Monday, January 18, 2010

Hope for Nature

On our last day in the field, we had one of those amazing moments in nature. Just after we left the harbor for our final day of mapping, Shawn and I were talking and she happened to see something large rise out of the water behind me, just a few hundred meters from the boat. We both turned to look as we saw something disappear below the surface, then rose again a few seconds later. It was a humpback whale, gracefully rolling in the waters, raising its enormous pectoral fin out of the surface, as if it was waving at us. After a few blow spouts, it made one more magical appearance, then left us in awe as it retreated in a deep dive.

In the work that we do, we see a lot of challenges to achieving our mission of restoring and protecting biodiversity on Earth. We see first hand the damaging effects that poverty, corruption, greed, competing interests, and changing climates are having on ecosystems. We are constantly reevaluating our actions, seeking strategic partnerships to counteract and minimize these damaging threats to ecosystems. It feels like a race against time and it’s sometimes hard to have hope that our mission will ever succeed. Every once in awhile you have those reassuring moments, when you see the majesties of nature and your hope is rekindled. It makes you think that despite all the challenges, nature is truly resilient and if you give it a chance, it will come back.

We couldn't have completed the data mission without the cooperation and support of the skilled staff from St Kitts and Nevis Coast Guard.

 A fisher's boat moored just off the coast with St Thomas Lowland Church in the distance, the first Anglican Church in the Caribbean, consecrated in 1643.

Surveying the waters on the southern end of Nevis.

Sunset over Caribbean waters.

Ship track and total video sample points collected on both islands in ten days.

On to Nevis

I’m told that Nevis has more history per unit area than anywhere else in the Caribbean. We spent our last three days collecting video samples in the coastal shelf surrounding Nevis, floating past the ghostly remnants of old forts and plantation mills. Pirates were hung in Gallows Bay and numerous ship battles were fought in these waters. Since Nevis is a smaller island, we anticipated we could do the field sampling in two days, but as field work generally goes, we didn’t account for the unexpected challenges we would face.

Our first problem came when the fuse in the inverter kept blowing and we would lose power to the computer and GPS video overlay. George solved this problem by cutting a piece of soldering wire and using it in the place of the fuse. The next problem was the maze of fish pots we often encountered and had to navigate through. Fish pots are one of the most popular methods used to catch fish. They are typically made of cut branches that are wired together with a small opening where fish or lobster can easily enter, but can’t get out. Fishers will bait, set, and leave the pots for a few days, attaching a long rope that is suspended to the ocean surface with some type of floating buoy, usually an empty soda bottle or gallon plastic jug. These pots are often placed densely together in certain areas, based on the fisher’s ability to detect where good fishing grounds may be. While we were trying to navigate through a collection of fish pots, we accidently ran over one and the rope got tangled in the prop. We were on the southern end of Nevis just off the shores of the old Port George, and the waters were rough. Fortunately, Shawn had brought her mask and snorkel and decided to jump in and see if she could untangle the rope. Captain Lee stood watch for sharks, loaded pistol by his side. Unfortunately we didn’t have a knife onboard and the tangle was too tight for her to loosen by hand. We finally flagged down a nearby fishing boat who loaned us a knife, but the waters were too rough to work safely. We decided to motor slowly back to the closest harbor were Shawn was able to free the rope from the prop and we were soon back to work. Another challenge came when the video camera got stuck on a coral head in about 4 meters depth. Without hesitation, Lemuel from Nevis Fisheries dove in and freed the camera in seconds. We were fortunate to have a skilled crew, able to solve any problem we encountered. Our luck withstood and the weather cooperated - we were able to capture the data we needed.

After ten days we finished our underwater video work, capturing over 400 sample points evenly spread across the coastal shelf of St Kitts and Nevis. These points represent a “stamp in time” of the current ocean floor conditions and will provide an important measure for monitoring changes in the future.  In all, we have spent over 50 hours on the water, collecting nearly 650,000 depth points (3 pts/second). This information will now be used to develop a detailed benthic habitat and bathymetric maps that will provide guiding documents for establishing marine reserves and managing dwindling fisheries. Since each point is collected with precise GPS positions, we can develop correlation models based on light reflectance patterns we are seeing in the satellite imagery. Each depth and habitat type reflects light differently, so these patterns can be modeled to map the entire seascape in areas less than 20m (~60ft) depth. Unless you have exceptionally clear water, light generally does not reflect off the ocean floor at depths greater than 20 meter.

