Everything is connected! - Scientists warn of garbage's lasting impact
Far beyond its most obvious uses as a nesting ground for numerous birds and nursery for many species of fish, Refuge Cay also provides a multiplicity of other important services to which the majority of beneficiaries, Jamaicans, are for the most part oblivious.
Mangroves are natural filters which clean the water, in addition to removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and thereby helping to mitigate climate change. But the Port Royal mangroves are being smothered by decades of garbage washed ashore from the mainland, which is killing the trees and if allowed to continue, will result in the eventual death of Refuge Cay.
However, biologists and other marine scientists at the Port Royal Marine Laboratory in and the Centre for Marine Science at the University of the West Indies are getting a strong helping hand from the Kingston Freeport Terminal Limited (KFTL) to clean up the cay, as well as put in places measures to prevent or at least reduce the scale of garbage accumulation.
To this end, the Kingston Harbour fishing communities are set to benefit from two projects being implemented by the University of the West Indies (UWI) Life Sciences Department through the Centre for Marine Sciences and the Port Royal Marine Laboratory. 'Restoration and Cleanup of Refuge Cay Mangroves' is the precursor to the 'Port Royal Cays Coral Reef Rehabilitation,' under a sponsorship agreement signed by Oliver Tretout then chief executive officer of KFTL and Professor Archibald McDonald principal of the UWI, Mona Campus on Friday, July 7, 2017.
Te Restoration and Cleanup of the Refuge Cay mangroves will last for one year and entail the removal of the heavy build-up of solid waste from the Cay, as well as the replanting of mangroves. The Port Royal Cays Coral Reef Rehabilitation project will be implemented over a five year period and feature the design, installation and monitoring of artificial structures on the Port Royal Barrier Reef. Both projects will also financially benefit Kingston Harbour fisher folk as some will be directly engaged in their implementation. Among the expected benefits is the creation of alternative livelihoods for fisher folk, to include ecotourism.
... Public awareness 'cay'
For any plans for ecotourism in the area to be actualised, Refuge Cay must be saved, and for this to happen, an effective sustained public awareness campaign is needed to create the requisite behaviour change to get Jamaicans to properly collect, package and dispose of garbage.
In speaking to the multiplicity of services provided by mangrove systems, marine biologist Professor Mona Webber said: "If we have more mangroves they would actually clean up the harbour faster, helping to provide fish directly and there is protection of the coastline - so there is much more to the value of that area."
She added: "The mangrove area is actually used as a refuge during hurricanes. There is a very deep lagoon behind Refuge Cay called Hurricane Refuge Lagoon and the Coast Guard say they still take boats round there when hurricanes are threatening."
Meanwhile, Chauntelle Green, outreach officer at the Port Royal Marine Laboratory put things in perspective by adding: "Everything is connected and by losing the mangroves you lose the benefits because you are losing the major habitat for animals. You're losing nursery grounds and a lot of persons depend on fish as their major source of protein and so that would have implications on food supplies and protection against hurricanes, as they help to buffer wind and wave energy. So you would be losing that as well."
Green and other members of staff at the Port Royal Marine Laboratory have first-hand knowledge of the tragedies that oftentimes befall the seabirds who become victims of garbage, with plastic being the recurring culprit.
"When they dive into the water they are mistaking the garbage for fish, so they may ingest the garbage. Many times they are entangled in fishing lines and nets and they may make it back to the tree but most days because out there is windy and the lines and nets are so lightweight it wraps around the tree.
"So one end is hooking the bird and then the other end is wrapped around the tree. So by the time they want to leave the tree to go to the water they're stuck. So many times during tours visitors see dead birds hanging in the trees. Sometimes they are alive and we are able to cut them free but most times they are already dead."
Green expressed concern that there is need for urgent and sustained change, not just at Refuge Cay but the surrounding mangroves as well, especially in light of the garbage that continues to litter other sections of mangroves in the area. But if there is no large scale change in behaviour by Jamaicans in terms of proper garbage collection and disposal, the problem will be with us for a very long time, she opined.
"We may live on one side of the harbour (but) even up in the hills has an impact on what happens out at sea because everything is connected. If I throw garbage it can get into the rivers, it can get into the gullies which end up taking it out to sea. Then when we lose the mangroves on that side, not only in Port Royal but low lying communities in other areas, Portland Cottage, Portmore; when you lose those mangroves coastal communities face a greater threat during hurricane time.
"So yes, we may live on one side where we are not littering but the persons in surrounding areas will litter, compromise the environment and then that turns around and affects not just the person who litter but us as well."