Saturday, September 20, 2014

Are beaches really important to A&B?

Tourism and specifically coastal beach tourism is responsible for over 60% of Antigua and Barbuda's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and it often seems that as a nation we are careless or complacent with what the industry relies upon. Wonderful beaches are what has built this economy and are what we as citizens boast about whenever we travel. That being said, our beaches have seen shocking degradation over the past few decades, and it appears to me that they are deteriorating at much more rapid rate than they are being replenished. In fact, that's fairly obvious to anyone who's being paying attention.
As is the case with so many crucially important things in life, "attention" is the thing lacking and unfortunately while beaches are getting smaller and smaller Antigua and Barbuda as a nation isn't taking notice.
I suppose before we can deal with the problem or even before we can identify a problem, we need to understand what a beach is, how it came to be and most importantly, how it is sustained in it's natural environment.
When we speak about beaches, we are speaking about bays, coves or shorelines that have a sandy buffer between the sea and the land. Sand is made up of different materials depending on where in the world you find it. In many areas in North America the sand is made up of silica or silicon dioxide which essentially comes from eroded quartz rock. Here in Antigua and Barbuda and most of the Caribbean the sand has a different makeup. Primarily sand here is made up of eroded or crushed up corals and shells which really are made from calcium carbonate. This is why islands like Barbuda that have more reefs usually have more beaches and islands like Redonda that have no off shore or barrier reefs have no sandy beaches. So if you think about it, there is an essential and direct correlation between a healthy reef system and a healthy beach system. Of course we are speaking about how these things naturally occur. For example, one could build some stone groynes to make a cove over on Redonda and barge in mined sand from Barbuda to fill it with. Presto! You have a nice sandy beach on an island that never had one. That is done around the Caribbean and quite a bit on Long Island (Jumby Bay).
I guess we could spend plenty of time speaking about what healthy reefs look like and to be honest, most people don't remember or have never seen a healthy reef. Reefs in the Caribbean haven't been "healthy" since the late 1980s. Since then scientists have reported unprecedented degradation and die offs. For the purpose of this little article I will quickly and basically explain about how healthy reefs produce sand. A reef is made up of millions and millions of organisms and the main coral structures are made from calcium carbonate. These structures, when alive, are often challenged by different types of algae (a type of moss) that attempt to grow on them. If algae is permitted to grow over the coral stuctures then the life sustaining sunlight is blocked from the coral polyps. Polyps are living organisms which often produce the limestone structures we call corals. They need light to survive and when algae manages to grow over them, they perish. For millions of years polyps have had the upper hand thanks to a symbiotic relationship with herbivore grazers like parrotfish (chub fish), surgeon fish and other marine species including urchins. Those critically important parrotfish feed on the algae keeping the reef alive, but the magic is what happens as a result. When parrotfish chew algae from a section of coral they usually bite of bits of dead coral. Most of the time they ingest it and pass it through their systems as they digest the algae. What comes out is magical "white gold" or sand. Some of the most important poo in the world in fact! That poo as I mentioned contains the sand which is  essentially responsible for about 60% of our GDP. I know that is kinda far fetched for most people who are probably laughing and shaking their heads right now, but do some reading on what parrotfish do. According to scientists, one adult parrotfish can produce 90 kilos of sand a year while keeping the reefs clean from algae. A healthy reef is covered in parrotfish and other algae eating animals which for millions of years not only sustained the reefs but produced millions of tonnes of sand. Take them away from the reef and anyone can deduce what happens next. However, you would have needed to be paying attention to have noticed all these crucially important relationships. We here in Antigua and Barbuda were not paying attention. In fact, the biggest seafood export out of Antigua and Barbuda over the past five years has been parrotfish. It has probably been our biggest export. Thousands of pounds a week of netted parrotfish were brought ashore to be sold both here and shipped abroad to our French neighbors. Pause and think about that for a moment. We rely on healthy beaches which rely on healthy reefs which rely on healthy populations of parrotfish and other herbivore species, but we are wiping the reefs clean of the parrotfish.
I remember being on a radio show with Chief Environmental Officer, Dianne Black Lane a few years ago and she remarking that the most important wild life form we have in our country is the parrotfish and one that needed to be protected more than any other. Sadly, the Environment Division she heads has no more legislative powers than the parrotfish themselves.