What we have been told about these reefs is true. We’ve seen first hand that these reefs are suffering from a barrage of threats. What we saw on the video samples confirmed it. Bleached and dying corals, covered with algae and sedimentation from nearby coastal runoff, and a noticeable absence of large fish due to overharvesting. Mangroves and wetlands are being removed to make way for coastal development. What little is left of the natural “green” infrastructure that protects the coast and marine system is disappearing fast. Climate change and increasing hurricane intensities are adding to the problem. This is the same story throughout the Caribbean and it all adds up to big impacts on an already stressed marine ecosystem. From all the sampling we did over the ten days, the reefs in the best condition were south of Nevis and north of the harbor at Basseterre. However, by adopting the right management plan and execution and enforcement by the government, these reefs can recover and the fish will come back. Time is against us so action must be swift.

Aba, a local Nevitian fisherman, takes his turn throwing the video camera into the water.

Shawn guides the boat to the next sample point.

Ash and pyroclastic flows on nearby Montserrat, 40 miles southeast of Nevis.

Rene, the GIS officer in the Nevis Planning Department, takes her turn with the camera.

Shawn shares with the crew how the marine zoning plan is going to be developed.

Clive Wilkinson, Fisheries Assistant from the Nevis Department of Fisheries , pulls the camera up from the ocean floor.

A large freight ship passes in front of Redonda, an uninhabited remnant of an ancient volcanic core.

A rare moment, seeing Nevis Peak in full view, while arriving back at Charlestown harbor.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

From Sea to Summit

After four days of underwater mapping around St. Kitts, we decided to take the “day off” and hike to the top of Mt Liamuiga, the highest point (3,800 ft) on the island. When the English colonized St Kitts, they named it Mount Misery, but the name has reverted to its indigenous name. Even though it hasn’t had a major eruption for over 1600 year, most locals still won’t hike it, fearing it will erupt.

We were fortunate enough to have Conrad, a local yoga-master and nature-lover, as our guide. We left early and drove up to the trail head, past the sugar cane fields of Kittitian Hills, a future development planned on the northern slopes of the island. As we made our way up to the rain forest, I was surprised at the massive size of some of the banyan trees found along the path, some of which must have been well over 100 years old. Conrad pointed out the sarsaparilla trees which he collects the roots for brewing up a local drink. He has been climbing this mountain for years and shared island legends and stories of lost hikers.

After about two hrs of scrambling over the slippery rocks and roots, we finally reached the summit, rewarding us with a brisk wind and stunning views of St Eustatia, Saba, St Martin, St Barts, and Anguilla in the distance. The jagged crater rim is a half mile across, carpeted with dense forest cover on the sides and small intermittent lakes on the crater floor. The chattering of a troop of vervet monkeys could be heard in the trees nearby. Conrad invited us to follow him down the steep inner crater trail which descends 900 feet to the bottom. Ropes were needed for parts of the trail which descended over rock walls, but we finally made it to the bottom, taking in the 360 degree view. After having lunch in the shade, we explored the east side of the crater, a maze of steaming fumaroles and sulfur smells. Just a matter of time and this slumbering giant is going to wake up.

On the trip back down, we discussed with Conrad some of the modern problems facing the island – rising crime, emerging gangs, growing debt, and deteriorating ecosystems due to uncontrolled development and overfishing. Like other Caribbean nations, the country is at a cross road and must make important decisions about sustainability and the future they are going to pass on. Hopefully the zoning plan we develop together will inspire momentum in the right direction.

Conrad gives a nature lesson deep inside Liamuiga's crater 

Hiking inside the crater - Liamuiga's highest point in the distance

Exploring the fumaroles

Since it's the dry season, the lakes in the crater are small and intermittent. At the end of the wet season, the entire crater floor can fill up with water.

We lucked out with a clear view from on top - St Eustatia and Saba in the distance.

Mission accomplished - enjoying the view from 1,000 meters up

Monday, January 11, 2010

Completion of St Kitts

The weather has cooperated – despite some ash from the recent eruptions of Montserrat about 40 miles southeast of us, we couldn’t have asked for better conditions. The volcano tops that are usually shrouded in clouds are making their appearance now and then. The locals are complaining about ash on their cars and even some of the airlines have canceled flights for a few days this week because of the ash in the air. Evidently there are pyroclastic flows reaching the ocean and evacuations are underway.

We finished day four back in Basseterre harbor with a total of 259 video sample points. We made our way up past Brimstone Hill and picked up where we left off at the north end of St Kitts. It was an impressive view of the Dutch islands of St Eustatius and Saba to the northwest. The reefs along this stretch of the island have been the healthiest we’ve seen. Besides the coast guard who operate and man the boat, we are fortunate to have local government employees and fishers join us to help with the effort. We take turns dropping the video camera and relaying messages from the laptop. On Monday we begin mapping areas around Nevis and hope to finish in two long days. That may be optimistic given the larger shelf area surrounding Nevis, and the longer distances we have to travel.

Captain Lee surveys the waters as we head north to begin the day.

The volcano rim of Mt. Liamuiga which was last active in the late 1600s.

