By DENISE MAYCOCK
Tribune Freeport Reporter
A TEAM was in East Grand Bahama for a two-day field trip observing the natural habitat and ecosystems, as part of the Implementing Land, Water, and Ecosystem Management in the Bahamas (IWEco The Bahamas) project.
Following Hurricane Dorian, there was massive devastation to the environment, habitats, and ecosystems in East End, which is considered one of the most natural and pristine areas on Grand Bahama.
The project’s main objective is the restoration of major habitats, ensuring sustainable ecotourism developments of East Grand Bahama, and implementing and strengthening environmental monitoring and evaluation.
BRON, a multi-disciplinary consultancy firm based in Nassau, is part of the consultancy team that is leading the biodiversity aspect of the project.
BRON representatives Scott Johnson and Mark Daniels are focused on animal life and plant life in EGB and shared their observations in the field.
According to Mr Johnson, bird numbers are still low in the area. “Since Dorian, sadly we are still seeing some low number of organisms, namely birds,” he said.
“I do a lot of work with birds in the country, and because of Hurricane Dorian it has negatively affected the pine-land and the mangrove ecosystems of that area.”
Mr Johnson explained that for ecosystems to thrive there must be very diverse species occupying the different niches to help encourage the resilience of an environment, among other things.
He stressed that bird diversity in EGB is still low but recovering. “It will take a little while for the numbers to bounce back, but there are still a few species that have been seen out there.”
Mr Johnson is seeing birds like willets, common ground doves, mourning doves, and a few other species. He noted that it will take some time for those species to rebound from an experience like Dorian.
Mr Johnson noted that their work ties in with other aspects of the project – the ecotourism plan project and the watershed management plan project, which are being led by consultants Dr Vikneswaran Nair and Dr Henrique Chaves.
Mr Johnson stated that increased biodiversity will enhance eco-tourism offerings for guests who will want to come back and spend time and more money would be pumped into the East Grand Bahama area.
With the watershed plan, he noted that information they gather about the birds and plants can tell them about the health of the ecosystem.
“And by us giving that information to the watershed and eco-tourism aspect it can help move things forward with figuring out what we need to do to increase biodiversity, to help guides attract customers or people to the area,” he explained.
Trained botanist Mark Daniels, associate principal of BRON’s environmental department, said there has been a massive die-off of the pine species within the pine ecosystem in East Grand Bahama.
“Unfortunately with Dorian, because of severe flooding that happened over most of Grand Bahama, especially over the northern extents, we have massive die-off of the pine species within the pine ecosystem,” he reported.
“You can see it as you travel throughout Grand Bahama, it is very noticeable. The pines are missing their leaves; they are missing tops; they are broken; they are twisted, and fires are happening. So, the system is slowly trying to heal itself and the objective of this consultancy is to assist nature to rebound so it can provide those ecosystem services that Grand Bahamians have enjoyed,” Mr Daniels said.
He said in the northern islands the pineland ecosystem is most dominant and noticeable. “It is the signature of these islands,” he added.
Although past hurricanes and storms have impacted the pineland before, Mr Daniels said Hurricane Dorian was unprecedented.
“The main issue with the pineland ecosystems and storms is saltwater inundation in the freshwater lenses, or plants and habitats being submerged. The pine trees do not react well to salt, and so there is usually a die-back that happens,” he said.
Project coordinator Melissa Ingraham said the IWEco project is intended to have outputs of eco-tourism and environment restorations and developments.
“This will then provide a biodiversity inventory with monitoring and evaluation capacity behind it. It will feed into the Watershed Management Plan to ensure that all aspects of the environmental, social, economic, and considerations are incorporated into the long-term monitoring and overall capacity increase in the country,” she said.
She said the training capacity ensures that persons locally have experience, exposure, and knowledge to encourage a sustainable movement of the entire output of the project, the Watershed Management Plan, the monitoring of biodiversity component, restoration of the creek systems, and eco-tourism sector to be beneficial for the persons.
“This is really a community-engaged targeted project,” she explains.
For his part, Dr Chaves said they are looking at vulnerabilities and potentials of the area, not only as far as water and the environment are concerned, but also the social and economic aspects.
He explained that they must look at future and potential threats such as climate change that would affect sea-level rise, seawater intrusion, coastal erosion.
He stressed that it is important when looking also at the socio-economic, legal, and biodiversity aspects, they seek and discuss alternatives with local stakeholders and governments on the way forward.
“A very effective watershed plan will only reach its objective and goals in the end if those stakeholders are involved from the beginning,” he said.
The consultants’ work on the IWEco project is expected to end by December.
Dr Chaves said implementation will take place over a couple of years on the different aspects of the project. He said the plan will be implemented by the Department of Environmental Planning and Protection and the Bahamian government.