Environment TOBAGOFocus On Tobago´s Environment
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1. Wetlands - The Facts

What are wetlands?

Wetlands, as the name suggests, are wet! They are basically areas of land covered with water either all or only part of the time. Further, wetlands include areas with water of different depths, from water several metres deep to water merely saturating the soil. Even when a wetland appears dry, waterlogged conditions often occur below the surface of the soil. The conditions in a wetland also vary over time, with changes daily, seasonally over a longer time period as wetlands evolve and fill with sediment to eventually become dry land.

Defining wetlands

The National Wetlands Policy of Trinidad and Tobago follows the definition for wetlands in the International Convention on Conservation of Wetlands, or the Ramsar Convention. This broadly defines wetlands as "areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres". It also says that wetlands "may incorporate riparian and coastal zones adjacent to the wetlands, and islands or bodies of marine water deeper than six metres at low tide lying within the wetlands". This broad definition means that the Ramsar Convention covers a wide variety of habitat types, including rivers and lakes, coastal lagoons, mangroves, and even coral reefs.

Wetlands of Tobago

Wetlands are found on both the windward and leeward coasts of Tobago. There are eight fairly small wetlands along the windward coast, mainly mangrove swamp. These are at Petit Trou (which is the largest at 15 hectares), Little Rockley bay, Big Bacolet Bay / Minister Bay, Fort Granby, Carapuse Bay / Roxborough, Louis D’Or, King’s River / Frenchman’s Bay, and Lucy Vale. On the leeward coast the wetlands range from mangrove swamps, to freshwater marshes, annual floodplains to freshwater ponds. The largest wetland is the Bon Accord Lagoon / Bucco Bay wetland, which is approximately 77 hectares. The other seven wetlands are at Friendship, Kilgwyn, Bucco, Courland Bay, Black Rock Pond, Parlatuvier, and Bloody Bay.

Types of wetland systems

Wetlands are transitional environments where dry land meets water, and show a complex combination of the conditions of both. Wetlands are usually found alongside rivers and lakes and in coastal areas. This variety of conditions produces a great variety of wetland types and a variety of names have been used to identify wetlands. In Tobago wetlands are often called “swamps”. The types of natural wetlands found in Tobago for example include mangrove swamps, freshwater swamps, and lagoons. There are also wetlands made by humans, such as fish and shrimp ponds, farm ponds, irrigated agricultural land, sewage farms, and canals. There are five main types of wetlands:
· Marine - not influenced by river flows (e.g., shorelines and coral reefs) -- found in Tobago for example at Bucco Reef, and Speyside Reef.

· Estuarine - where rivers meet the sea and salinity is intermediate between salt and freshwater (e.g., mangroves, mudflats) -- found in Tobago for example at Little Rockly Bay, Big Bacolet Bay / Minister Bay, Fort Granby, and Louis D'Or.

· Riverine - land periodically inundated by river overtopping (e.g., flooded forests and floodplains) -- found in Tobago for example at King's River, Parlatuvier, and Bloody Bay.

· Palustrine - where there is more or less permanent water (e.g., freshwater marshes) -- found in Tobago for example at Fort Granby, and Carapuse Bay / Roxborough.

· Lacustrine - areas of permanent water with little flow (e.g., ponds) -- found in Tobago for example at Black Rock Pond.

Cool facts about wetlands

· Tobago has remaining only about 105 ha of wetlands (1.05 km2), or 0.33% of the land area (this is excluding marine ecosystems such as coral reefs and seagrass beds)

· Wetlands occur in every country, from the tundra to the tropics.

· Roughly 6% of the Earth's land surface is estimated to be covered with wetlands, or about 570 million hectares (5.7 million km2) (World Conservation Monitoring Centre).

· 2% of wetlands are lakes, 30% bogs, 26% fens, 20% swamps, and 15% floodplains.

· Mangroves cover some 240,000 km2 of coastal area.

· An estimated 600,000km2 of coral reefs remain worldwide.

2. Why Are Wetlands Important to You?

Wetlands are too often erroneously viewed as dirty, mucky swamps that have no value to humans. This misconception means that they continue to be filled in and cleared for agricultural, residential, commercial and industrial developments. Most of the wetland areas of Tobago have already been destroyed, and now less than one percent (1%) of the land area is covered by wetlands. Wetlands have a wide range of direct and indirect values to Tobagonians.