Checking the engine

George pulls up the camera

The view of St Eustatius to the north, only eight miles from St Kitts.

Our boat tracks after four days on the water

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Retrieving the Video Camera

Sample Video Drop

Day 2-3: Into Rougher Waters

I’ve never been seasick until now. Fortunately, I managed to keep my lunch down, which is better then some of my other shipmates. We’ve spent the last two days mapping on the Atlantic side of St Kitts where the waves are significantly larger. As you can guess, it’s a bad combination to have to stare at a computer screen while being tossed around at sea.

I’m told that the indigenous Arawak communities that once lived on St Kitts principally resided on the Atlantic side because of the abundance of fish resources. As we have made our way along the northeastern coast of the island, we’ve been surprised at how few fish there are when we drop the camera. What we’ve seen in the videos on this side is mostly sand and rubble and the reefs appear in poor condition. Towards the northern end of the island, we find a lot of gill nets and fish pots that fishers have recently placed which they check periodically. The locals tell us this area is where the sharks hang out, as they try to snag an easy meal from the nets. Sadly, many of them end of getting caught themselves.

Besides the stingray we spotted on one of our video drops, one of the big events happened on the third day when we got the video cable caught on the boat prop. Luckily the engine was in neutral so no damage was done to the cable. The conditions were very difficult with the large waves and the swift currents. It is important to get the camera on the bottom of the ocean as quickly as possible, in order to synchronize the video with the GPS reading of the boat’s location.  After collecting the video on one of the drops, we tried to pull the camera up but the cable was stuck. At first we thought it was stuck on the rudder, but later realized it was the prop. Fortunately Gwilym had brought his snorkel gear and was able to dive in and free the cable. It took a few dives under the boat, but we were all greatly relieved when he finally brought the camera and cable up to the surface. Now we try and position boat before each camera drop so the camera will not drift under the boat. One of our other fears is getting the camera snagged on a coral head.  Hopefully that won’t happen, especially in the deeper waters. 

Sunrise over St Kitts as fishers head out to sea.

Discussing our sampling strategy and equipment set up before leaving the harbor.

Local conch fishers give us a friendly wave.

Claxton from the coast guard takes his turn dropping the camera.

John directs the boat's direction while deciding on video sample locations

Gwilym rescues the camera cable from the boat prop.

The Carib Indians called the island Liamuiga, meaning fertile land. The dormant volcano in the distance is called Mount Liamuiga. Rising to 3,800ft, it is shrouded with clouds most of the time. 

Some of the fish pots and nets we saw as we cruised near the coast.

Overfishing contributes to harvesting less and less fish these days.

Fishers pass the remnants of an old sugarcane plantation.

The life blood of St Kitts tourism industry, cruise ships can park up to two at a time.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Day 2: Basseterre to the Narrows

Clear skies and light winds are a welcome sight for our first day on the water. Now if only the technology Gods will cooperate. Captain Julius meets us at the Coast Guard Station, assigned to take the helm for our maiden underwater mapping voyage. We are fortunate to have Gwilym Rowlands with us this week to train the team in the finer aspects of underwater video mapping. Gwilym is a PhD student and works with Dr. Sam Purkis at Nova Southeastern University’s Oceanographic Center. They have pioneered the science of underwater video mapping and have the knowledge to interpret the benthic classes and apply it to satellite imagery, creating very detailed and comprehensive benthic habitat maps for a variety of places around the world.

After discussing a sample strategy, we decide to head south, towards Nag’s head, the southern peninsula of St. Kitts. This area is part of an ancient volcano caldera and home to one of the largest salt ponds in the Caribbean. Developers have recently begun a massive project called Christophe Harbor in this vicinity. The project is huge given the size of this small island state - 2500 acres or 6% of the total land area of the island, impacting a quarter of the island’s coastline. The large salt pond is a major stop over for migratory birds and the developers plan to dredge it and turn it into a 300 berth marina. If they choose to do this the right way, it could be a great model project for the Caribbean or it could end up being an ecological disaster.

The process of collecting underwater video samples is fairly straight forward. First we look at the satellite image on the laptop to get a reference of where we are in relation to the features we are trying to map. The high resolution satellite images we are looking at, have been enhanced so we can see underwater features more easily, such as sand, seagrass, and various reef structures. The GPS shows our current position on the image and makes it easier to calculate and call off bearing directions to Captain Julius. Once we decide on a direction, we make a series of strategic video drops along the transect. These stops are based on our interpretation of the variety of features we see on the satellite imagery. Once we reach a drop point, we stop the boat and lower the camera into the water. Someone looking at the live video feed yells out to the drop person when to stop lowering the camera, just a few feet of the ocean floor. The high-definition video does an amazing job of recording what’s at the bottom without having to send a diver down. Plus, we have a permanent record of the conditions at each site that can be used for future comparisons.  As we zigzag along the coastline, it’s a fine balance between getting as many sample video points as possible, while covering as much of the ocean shelf as we can. The more samples we obtain, the more accurate our final map will be. The key is to get a representative sample of all the underwater features, while covering the entire 260 sq km in ten days.

