sometimes emanate from a healthy swamp are of gases produced mostly by decomposing leaves. Although smelly, this phenomenon is all natural and good; decomposing material gets absorbed and filtered away from deeper waters, allowing our oceans and beaches to remain clearer and cleaner.
Patrick Manning, Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister, had malignant cancer in his left kidney. His kidney is his body’s filter organ which, being jeopardised, posed a threat to his life.
A mangrove filters water between the sea and land, and buffers the land’s erosion by the sea. It is also a filter “organ”, if you will, between land and sea. It’s extremely important to the health of the coastal sea and inland territory. Tsunamis pose a much smaller risk inland when a mangrove stands in its way. Unfortunately, the people of Trinidad and Tobago are on the verge of becoming experts at what disasters do occur when mangroves are destroyed and pollutants left to run amok.
Trinidadians are used to destroying mangroves and swampland, and poisoning the rivers flowing into them. Trinidad’s west coast was once almost entirely lined with mangroves, but now only precious pockets are left. Development of the island has been insensitive.
In early Spanish and British colonial times mangroves were cleared, and swamp land was filled in to create Port-of-Spain. Some of us may remember the expanse of mangrove that thrived from Chaguaramas and Carenage through Cocorite. Today, little remains between Scotland Bay and Caroni.
Of course, we all know of the Mighty Caroni—and God forgive those of us who have deprived ourselves of a visit there! But there is also the Great Nariva on the east coast, and smaller sections of mangrove running from the south along the western shore.
Some may remember the expanse of mangrove that thrived where the popular Movietowne now sits. Much more of it was found in Chaguaramas long ago. Some may also remember that fishing in the waters of the Gulf, “Down the Islands”, around the Bocas and along the North Coast was also much better in decades gone past. Understanding a mangrove and fish connection, should we expect decreasing availability of our free marine resources in the near future? Read on…
Claxton Bay is scheduled for “development” by projects planned and funded by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago. These projects are full scale environmental attacks. There’s dredging: a current proposal to scoop out new channels, taking sea-grass with it, and dump material into the mangroves or onto more sea-grass covered areas. There’s the building and operation of a new Essar steel mill. There’s the plan for the Westlake Chemicals plastic factory. There’s the imminent loading dock with its long conveyor belt to lug steel from factory to ship. The sad news is that this attack is waged without full approval from the Environmental Management Authority (EMA). Although a Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC) has been obtained for the steel mill, no CEC has been granted for a port or industrial loading dock in Claxton Bay.
Now is the time for us to realise that these resources that are not expendable for any reason. Development is important, but should be conducted sustainably and sensibly.
Aside from the importance of clean sustainable development, we need to decide how we want Trinidad and Tobago to look and feel in our future…when we travel to work each day, when we go out on the weekends, when we show our visitors around.
Ours may not be a lack of good intentions, but a lack of a sound understanding of the effects and ramifications of our actions.
Flood-borne silt is clogging the rivers in the mangrove, making them shallower and therefore less able to accommodate swimming creatures. It also covers the delicate sea grass which is only a hundred yards off the edge of the mangrove boundary. Once these grasses are covered in mud, they can no longer reach the sunlight that green plants need to survive.
The Claxton Bay sea grass beds are about the size of the Queen’s Park Savannah; they are extensive.
About 15 years ago, Claxton Bay underwent dredging to give ships access to the Point Lisas Industral Estate. What resulted then was a significant pile of dredged material, a very small, man-made “island”, and two stone’s throws away from shore. Now, erosion has left only an eroded mud flat, and undone the destructive dredging. This mud flat is littered with the remains of millions of shells of many varieties, in a testament to the Bay’s great diversity of sea life.
Imagine the fish, the mammals, the sea birds, reptiles and amphibians, insects, shellfish, and all other creatures and plants depending on each other to survive. Sea horses, conch, urchins, sea cucumbers, turtles, pelicans, ospreys, egrets, herons, cormorants, sandpipers, frogs, and crabs; these inhabitants are fairly resilient to environmental pressure, but only to a limited point; with enough exposure to our pollution and waste, they do die off.
For the last few years, the communities of Pranz Gardens and Claxton Bay have begun to voice their concern for their land, their mangrove, and their health. These communities are immediately affected by preparations to build a new steel plant and an industrial park, and have voiced opposition to the first steps towards construction.
They are relatively small communities, though, with a soft political voice.
Ironically, their voice is for the protection of their greater surroundings and for a mangrove forest that belongs to the people of Trinidad and Tobago. With the possibility of full-scale construction to be soon put into action, Claxton Bay may not have long to garner active support from the general public.
Mangrove forests can be successfully replanted. Reducing pressures on the creatures of the mangrove can allow them to replenish their numbers, and re-establish a balance with their habitats. Public education about mangroves leads to a greater appreciation of their value. School children might learn from outings to mangroves. Encouragement of local tourism to the area would revitalise community interest. The Government could assess the long-term financial value of the mangrove to so as to consider “green” and sustainable development projects.
Environmental studies have been published for years on the mangroves of Trinidad and Tobago and of other Caribbean islands. These publications could be read, and applied sensibly. What seems clear is that it is our choice to keep or change these natural habitats.
The choice we make will have a lasting influence on us and on our health.