Coupled with out of control reef fishing, the reefs have also had to face several incredibly strong hurricanes in the 1990s. Scientists showed that reefs hit by hurricanes within carefully managed marine parks were able to "bounce back" to a point where healthy coral regrowth occurred. Of course, reefs that had poor management and where heavy fishing still took place struggled to stay alive, and in example after example the corals died out completely.
This brings me to another key factor that helps keep beaches healthy. Of course, we've already spoken about how the sand is created and how that process keeps reefs healthy, but by extension, healthy reefs often form an essential barrier or buffer from the Atlantic Ocean's waves and surges. We have seen areas of reef that boats couldn't navigate through because of depth issues become so degraded that they are now safely navigable. Kettle Bottom Shoal on Antigua's north coast is a great example of that. With the reef now deeper than it was back in the 80s we are seeing more surge and more wave action getting to beaches like Dutchmans Bay and Jabbawock. Climate Change effects like rising sea levels are not helping either! With more wave action there is often more erosion on beaches. Unfortunately these beaches are not being sustained with new fresh sand like they have been historically because of the depletion of parrotfish and other herbivore fish.
That isn't the end of the story because as if beaches didn't have enough to worry about, they have their biggest assault on the land side. Beach sand has been used when making concrete for generations and with more and more homes being built from concrete and fewer from wood, it appears to me that there is more and more removal of sand from beaches. There are few beaches in Antigua that are safe from sand mining and those that have easy access from the road are more susceptible to the problem. There is a common misconception that it is perfectly legal to remove a bucket or two from the beach. I am not sure how this terribly damaging concept came about, but many popular beaches have buckets of sand removed daily from them. I started a mobile kitesurfing school on Jabbawock beach in 2001 and we have seen this first hand since then. Thousands and thousands of bucket loads are taken from this beach and the same happens around the island. Often times there is more taken than a bucket or two at a time removed. If you take a slow walk along Jabbawock Beach you will see the trenches and holes where sand is scraped up into containers almost daily. It is beyond me how people think this wont have a negative affect on the beach.... our most important asset.
Yesterday I received calls about a misguided citizen who decided that he would do what he described as a community service down at Jabbawock beach. The beach has been receiving plenty of Atlantic sargasso seaweed recently and as an excavator owner he took it upon himself to ignore the massive sign about nesting sea turtles, about not driving on the beach or removing sand. He had two of his massive excavators go on to the beach and clear the live shoreline vegetation up to twenty meters from the high water mark up and down a 300 meter secton of beach. The scaevola, green button mangrove, sea grape, grasses and other vegetation not only provide crucial nesting cover for critically endangered sea turtles and other coastal marine species including migratory birds, but they also help prevent erosion by holding sand together in their root systems and foliage. In many countries it is illegal to touch coastal vegetation with stiff fines for even walking on sand dune vegetation. Yesterday all of this was destroyed and leveled on the South end of Jabbawock. The excavators operated under the cover of darkness and clumsily cleared small trees and habitat up and down the beach. They stopped in the morning. Several concerned citizens including myself contacted the various authorities in an attempt to make sure the excavators were moved from the beach and that work would be stopped. I was interviewed by Observer Radio about the situation before lunch explaining what was going down and further explaining that the 1980s environmental legislation isn't strong enough to deal with situations like this. The Environmental Management Bill, drafted by government technicians after help from international consultants and consultations with stakeholders, has been finished and has been sitting on various ministers desks for years and years. The government's inaction to get this bill signed into law is indirectly causing huge environmental damage daily on this little twin island state. One can only ponder why they have not gotten in passed into law. Anyway, despite this interview and all the calls to the relevant authorities, the man doing the excavation work called into a local radio talk show to explain himself. According to him he was "cleaning the seaweed" from the shore where he and many other swim. At 2 pm he continued to say he was returning to the beach to do more work. By the time we got back to the beach, he was at it again tearing up wonderfully healthy beach vegetation and leveling the beach by removing the dunes.
How could all of the various government agencies including the police know of the situation and not do anything to stop further destruction. It really showed just how flawed our system is and how little we actually care for the health of our beaches. We here in Antigua and Barbuda seem to have our heads in the sand figuratively while literally the sand vanishes daily. Apart from paying more attention to our most important natural resource, we need the Environmental Managment Bill signed into law immediately before it's just too late.

Eli Fuller
President of Antigua Conservation Society
Managing director of Adenture Antigua