After seven hours on the boat, we end up collecting our final samples in the Narrows, the shallow area between the islands of St Kitts and Nevis. Having collected a total of 76 points, we are ready to head back to the harbor. Tomorrow we will start in the rough waters of the Atlantic side. The captain reminds me to bring my Dramamine.

Ralph takes his turn lowering and raising the video camera from the side of the boat.

The waters are very busy with a lot of activities going on within a very narrow shelf - all the more reasons for developing a marine zoning plan focused on building a sustainable future for all marine interests.

A view of the laptop screen showing our current GPS location on top of the satellite imagery. We use this to guide and select our sample points.

Coastal development is expanding all around the island.

Goats grazing the hills, making the land more susceptible to erosion and runoff into the ocean, harming the reef systems.

Ralph ponders the future of his country and the fish stocks he helps to manage, as we head back to the harbor.

Total video sample points collected on Day 1.

Arriving back to the harbor.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Ten Days to Map 260 Sq Kilometers

Most of the time when I tell someone I am traveling to St. Kitts and Nevis, they say Huh? Where? What did you say? I go on explaining that these two sister islands are located near Antigua and Barbuda and I get more intense blank looks.  With only 104 sq kilometers of land area, St Kitts and Nevis is the smallest and youngest country in the western hemisphere, home to only 40,000 people. The land and the population may be small, but the people and the culture more than make up for it with their vibrant Caribbean spirit. However, like other small Caribbean countries, these fragile islands, located in one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world, are facing increasing pressures on limited resources, and are coming to an important crossroad in their short history since independence. One road goes down the path of continued unsustainable development, habitat destruction, and overfishing. The other path leads towards a sustainable future and smart growth - complete with well managed and healthy ecosystems, contributing to improvements in human well-being.

Our team has arrived in St Kitts and Nevis to work on a part of a larger project that is being funded by USAID. Working together with our local partners, we are gathering data and information to design a federation-wide marine zoning plan that will help move the country towards the path to a sustainable future. Just as urban planners create land use zones to provide structure for “smart” growth and management of land-based activities, oceans require the same type of zoning design to manage for competing activities such as fishing, tourism, and transportation. Our mission is to map the underwater marine habitats that exist within the narrow 260 sq kilometer ocean shelf that surrounds both islands. The habitat maps we create, will show where different types of features exist such as coral reefs, seagrass, sandy bottom, and mud flats. These habitat maps will serve very important roles for establishing marine zones, helping to determine where critical nursery grounds exist for species such as fish, lobster, and conch and guiding the establishment of marine protected areas that will help to restore the dwindling fish stocks and shelter diminishing coral reefs.

We have ten days to collect our field data which includes characterizing the ocean bottom for as many sample areas as possible. To do this, we are utilizing new underwater high-definition video technology, coupled with GPS, bathymetric sounding equipment, integrated with high-resolution satellite imagery. Once we collect these data, ocean scientists will then carefully review each video sample, characterizing the habitats into a discrete benthic classification system. Since we have the GPS coordinates for each of the smaller sample areas, we can match what we are seeing on the satellite images to what we have mapped using the underwater video. By applying advanced image processing techniques, we can then model detailed benthic habitat maps for large areas, benefiting a wide variety of interests groups in St Kitts and Nevis (SKN).

Today was spent setting up and testing all the equipment. Despite a few technical hiccups, we succeeded and are ready for to start mapping. With the help of the SKN Coast Guard who is providing the boat and captain, we will be leaving early in the morning…weather permitting.

Shawn meets with Ralph Wilkins, Deputy Director for the St. Kitts Fisheries Department, to discuss fishing issues and what steps need to be made to improve the fisheries.

The coast guard boat, Ardent, that we will be working on for the next ten days

We have a custom-built and very solid platform that holds both the transducer (depth finder) and our GPS antenna. Lewis, one of the coast guard engineers, did an amazing job designing and welding this for us. Since we will be collecting thousands of sounding depths every day, this is a very important piece of equipment. These data will help us build very accurate bathymetric maps for the entire country and assist in delineating benthic features..

Gwilym and Lewis test the equipment to make sure all the pieces are communicating properly.

John makes sure the cable for the underwater video camera is ready to go.

Close up view of the underwater high-definition video camera. the PVC outer ring is to protect it from being damaged if it hits against the reefs while recording features on the ocean floor.

All power is run off the battery so we have a tangle of wires and parts that need to be closely managed.

John checks into the coast guard station for the weather report for the next day.

Nothing beats a beautiful Caribbean sunset at the end of a long day.