Wetlands in Tobago Disappearing!
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Wetlands in Tobago Disappearing!

The wetlands of Tobago are rapidly disappearing. Tobago has remaining only about 105 hectares of wetlands (1.05 km2), or 0.33% of the land area (this is excluding marine ecosystems such as coral reefs and seagrass beds, which technically are also defined as wetlands).

Certainly Tobago was blessed with much more extensive wetlands three hundred and fifty years ago. This was before the widespread conversions for agriculture that took place in the colonial era and the more recent conversions for residential, industrial and commercial development. It is becoming more and more critical that Tobago saves what little is left of these precious wetlands, which offer important free ecological services such as coastal protection, filtration of pollutants and sediments, nurseries and habitats for fish and other wildlife, and storing carbon dioxide (the principle agent in global warming). Wetlands also offer more direct measurable values to humans through agriculture and tourism for example. At a time when our coastal fisheries are declining, ocean levels are rising, coastal waters are becoming more polluted, and the tourism industry is expanding, Tobago’s wetlands are desperately needed. But unfortunately our wetlands are facing several very serious threats.

Threats to Tobago’s wetlands

Tobago has now remaining four major wetlands at Petit Trou, Kilgwyn, Bon Accord and Buccoo and ten smaller ones on the windward and leeward coasts. All of these wetlands are being rapidly degraded and destroyed by a variety of factors.

Drainage or conversion for development

This is certainly the most serious threat facing wetlands in Tobago, both in terms of the large scale of development as well as the permanence of the destruction. Since wetlands are generally found in flat coastal areas, they are viewed as prime sites for development.

Extensive areas of wetlands in the southern portion of Tobago were cleared or drained for development in the colonial past. Most of Lower Scarborough was once wetlands. The remnants of huge coconut and cocoa estates can be seen in Lowlands, Bon Accord and Roxborough where wetlands once dominated. Deliberate changes to the hydrology of wetlands were also made with the construction of sluice gates, permanently changing the delicate ecology of these areas.
These errors in our past are being repeated today with demands for residential and commercial land, and recently proposals for massive hotel developments.

Petit Trou is the largest of the wetlands along the windward coast of Tobago, being approximately 15 hectares. This wetland is threatened by the development of Tobago Plantations Limited (Tobago Hilton). Environment TOBAGO has repeatedly appealed for the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which was conducted and submitted to the Town and Country Planning Division. This was to be released to the public for review, but to date this critical document affecting the lives and future of Tobagonians has been kept secret. Construction of the resort is almost completed, and the impact on the Petit Trou wetlands is unknown. Plans have also been submitted for the construction of a marina, which will certainly also impact wetland hydrology and ecology, but it is unknown what mitigation measures and monitoring procedures are planned to minimize impacts on the wetlands in the area.

Bon Accord Lagoon / Buccoo Bay wetland suffered from "beach improvement" activities at Sheerbird’s Point that involved clearing some mangrove. Some wetlands along the southern boundary were also cleared for residential development. Agricultural plantations had long ago shrunken the once extensive area of this important wetland complex, the largest and perhaps most important wetland area in Tobago. The Four Seasons hotel chain has proposed a resort development in the Golden Grove Estate. The EIA was prepared and subjected to review, with serious concerns aired regarding the impact on the ecology and hydrology of the wetland complex. Outline planning permission was granted by the Town and Country Planning Division in April 1997. This resort proposes to comprise a two hundred-room hotel, sixty three-bedroom townhouses, sixty three-bedroom villas, and an 18-hole golf course. The next step will involve submission for final planning permission. The outline permission specifies that no construction is to take place in areas occupied by mangrove, which covers much of the area. Adequate mitigation and monitoring of any development here will again be needed.

Only a small isolated fragment of Kilgwyn wetland remains after part was filled in for the Crown Point airport and a road was built to give access to the fishing depot on the coast. Extensive sand mining in one section destroyed the freshwater wetlands and also increased the threat of salt-water intrusion to the area. Earlier agricultural projects had drained land for coconut plantations, and made irreversible changes to the hydrology of the system. Proposed expansion of the Crown Point airport will further fragment and shrink this fairly degraded wetland. Environment TOBAGO has proposed that the development be planned so as to preserve the last intact fragment of mangrove forest and lagoon. Rehabilitation of the hydrological regime will be necessary to maintain the ecological integrity of the wetland. The THA is currently considering expansion options.

Smaller wetlands are also under threat by development. This includes the Lucy Vale wetlands in Speyside as the proposed site for a new school, and King’s River wetland where a resort has been proposed but no details are known at present. An EIA was prepared for the proposed development of a stadium at Baccolet, which will impact on the wetland area downstream at Minister Bay. The EIA proposes sending the sewage effluent to the Scarborough treatment plant.

Illegal dumping of solid waste

Dumping of solid waste from domestic and commercial sources is rampant in both wetland and non-wetland areas in Tobago. A visit to any of the wetlands around Tobago makes this only too apparent. This is especially severe for example in Kilgwyn, Minister Bay, and Lucy Vale wetlands (dumping of earth fill). We citizens must take responsibility for keeping a clean and healthy environment in Tobago.