Wetlands protect coastal areas and stabilize shorelines by slowing runoff and trapping soil in the fibrous roots of the plants. They also protect coastal areas from damage from storm surges and high winds. Destruction of areas of Kilgwyn wetland has increased the threat of storm damage to coastal land.

Wetlands support a high biodiversity because of the wide diversity of habitats that exist in a wetland, which often is a complex of different zones with different conditions. These support a wide diversity of plants and animals. Wetlands often have a complex food chain that supports many different species. Some of this biodiversity is directly used by Tobagonians when they harvest mangrove wood, fish, crabs, oysters, birds, and other wildlife. This must be sustainable harvesting if the biodiversity value and harvest is to be maintained.

Wetlands are nurseries for many species of animals. Many marine fish spawn in wetlands found adjacent to coral reefs. An example of this is found at the Buccoo Reef / Bon Accord Lagoon wetland complex. Tobago ecotourism and fishing industries thus depend on coastal wetlands.

Wetlands are ecotourism and recreation sites because of their aesthetic appeal based on the high biodiversity they contain. Hiking, kayaking and other non-impact uses of wetlands are very valuable socially and economically to Tobago tourism and recreation industries.

Wetlands act as sponges by retaining floodwaters. The waters are then slowly released, helping to control floods. Excess water trapped in wetlands slowly percolates through the soil and recharges underground aquifers.

Wetlands filter pollutants and sediments and so provide a major environmental and health benefit in cleaning up contaminated water. Wetlands are so effective that artificial wetlands are created to purify wastewater from sewage treatment plants, from storm water runoff, and even from agriculture. Such a plant has been developed in Bon Accord for sewage treatment. Buccoo Marsh assists in removing some of the sewage pollution escaping from malfunctioning treatment plants at Buccoo and Bon Accord. Protection of the beautiful coastal waters and beaches is one of the most important values of wetlands in Tobago.

Wetlands reduce some pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria after only two hours of contact with wetland plants. Wetlands reduce contaminants in surface water by acting as settling basins, slowing water flow and allowing suspended particles begin to settle out and be deposited in the bottom of the wetland. Insoluble contaminants such as phosphates, pesticides, and heavy metals attached to the particles also settle out. Additional sediment covers the contaminants, burying them, and removing them from the water so that cleaner water flows from the wetland. Certain plants (such as sedges and waterlilies) can further separate heavy metals from the water. The heavy muck soils of wetlands have high levels of decaying plant organic matter. This organic matter provides many charged particles that attract and hold organic molecules such as pesticides. Thus, the organic material attracts and binds the dissolved pesticides to the wetland soil, removing the pesticides from the water. Wetland soils also support immense populations of microorganisms, some of which can use pesticides and other organic molecules as food. Wetlands also use up excess nutrients (for example nitrate and phosphates found in fertilizers and nutrient-rich soil running into wetlands) when the plants use nitrogen to grow, as do other plants. In these ways, wetland plant communities can help purify polluted water and so protect human health.

How can we assign values to wetlands?

Wetlands offer important free ecological goods and services such as coastal protection, flood control and groundwater recharge, nurseries and habitats for fish and other wildlife, filtration of pollutants and sediments, and storing carbon dioxide (the principle agent in global warming). In some cases these services may be directly measured, for example the value of the fisheries industry based on wetlands, the value of the crab or oyster harvest, or the value of the ecotourism or recreation industry based in wetlands.

However in many cases, determining the monetary value of wetlands is more difficult. One way that values can be assigned is by calculating how much it would take to replace the free ecological services wetlands provide. For example, wetlands help to purify contaminated water and protect marine ecosystems and human health, saving the very high costs of installing and maintaining water treatment plants. Coastal protection structures are often expensive and moreover less effective than the protection offered by nature via wetlands. Desalination plants or other costly means of producing or importing water are replaced by groundwater sources that are recharged by wetlands. These types of value calculations are done by environmental economists when they calculate the "replacement value" of wetland ecosystems.

Another way values may be assigned is by determining the "option value" or "contingent value". These values are estimated through interviews with people who indicate how much they would be willing to pay to know that wetlands and the free goods and services that they provide are conserved for use by the present and future generations. For example, how much would you be willing to pay to know that your child could see the magnificent roosting of the scarlet ibis or snorkel Buccoo Reef?

Who pays the costs of development?

