Thursday, June 5, 2014

Safeguarding the sentinels

The mangroves of Salt River Bay, St. Croix, US Virgin Islands, face a new challenge

 By Amparo Pikarsky 

Like giants dipping their toes into the briny sea, tall red mangrove trees appear to wade in the waters of Salt River  Bay, standing on half-submerged roots that tangle all around them. Up to fifty feet high, these formidable titans  cluster at the edge of the water protecting the land and the bay from each other: acting as powerful sentinels that  shield the land and its inhabitants from waves, wind, hurricanes and tsunamis, and keeping natural contaminants  from reaching the water. Mangroves filter solid waste, bacteria, fertilizers and pollutants and provide a place for  silt to accumulate, so it does not reach the water and make it too cloudy to absorb sunshine—which is so essential  to native sea grasses and coral, and the marine life, bioluminescence, and endangered species that co-exist in Salt  River Bay.   

Mangroves play an integral part in creating the mangal, or ecosystem, that is home to the unique diversity of life  forms in Salt River Bay National Historic Park and Ecological Preserve in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. The park,  which measures 145 hectares (approximately 358 acres), currently includes 19 hectares of mangrove forest— the  largest remaining mangrove forest in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Its footprint has been drastically reduced, though,  and faces the threat of additional minimization in the years ahead. Approximately 12 hectares of mangroves  were killed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989; human intervention and natural recuperation have had limited success in  bringing them back. Mangroves and their ecosystems thrive in protected bays. Unfortunately, these bays are also  ideal locations for marinas and boat facilities. Increased activity and any proposed new construction would not  only threaten the trees, but the habitat they support as well. Four types of mangrove trees grow in this mangal. 

Working together, the red, black, white and grey mangrove  trees create an environment where flora and fauna can thrive because they are sheltered… and yet, the trees  themselves are imperiled. Although mangroves, with their intricate root systems, are able to withstand wave  impacts and winds that would fell many other trees, they are not immune to the ravages of the most severe  tropical storms. When Hurricane Hugo decimated Salt River Bay’s mangroves in 1989, old growth was almost  completely denuded or destroyed. Ten years later, an effort was made to restore the mangal, as the Virgin Islands  Marine Advisory Service and The St. Croix Environmental Association planted 18,000 red mangrove propagules  and 3,000 black mangrove seedlings. 

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, only 31% of the red propagules and less than 1% of the new black mangroves planted survived.  Mother Nature can be rough, but the human factor can be the most deadly.  Today, unfortunately, the mangroves are challenged by commercial and recreational human activity as well. Some  kayakers and sailors use them as starting points for adventure; snorkelers take advantage of the rich abundance  of young sea life that swim in the waters they encircle. 

Occasionally, they dump their trash in the mangroves,  insensitive to the harm this causes the vegetation, birds, fish and other animals living there.  More nefarious is the damage that can be caused by large-scale development and resultant pollution, including  oil spills from increased boat traffic and runoff from industrial and agricultural sources (including pesticides).  As the Virgin Islands were developed, mangroves were cut down, surrounding waters were dredged for docks  and marinas, and unspoiled lands were filled in for new construction. It would be nice to think these activities  were all in the past, but they’re not. Although all four species of mangrove are protected by the Endangered and  Indigenous Species Act of 1990, which forbids pruning, cutting, or removing trees, and although Salt River Bay is a  protected National Historic Park & Ecological Preserve, the mangal faces very real danger in the near future.   

The National Park Service (NPS), the Office of Insular Affairs (OIS), the Government of the Virgin Islands, and a  consortium of four universities (the University of North Carolina Wilmington; the University of the Virgin Islands;  Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey; and the University of South Carolina) are planning to build the Salt  River Bay Marine Research and Education Center (MREC) on Hemer’s Peninsula, adjacent to Salt River Bay. A  quick look at the plans for this facility reveals that its parking lot could be located in an area now occupied by  mangroves. With 150,000 square feet of new construction—60,000 sq. ft. of buildings, 40,000 sq. ft. of water tanks  and equipment, and 50,000 sq. ft. of roads and walkways—it is impossible to believe that the MREC won’t have a  significant and deleterious impact on a delicate and fragile ecosystem. Interested in safeguarding these treasured sentinels?  

 Troubled citizens have approached the NPS, the OIA, and the consortium with alternatives which could enable  them to build their proposed facility at an ecologically (and economically) more responsible site. Environmentally  concerned individuals can learn more about their position and join them in taking action by visiting the website It provides ample information about the situation, and provides the tools for  addressing decision-makers, to dissuade them from allowing further development at this location, where the  majority of St. Croix’s irreplaceable mangroves are found.  

 Meet the Salt River Bay Mangrove Family. Closest to the water are the red mangroves (Rhizophora mangle), which stand at the front of the intertwining  phalanx of plants. They have thick, jumbled “proproots”— big, curved roots that rise out of the water, trapping  run-off and slowing natural currents. Proproots, a favorite scampering place for young crabs, provide an ideal  nursery where fish, sea turtles, sponges, mollusks, spiny lobsters and brine shrimp can feed and grow, protected  from predators until they’re old enough to thrive in open waters. Dozens of species of juvenile fish have been  identified in Salt River Bay’s proproots, including barracudas, groupers, barjacks, doctorfish, and multiple varieties  of parrotfish, grunts, and snappers. Both recreational and commercial fishermen, as well as snorkelers, rely on the  mangal to keep local waters stocked. 

The red mangrove’s proproots absorb the salt water which surrounds them. The trees secrete the salt through tiny  pores in their leaves. As they fall into the water, these leaves decay and feed the mold and bacteria around them,  joining with the sand, silt and algae to form rich sediment in which newer trees can grow. In doing so, they actually  create new land—a staggeringly important function in this day of rising sea levels and rapidly eroding shorelines. Black mangrove trees (Avicennia germinans), which get their name from the color of their trunks and heartwood,  cannot grow with their roots continually underwater. They are found just a bit further inland than red mangroves,  where they are only submerged during storms and high tides. Rising tall out of oxygen-deprived mud, they have a  unique system of roots known as pneumatophores, which look like pencils and work like snorkels, sticking out of  the soil and water surface so they can find and absorb oxygen. They trap sediments and solids, thereby reducing  shoreline erosion. 

These pneumatophores also form an ideal place for birds to hide their nests. Salt River Bay’s  mangroves are a habitat where frigate birds, pelicans, herons, egrets, hummingbirds, and many other species have  made their homes.  Further from the water’s edge is the white mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa), which can grow either as a  spreading shrub or a medium-sized tree. It is distinguished by the light color of its tannin-rich bark and the shape  of its leathery-textured leaves…rounded, unlike the elliptical leaves of red mangroves or the narrower, hairy, salt- encrusted leaves of the black mangroves. 

They may have either proproots or pneumatophores, depending on  where they’ve germinated. Salt River Bay is also home to a peripheral species, the grey mangrove (Conocarpus erectus), a small tree or shrub.  Its dense, rounded flower heads give it the name by which it is known in the islands: the buttonwood. 

Unlike other  mangroves, it lacks “vivipary”—its seeds do not germinate before they leave the parent plant.  Please help us protect the protectors. Visit— learn more, take action and sign the  online petition.

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