Pollution from domestic sewage, industrial waste, pesticides and fertilizers

Malfunctioning commercial sewage treatment plants are destroying wetland ecosystems, for example at Bucco Bay and Bon Accord which empty into the Bon Accord Lagoon / Buccoo Bay wetland. Smaller commercial and residential soak-a-ways and outdoor latrines also leak untreated sewage into the environment, for example at Kilgwyn wetland.

Pesticides and fertilizers are running off from nearby agricultural land into wetlands. Maintenance-intensive golf courses are also prime sources of such runoff. This problem is threatening Peiti Trou as well as other smaller wetlands. The input of nutrients from fertilizers and sewage causes increased growth of algae in the water. The algae population explodes and uses all the oxygen available in the water so that fish and other wetland plants and animals are deprived of oxygen and die. This phenomenon is called eutrophication. While one important value of wetlands are their ability to filter and break down these harmful pollutants, our wetland systems are becoming over-burdened by the quantity of effluents they are receiving and are themselves being destroyed.

Siltation due to runoff from cleared areas

Irresponsible development such as agricultural practices which do not include adequate soil conservation measures, wholesale clearing of land for construction, and burning and bush fires which destroy hillside vegetation all result in soil erosion. This soil eventually is washed into wetlands, where it is filtered and settles, protecting marine ecosystems. However, massive quantities of soil washing in will result in destruction of the wetland and loss of all its valuable functions.

Over hunting of wildlife, over fishing, and illegal harvest of mangrove

Crabs, oysters, fish, and birds are all being over hunted. Mangrove wood is also harvested for construction and the bark stripped for extraction of tannins used to dye leather. The damaged or stripped tree becomes vulnerable to attack from pests and eventually dies. Wise use is a central principle of wetland management and sustainable harvesting must be ensured to conserve these valuable biodiversity resources.

Natural threats

In 1963 Hurricane Flora destroyed most of the western part of the Bon Accord Lagoon / Bucco Bay wetland, but in general wetlands are extremely resilient to storms and in fact play an important role in protecting coastal areas from damage.

What’s being done to manage Tobago wetlands?

The Department of Natural Resources and Environment, Environment Division, has responsibility for managing the wetlands of Tobago. They are engaged in several actions for wetland conservation and wise use in Tobago. These include:

Representation on the National Wetlands Committee:

Through this committee, Tobago is represented in wetland policy formulation and implementation of the Ramsar Convention in T&T. One significant activity in this is the current initiative trying to get the Bon Accord Lagoon / Bucco Bay wetland declared as a Ramsar site on the List of wetlands of International Importance. This would enable the wetland to receive special management attention and funding support, similar to what has already been done for Nariva Swamp in Trinidad. A proposal is to be prepared and submitted to the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) for approval and then submission to the Ramsar Bureau for consideration.

Establishment and management of wetland protected areas:

The Bucco Reef Marine Park has been legally declared but protects coastal areas only up to the high water mark. The Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) has recommended further extension of the boundaries to the Park to include more of the wetland ecosystem area. A Management Plan for the area has been developed and responsibility for implementation is with the Fisheries Division of the Department of Natural Resources and Environment.

The Department of Natural Resources and Environment wishes to establish a wetland reserve for research, education, and ecotourism at the wetland at Rockley Bay, which occupies approximately 2.3 hectares of predominantly riverine mangrove forest on private land. This has been made available to the Department for management and a draft management proposal is being developed. The principles of conservation and wise use will be applied in the management plan, and will include restoration of the habitat and controlling all projects taking place in the area to ensure their sustainability. The Department hopes that this pilot project can become a model for management of other wetland sites in Tobago.

Reviewing Environmental Impact assessments (EIAs) for proposed developments affecting wetlands:

EIAs for proposed developments are submitted to the Town and Country Planning Division and subsequently sent to the THA for review. Examples of EIAs reviewed include for the Tobago Plantations Limited development in Lowlands and the Four Seasons Resort development in Golden Grove.

The Environment Department undertakes various education and awareness projects, including public workshops and lectures, production and distribution of educational materials (posters, brochures, and booklets) to schools and the general public, collecting resource materials for its information centre, and conducting field trips. A pilot programme to encourage community involvement in environmental conservation is being run at Plymouth with a group of Environmental Cadets comprising persons who are 15-25 years old. A session on wetlands was done, and the group was encouraged to conduct volunteer projects for the community.

The Environment Department collaborates closely with other departments in the THA (for example Fisheries, Tourism, and Public Health), the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) and Ministries in Trinidad, and Environment TOBAGO.

What can you do to conserve wetlands?
  • Do not clear or burn land and use proper soil conservation measures.
  • Minimize your use of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides and use measures to minimize runoff.
  • Do not over harvest wildlife, fisheries, or vegetation from wetlands.
  • Educate yourself and talk to others about wetland conservation and wise use.
  • Let your voice be heard and lobby for wetland policy, legislation, regulations, and strict enforcement.
  • Get involved in assessing proposed developments through the public participation process.
  • Work with the THA for wetland conservation and wise use on both public and private land.

The way ahead

The importance of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) to evaluate the potential impacts of proposed developments, identify least impact options, and plan mitigation measures, cannot be under-emphasized. Additionally, monitoring systems need to be put in place to continually assess the impacts of development on the natural environment. The Town and Country Planning Division and the THA have critical roles to play in ensuring the conservation and wise use of Tobago’s wetlands. Public participation is vital in the process, and citizens must have free access to information and open channels to air their views on proposed developments.
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