Monitoring of sedimentary deposits on coral reefs
‘The major strength of the SMMA is that it involves all users of the maritime domain since the development of the marine park 17 years ago: local fishermen, divers and hoteliers,’ explains Peter Butcher, who heads the marine park’s team of 5 rangers while loading the scientific and diving equipment on board. ‘Since the setting up of the park, the marine ecosystem has regained excellent condition. If you don’t believe me, just come and dive with me!’ We need no encouragement and embark on board the park’s patrol boat, heading off to ‘Piti Piton’ (the small piton), which majestically emerges from crystal-clear waters, 10 minutes by boat from the SMMA base. And here we go on a mission to monitor the sedimentary characteristics of the Superman’s Flight station!
On the way there, Peter Butcher tells us that before the 1980s, fishermen were the only ones to operate in the Soufrière Bay area. Then, mass tourism has led to the arrival of divers and pleasure boaters, and the use of the marine habitat has become uncontrolled. The SMMA was set up in an emergency situation in order to protect the marine resources and reduce conflict situations between users. Peter Butcher is a native of Soufrière and has joined the SMMA since its setting up. After having started to install moorings for yachts in the bay, he became actively involved in his mission, with very varied duties, from sanctioning to scientific monitoring through rescuing pleasure boaters. He now heads the marine park’s team of rangers with still the only main objective of ensuring the conservation of its marine wealth.
Scientific immersion at Superman’s Flight
Every fortnight, the team of rangers monitors sediment deposits on coral reefs at three marine stations in Soufrière Bay. General biological monitoring of coral reefs is also carried out every 6 months and according to Peter Butcher, the team has identified some 50 coral species and 170 fish species. This biological monitoring programme of habitats (reefs, fish, sedimentation…) was set up following the creation of the reserve and is now very efficient. Enough of the talking, it’s pouring rain and the seaman tells us our location on the Superman’s Flight site, a somewhat promising name. After tipping backwards, we find ourselves in the middle of a fairytale-like world. The drop-off gently slopes down toward the bottom at almost 500 m deep. Already, at 5 m deep, we are able to enjoy a rich and colourful fauna and flora. We are immediately struck by the size and number of barrel sponges and the diversity of soft and hard corals of different colours. Due to poor visibility and fairly strong current, we take care of not staying close to Peter, who is looking for the marine station. He uses specific GPS coordinates to quickly locate the plastic tubes and replace them with new ones. After resurfacing, the water will removed from each tube and the layer of sediments weighed, revealing changes in the layer of sediments deposited on the reefs.
The amount of accumulated sediments in the Soufrière Bays depends on the input by catchment areas through the river. Ultimately this may lead to the suffocation of corals. The team forwards the data collected to the Fisheries Department, which processes them with the help of marine biologists. ‘Since hurricane Tomas, which hit Saint Lucia in November 2010, the river is loaded with particles and sedimentation layers have increased. This is of particular concern,’ says our diver friend.
Lion fish invasion
For the time being, however, the seabed of the island is facing another threat, which is a source of concern for the team of rangers: the proliferation of lion fish (Pterois volitans). This invasive species, which normally lives in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, has invaded the Caribbean Sea following an accident which is believed to have been caused by the destruction of an aquarium in Florida during a hurricane in 1992, or even by ballast water. This fish species is very popular among fishkeepers and photographs and can be identified by its red, white and brown horizontal stripes. Its stings caused by its beautiful spines spread out like whiskers are not fatal. However, they often cause acute pain and leave divers and swimmers in shock. Aside from the pain caused to swimmers, this beautiful fish causes serious damage in its path. This species can lay thousands of eggs every 4 days, has no predator and has an extraordinary appetite. Some 60 species living in the coral reefs are its main quarry and it is especially fond of juvenile fish. This combination of factors can contribute to upset an entire marine ecosystem in a short period of time.
It’s open season for lion fish hunting
‘This fish species represents a triple threat for us: it entails a health hazard, a risk for biodiversity and an economic risk to populations, whose way of life depends partly on the wealth of biodiversity,’ explains Peter, who just returned from a conference on this subject in Mexico. The invasion has already spread to Venezuela, Mexico and most of the islands in the Caribbean. Various campaigns have been launched in the Caribbean, asking divers and fishermen to help identify and ‘hunt the lion of the underwater’. Several workshops are being organised in the region to promote exchange of information and knowledge, strengthen regional cooperation and try to curb this invasion. Furthermore, the question that arises today is whether to introduce a species from another sea to fight and eat the lion fish. A study is, however, under way to assess the potential risks of invasion by this new predator in an alien ecosystem.
The only hope in this disastrous scenario is that lion fish are a species of commercial interest for their flesh, which Peter says is delicious; he himself already tasted and enjoyed it. During the workshops, participants have even learnt how to fillet the fish! ‘This product can be processed and we will try to sell it. To achieve this, we must develop promotional tools to teach people how to cook it,’ says an enthusiastic Peter, who never runs out of ideas.
The SMMA has earned the acceptance of 75% of the local population
The control of marine park users is part of the daily duties of the rangers. ‘We patrol the area in order to ensure that users are following regulations and we collect entrance fees from pleasure boaters.’ Peter Butcher shows us one of the cylindrical white buoys that mark the boundaries of the different areas, adding that mooring is allowed only in areas with sandy bottoms, but is not allowed in marine reserves. White and blue mooring buoys have also been placed for yachts, while red ones are used by local dive boats. The rangers also ensure that no illegal activity is practised such as harpoon fishing, trap fishery, as well as the use of gillnets or trammel nets. In their capacity as special police officers, they are entitled to fine offenders and do not hesitate to take action when required. ‘We have recently fined free-diving fishermen from Castries who were fishing in the marine reserve; they have had to pay a US$ 1000 fine each,’ says Peter. ‘This is a huge sum for the locals!’ Such fining demonstrates the efforts made by the country to preserve its marine resources.
A healthier coral reef and growing fish biomass
According to Peter, 75% of the population have understood and agreed to the operation of the SMMA, which has proven its positive effect. Scientific observations show that the coral reef is healthier and that the fish biomass is growing. Fishermen have noticed a positive impact through an increase in their catches in the nearby priority fishing areas. Indeed, in order to encourage fishermen to fish offshore instead of around the reef, fish-aggregating devices funded by the French Investment Fund have been placed 10 km off the coasts on the migratory path of pelagic fish. ‘After a certain time, these buoys have allowed the emergence of a real food chain now attracting large fish, and this is a substantial compensation for fishermen,’ concludes Peter Butcher with an air of satisfaction on his face. Even if the SMMA, is a model in the Caribbean region, means are lacking. The team is requesting, for example, a second boat to better monitor and allow for more effective interventions in the area. The premises of the base deserve to be restored and a welcome centre would help in providing visitors with a better understanding of the purpose and functioning of the marine protected area. In fact, the extension of the Soufrière marine reserve is under way and will require additional human and material resources.
In the meantime, Peter reminds us that volunteers are always welcome to take part in scientific monitoring programmes. The message is out…