This story was written in commemoration of World Wetlands Day 2023 by Dr. Rahanna Juman, Director (Ag.) of the Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA).
In observing World Wetlands Day on February 2, it is important to recognise the need to restore degraded wetlands as these ecosystems provide critical services to humans and the natural environment.
The 2021 edition of the Ramsar Convention’s Global Wetland Outlook outlined not only the services wetlands provide but it also stated the consequences of their degradation.
Wetlands contribute to carbon sequestration and storage (particularly in peatlands and marine ecosystems) and provide goods and services which can strengthen food security initiatives.
These ecosystems also serve as a barrier against water-related disasters like floods, and droughts, and ensure there are safe and reliable sources of water for domestic and agricultural uses.
Wetlands under threat
Contributing to climate mitigation and adaptation, biodiversity and human health, a 2019 publication by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services estimated that the services of wetlands are worth more than US $47.4 trillion a year.
But despite their benefits, wetlands remain the world’s most threatened ecosystem with at least 35% of global wetland area lost since 1970.
Research indicates wetlands are disappearing three times faster than rainforests which leaves more than a quarter of wetland species threatened with extinction.
Unsustainable use and inappropriate management of wetlands results in loss of ecosystem services and direct risks to humans including disease.
Wetlands and climate change
With changes to the climate occurring at accelerated rates, wetlands are vulnerable to sea-level rise, coral bleaching, changing hydrology and natural disasters like increased flooding and droughts.
While wetlands are affected by climate change, they can also be part of the solution as undisturbed coastal blue carbon ecosystems (salt marshes, mangroves, seagrass beds) are powerful carbon sinks.
However, it is important to note wetlands can be significant sources of greenhouse gasses if degraded.
Trinidad and Tobago’s wetlands
Trinidad and Tobago’s coastlines, especially the Gulf of Paria, were once lined with large mangrove trees supported by massive entangled roots which provided a habitat for wildlife.
These areas were also a food source as people would hunt crabs for traditional Sunday meals and even oysters which were sold in spicy sauce around the Queen Parks Savannah.
But it can be argued that during earlier times in T&T’s development, people did not fully understand or appreciate the importance of these ecosystems given that as much as 50 per cent were cleared for infrastructural development.
The Gulf of Paria’s nearshore was also covered by extensive underwater seagrass meadows which provided homes for diverse species including starfishes, urchins, sea cucumbers, crabs, conchs and many fishes including sea horses, and nurseries for commercial species such as snappers, grunts and shrimp.
Unfortunately, as land was reclaimed for infrastructural development along the coastline, these ecosystems were also cleared and their precious resources were buried.
Today, the very sparse seagrass areas that remain are subjected to land –based pollution and sedimentation.
Tobago’s coral reefs – an integral part of the island’s tourism sector – have also been degraded as a result of land-based pollution, unsustainable harvesting, and invasive marine species such as the lionfish.
These issues only compound the vulnerability which the island’s reefs face from the effects of climate change like ocean acidification, coral bleaching and diseases.
With T&T’s coastlines facing further erosion and becoming more susceptible to coastal flooding, there should be a greater realisation of the importance of wetlands and increased action must be taken to revive and restore them.
All hands on deck to restore wetlands
The restoration of T&T’s wetlands will require science-based approaches that are community appropriate.
To achieve this, there must also be a multistakeholder approach with contributions from public sector agencies, scientists, educators, the business sector, funders, community leaders, civil society and young people.
Restoration projects should aim to understand the underlying ecological necessities of each individual area and address the reasons why each wetland hasn’t naturally regenerated in the first place.
For some wetlands, this may require cleanup activities, removing invasive species, reestablishing the hydrological balance and restricting access to them in an effort to give them time to naturally regenerate.
It is important for ecological wetland restoration principles to be applied as this helps with regenerating a wetland’s biophysical and socioeconomic conditions.
In doing so, the wetland’s ability to adequately provide resources for wildlife will also be strengthened. This can lead to more biodiverse and resilient wetlands.
IMA’s role in the restoration of wetlands
As a leading research institute, the IMA has been conducting the science needed for the restoration of T&T’s wetlands.
A pilot mangrove restoration project was conducted in 1999 and based on the monitoring conducted, the institute was better able to understand restoration and rehabilitation principles.
Since then, studies have been conducted in mangrove forests and marshlands to determine causes of degradation with the intent of removing the stressors so natural regenerative processes can occur.
The institute has also embarked on several projects which included a recent mangrove replanting project at the Caroni Swamp with primary school children in Central Trinidad and with the community to raise awareness of the importance of mangrove forests.
With funding from bp Trinidad and Tobago (bpTT), the IMA embarked on a pilot Marine Resilience Initiative (MARIN) in Tobago in 2022.
For the project, the IMA assessed a subset of marine habitats across Tobago to identify areas with the potential for active restoration, using nature-based management strategies that are economically feasible, sustainable, community-oriented, and valued for its climate mitigations (blue carbon) contribution.
The project focused on coral reefs and seagrass (Thalassia testudinum) beds located in Tobago.
The project assessed three coral reef sites in southwest Tobago (Buccoo Reef Marine Park, Mt. Irvine Reef and Flying Reef) and two sites in the proposed northeast Tobago protected area (Booby Island Reef, Charlotteville and Angel Reef, Speyside).
Two locations in southwest Tobago where Thalassia testudinum dominated seagrass beds occur or were once present were assessed, that is, the Bon Accord Lagoon in the Marine Protected Area (two sites) and Kilgwyn Bay.
The project is the first phase of the IMA’s plan to build its capacity in marine ecosystem rehabilitation in a rapidly changing climate.
The IMA and bpTT have agreed to extend the project and rehabilitation work over the next five years.
The second phase of MARIN Tobago intends to deliver long-term biodiversity conservation and restoration efforts using a multi-pronged approach.
Ocean stewardship, restoration of Tobago’s marine biodiversity and building sustainable ocean resilience are all key objectives for the project.
MARIN Tobago, and its growing cadre of ocean caregivers, are committed to a programme of direct and indirect restoration strategies to build Tobago’s resilience as a single island ecosystem.
Through this project, IMA aims to build connections between communities and their ocean backyard through baseline understanding, inclusion, education and embedding stewardship into communities.
The efforts will also overlap with on-going practical restoration in locations of active stewardship and involve knowledge transfer and capacity building.
The anticipated plan and partnerships will deliver long-term marine biodiversity conservation that may be scaled up for future restorative efforts in other areas in Tobago, Trinidad and even the wider Caribbean.
Join the IMA as it continues to restore degraded wetlands. Follow the institute on their social media platforms and download their SeaiTT App.