Article from the Today newspaper St-Maarten.
St. Maarten / By Jason Lista – “St. Maarten is becoming a land of invasive species,” Tadzio Bervoets of the Nature Foundation told this newspaper, as the foundation’s boat bobbed and dipped in the lagoon. Bervoets took some time for a brief tour where he showed a sample of an invasive sea grass species native to the Mediterranean, and first spotted in 2011, that is now rapidly spreading across the lagoon bed, pushing out the native species of sea grass.
“It probably came over from the Med on a mega yacht,” Bervoets speculated as he surveyed the docks of the large marinas that now stick out like concrete bones during the low season. It is probably the most likely scenario, since the species grows in the Mediterranean where most mega yachts spend the winter months before returning to the Caribbean. It is the dark side to the immense economic benefits the marine sector has brought to St. Maarten. The phenomenon of invasive species has only accelerated with globalization as trade and travel have intensified across the world. And St. Maarten is no exception.
The danger is that this invasive grass is quickly pushing out the native sea grass which the sea turtles eat, Bervoets explained. “How far it proliferated is incredible,” he said of its viral like infestation within the last 2 years. And there is very little anyone can do to stop the spread, he lamented. He said that in the Mediterranean one of the factors that helps moderate its growth is the winter months, which cool the sea’s temperature. But here, the year round warm temperatures are ideal for rapid, prolific growth. The long term consequences for the sea turtle species that nest here may be disastrous. “The turtles don’t eat it because they can’t recognize it.”
But the invasion doesn’t stop there. There are many new species that are carving up territory on the island, in the sea and on land and even the air, with perhaps the most notorious being the pesky lionfish. They are causing a lot of problems on the deep sea reefs. Fisherman who fish far out often come back with nothing but lionfish in their traps, severely impacting their livelihoods, Bervoets mentioned.
The problem with introducing a new plant or animal is that the native species usually have not adapted to them and generally have no response or defense. “Our native species didn’t evolve to defend against them,” Bervoets pointed out. St. Maarten’s native snails, for example, have been virtually wiped out by the gigantic African snails that preyed on them, literally devouring the island’s hapless snails which had no way to fight back. The foreign snails are now everywhere on the island. “They probably came here through freight and trade,” he said, “most likely through vegetables.”
European carrier pigeons are relatively new to the island too. We never had them before. “The feces from pigeons can cause respiratory problems,” Bervoets said, and they can damage roof tops when they congregate in large numbers. During the 80s on St. Maarten some were let loose as part of a carnival float without the thought of what would happen after.
St. Maarten is now also home to whole tribes of wild Vervet monkeys, commonly known as “St. Kitts monkeys,” roaming the hills, and who are wrecking havoc and mischief on the island. “If we come across one with rabies we have a big problem on our hands,” Bervoets said. They are likely the descendents of pets that have either escaped or were let loose, like many other invasive species on the island. Bervoets recalled a bizarre incident where a woman had surveillance video of a monkey that would routinely break into her window and steal personal items, including jewelry. Another group in Pointe Blanche slaughtered someone’s pet cats. That same group raids the prison gardens, where the inmates plant crops and fruits.
“Monkeys are smart and dangerous. Males have large canines,” Bervoets warned. “We trap them and carry them to the zoo.” But he said that they only have so many traps and because monkeys are clever animals they can figure things out and avoid being caught. They are difficult to control once they become wild. “But we don’t want to hurt them,” Bervoets added. Chemical castration is one non-violent approach. The animals would be given food that contains chemicals that disrupt their reproductive cycles.
There is no official animal control center on the island, so most people instinctively call the Nature Foundation when they have trouble. “People turn to the Nature Foundation for some reason, for animal control.” He has had several run ins with Boas and even a 13 foot Python, most likely someone’s pet that grew too big and was let loose.
There are even reports of “an alligator in the Great Salt Pond,” he chuckled. “People have been calling us.” The calls come in especially when many fish die in the pond. People have said they’ve seen it eating the rotting fish.
But all is not lost. Efforts are being made to contain or control some of these species. Lionfish, for example, are caught by the basket loads from local fisherman near to shore. “On the shallower reefs, nearer to shore, it’s not as bad,” Bervoets said. “It’s going good near shore.”
The fisheries and agricultural department has also improved with better controls on imports. And Bervoets said he will be seeking aid and funding from the EU to help. It was cumbersome before, when St. Maarten was part of the Netherlands Antilles, there was “some significant red tape.”
Still, the lagoon will likely be overrun soon by a foreign sea grass species, Lionfish are destroying many reef ecosystems far off shore – they have devastated the lobster industry in the Bahamas – and a host of other plants and animals have run riot on the island with consequences that are still to be seen and felt. “It is almost always a negative relationship,” Bervoets reflected.