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.


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