Wetlands in Tobago are being seriously threatened by development, which arguable will provide immense benefits to the developers, often in the tourism industry. But who really pays for the costs of these developments when wetland of Tobago are destroyed? Society suffers the costs directly and also indirectly when government spending must be allocated towards environmental clean-up and installing expensive technological solutions to replace what was previously free ecological services. Tobagonians need to take a much more active role in lobbying for conservation and wise use of Tobago wetlands for the benefit of all people.

3. World Wetlands Day

World Wetlands Day is celebrated on 2nd February each year, and was first held in 1997. The theme for World Wetlands Day 2000 is "Celebrating Our Wetlands of International Importance".

This commemorates the day governments of countries across the globe signed the Convention on Wetlands in the city of Ramsar in Iran. This convention is thus commonly known as the Ramsar Convention, and its mission is "the conservation and wise use of wetlands by national action and international cooperation as a means to achieving sustainable development throughout the world".

Over sixty countries celebrated World Wetlands Day in 1999 with activities celebrating the values, benefits, and beauty of wetlands. Government agencies, non-government organisations (such as Environment TOBAGO), schools, clubs and others use the occasion to raise public awareness on the Ramsar Convention, pertinent wetland issues in the country, and management actions being implemented for sustainable use of wetlands. The Ramsar Convention’s Web site http://www.ramsar.org posts reports of activities of countries for World Wetlands Day, which range from lectures and seminars, nature walks, children’s art contests, races, and community clean-up days, to radio and television interviews and letters to newspapers, to the launch of new wetland policies, new Ramsar sites, and new programmes at the national level.

Environment TOBAGO will be commemorating World Wetlands Day 2000 with a field trip to Kilgwyn and Buccoo wetlands with a recently formed youth group in Tobago, Generation YES (Youth Encouraging Sustainability). Here the youth will explore the unique ecology and rich biodiversity and the many important values of wetlands. The group will also study the unfortunate threats poised by unplanned and inappropriate development in Tobago and discuss possible management actions to ensure sustainable development for the people of Tobago with conservation of the rich natural environment.

The Tobago House of Assembly Department of Natural Resources and Environment, Environment Division, will be holding a workshop and field trip for secondary school students on the day. The workshop will be held at Works Building from 8:30 am to noon, followed by a boat trip to Buccoo Reef and Bon Accord Lagoon Complex. The cost of the field trip will be $30 per student. The workshop will include lectures by the Department of Natural Resources and Environment and by the Institute of Marine Affairs.

There are presently 118 Contracting Parties to the Ramsar Convention, with 1014 wetland sites, totaling 72.7 million hectares, designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. Trinidad and Tobago acceded to the Ramsar Convention effective in April 1993, and was at that time the only Caribbean country to be a member. Nariva Swamp was designated as the country's Ramsar Site, and a National Wetlands Committee was established in 1995, which subsequently prepared the draft National Wetland Policy. This has yet to be approved by Parliament.

As part of the theme for World Wetlands Day 2000, the Ramsar Bureau has developed a vision for implementing the Convention's newly adopted Strategic Framework. This involves developing a global network of mutually reinforcing important wetlands by assisting nations in the task of planning their designations for the List of Wetlands of International Importance strategically. The designation of the Bon Accord Lagoon / Buccoo Bay wetland and marine communities on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance has been discussed since the initial accession of T&T to the Ramsar Convention. This site, and indeed all of the wetland areas in Tobago, continues to face serious threats and are in need of urgent management. Less than one percent (1%) of the land area of Tobago remains covered by wetlands. It is hoped that the Government and the Tobago House of Assembly will continue to make concerted strides for wetland conservation in T&T, and in particular for the ever-diminishing wetlands of Tobago.

4. International Cooperation for Wetlands Conservation: The Ramsar Convention in T&T

What is the Ramsar Convention?

Increasingly governments from around the world are recognizing the urgent need to respond to the current environmental crisis. One way they are doing this is through international cooperation by signing intergovernmental treaties committing their countries to the conservation and wise use of natural resources. The Convention on Wetlands, commonly known as the Ramsar Convention, is the first of these modern global intergovernmental treaties.

The mission of the Ramsar Convention is "the conservation and wise use of wetlands by national action and international cooperation as a means to achieving sustainable development throughout the world" (Brisbane, 1996). It covers all aspects of wetland conservation and wise use for human benefit.

This Convention provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. There are presently 118 Contracting Parties to the Convention, with 1014 wetland sites, totaling 72.7 million hectares, designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance.

Four international non-government organizations work very closely with the Ramsar Convention and are recognized as the "partner organizations": they are BirdLife International, IUCN - The World Conservation Union, Wetlands International, and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Trinidad & Tobago and the Ramsar Convention

Since joining the Ramsar Convention with effect in April 1993, T&T has taken advantage of several of the special Ramsar programmes designed to help countries achieve wetland conservation and wise use. Some of these are highlighted below:
  • Nariva Swamp was designated for the List of Wetlands of International Importance, and remains the only Ramsar site in the country.
  • The government requested formal listing of the Nariva Swamp on the Ramsar Montreux Record of sites under serious threat and deserving special attention. Under this, the Ramsar Monitoring Procedure (now the Management Guidance Procedure) was applied with the visit by an international expert mission visited the country in April–May 1995, producing a comprehensive report in February 1996. The Government is now applying itself to taking forward the recommendations that were made. In October 1996 T & T was awarded a grant from the Ramsar Small Grants Fund for applying these recommendations to a management plan for Nariva Swamp.
  • T&T attended several Conferences of the Contracting Parties to share ideas and experiences, including speaking about regional issues since for some time it was the only Caribbean country to join the Ramsar Convention, and get support for wetland conservation and wise use.
  • T&T represents the Caribbean sub-region as a second 'alternate' member of the Ramsar Standing Committee.
  • Professor Peter Bacon of the University of the West Indies (UWI) serves as an alternate member on the Scientific & Technical Review Panel for the Neotropical region.
  • A Wetland Research Group was set up UWI in 1994 under Professor Peter Bacon and continues to conduct research on the ecology and management issues of wetlands in T&T.
  • A National Wetland Committee was established in January 1995, with representatives of relevant Government Ministries and non-government organisations. This Committee is currently engaged in planning management plans and projects for Nariva and Caroni Swamps and responding to other issues impacting on wetlands in T&T.
  • A draft National Wetland Policy was developed by the National Wetlands Committee to guide the integration of wetland conservation and wise use into T&T national planning. This has been submitted for eventual approval and enactment by Parliament.

Why do countries join the Ramsar Convention?

Countries that join the Ramsar Convention are called Contracting Parties, and they join to:
  • Endorse the principles of conservation and wise use of wetlands, with the development of country policies, legislation, and actions for this.
  • Bring publicity to and increase support for conservation and wise use of local wetlands designated on the List of Wetlands of International Importance.
  • Get access to the latest information and technical expertise on wetland conservation and wise use.
  • Make their voice heard internationally about wetland conservation and wise use and encourage international cooperation for wetland conservation and wise use.
  • Get support for wetland projects, with through the Convention's Small Grants Fund or external funding agencies.

What do countries commit to doing when they join the Ramsar Convention?

Countries make four main commitments when they join the Ramsar Convention:

1. To designate at least one site for the List of Wetlands of International Importance, and to promote its conservation and wise use.

2. To include wetland conservation and wise use principles in national land-use planning.

3. To establish wetland protected areas, and to promote training in the fields of wetland research, management and protection.

4. To cooperate with other countries for wetland conservation and wise use, especially with any wetland systems or species that are shared.

What are some of the upcoming plans under the Ramsar Convention that will affect T&T?

The Summary Work Plan for the Americas Region for 2000 identifies several tasks that will assist T&T in implementing its policy of wise use and conservation of wetlands.
  • Initiatives will be taken to encourage Caribbean states to join Ramsar and increase its acceptance in the region. T&T will continue to play a key leadership role to play in promoting Ramsar in the region.
  • The Caribbean islands wetlands workshop will be held in Trinidad in September 2000 and Ramsar will assist with organization and attend.
  • The Ramsar Wise Use Toolkit and the National Planning Tool/COP8 National Report format may be used for national priority setting and planning.
  • T&T may submit project proposals to be considered for funding wetlands wise use and conservation in 2000.
  • Ramsar is developing a catalogue of training centres and courses in the Americas and this information can be used to promote strengthened local capacity in wetlands wise use and conservation. Ramsar may be able to support participation in training courses. Ramsar is also developing an outline of a model proposal for the development of wetland training centres.
  • Ramsar is developing a module on wetland conservation, sustainable use and implementation of the Ramsar Convention for the Americas which can be used in public awareness and education programmes in T&T. Other materials (publications and videos) are also available. Information on Ramsar’s website will also be expanded. The Ramsar Handbook for the Americas will also be published.
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