Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Grenadine archipelago: Bequia and Mustique a study of contrasts

Alaria sailing to Bequia
Rain squalls over St. Vincent
With a brisk wind across our beam, Alaria sailed due south past the verdant mountainous island of St. Vincent to the small island of Bequia over 50 miles south of St. Lucia.  We had all of our sails up so we travelled much faster than we could with the engine.  There is something extremely satisfying sailing to your next study area powered entirely by the Trade Winds!

Alaria under full sail arriving at Bequia
Islands of Bequia and Mustique showing our survey sites
Port Elizabeth is Bequia’s major port and it is where we cleared customs to enter the country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines (actually only the northern Grenadines since the southern Grenadines are the country of Grenada).  Port Elizabeth’s Admiralty Bay has both anchorages and moorings.  We decided to anchor to keep costs down but it was a lovely spot where we watched the sun set into the sea each night.

It is obvious after just walking around for a Bequia for a little while that it is a very friendly place.  When I first went ashore to clear customs, I asked a fellow where the customs house was and he insisted on walking me to the building.  The small town of Port Elizabeth has a ‘light’ feel to it.  It is not crowded, there are enough tourists to keep shops and eateries going.  The open air market is well stocked with nice local produce.

Bequia's Port Elizabeth
In Bequia, we arranged to see Mr. Herman Belmar who is Deputy Director of Grenadines Affairs.  He was eager to have us survey the reefs in the region and especially the Tobago Cays Marine Park.  We went over the charts considering where we could work and where we can anchor.  It was clear he knew the waters around Bequia like the back of his hand.  He knew where reefs were best developed and where fishing pressure will likely be highest.  He also called over to the island of Mustique to arrange for us to work there after a bit.

Mr. Herman Balmar pointing out keep coral reefs in the Grenadines
The Grenadines are really different from anything we’ve experienced so far.  It is an archipelago of small to tiny islands that stretch about 50 miles from St. Vincent to Grenada.  Bequia is one of the larger islands but it is only a bit over 5 miles long. 

The people of Bequia have a tradition of building boats, fishing and whaling.  They have a permit from the International Whaling Commission to take up to four whales a year but often they don’t get one.  They use traditional methods.  They sail to the whale, harpoon it with a hand-thrown harpoon and then float it to a small whaling station on a tiny island off the east coast of Bequia for processing.

Bequia's whaling station
Fishing is important in Bequia.  We saw lots of folks fishing both the inshore reefs and going offshore to catch some of the larger pelagic fish such as wahoo, mahi mahi, Spanish mackerel and small tuna.  Those are the fish I saw landed at the dock.  Pelagic fish are the best choice of fish to eat because they can be fished sustainably.  Unlike reef fish these pelagic fish grow rapidly, they reproduce early and often, and they are abundant. 

Bequia's colorful fleet of fishing boats
Nice catch of fish being filleted. 
Only some fishermen can venture offshore for the larger pelagic fish.  Many people fish with spears, traps and nets the inshore reefs.  Gillnets are particularly destructive because they drape over reefs for considerable distances.  Fish try to swim through the net but their gills get caught. Chancey happened upon one such gillnet as he did his fish surveys.  He photographed lots of large parrotfish caught and dead in the nets.  These nets fish for as long as they are deployed.  If they are left too long the caught fish will rot and not be suitable to sell or eat.   Because there is not much of a market for parrotfish in Bequia,  many (or most) are discarded dead.  The site where the gillnet below was deployed had lower than average parrotfish abundance on the reef according to our fish surveys.

Gillnet strung across a coral reef (photo Chancey Macdonald)
Dead parrotfish caught in the gillnet (photo Chancey Macdonald)
Bequia’s coral reefs are modest in extent (to be generous).  Chancey and I dived on two widely separated of reefs on opposite shores of Admiralty Bay (Port Elizabeth) and then we took Alaria around to Friendship on the eastern side of the island.  There the Trade Winds blow incessantly. We anchored in a corner of Friendship cove but had to set the stern anchor to minimize our roll from a constant swell.

Alaria at anchor in Friendship Bay. 
Because we were on Bequia’s exposed coast, wave action was high on the reef we wanted to study.  So we had to take particular care on how we anchored the inflatable boat, just out of the breaking waves, and we checked the anchor at the start and end of our dive.

This was a high-energy reef so conditions were ideal for seaweed growth.  Normally we wouldn’t see much seaweed because parrotfish and other grazers would keep it mowed down.  However, this is a heavily fished reef according Mr. Balmar and grazing fish densities were low and seaweed was luxuriant.

Fishermen of Friendship Bay
Seaweed dominated reef at Friendship Bay
Overall, Bequia’s reefs were about average for the region.  Areas like Friendship that are heavily fished and where conditions for seaweed growth is good, there is a carpet of seaweed that limits baby corals so the reef is likely to remain degraded for some time.

We had learned from Mr. Balmar, that the reefs around the neighboring island of Mustique are protected from fishing and they are patrolled regularly by Mustique’s security force.  We knew we had to sail over to see if reefs were in fact different there.

Alaria viewed from the groomed shoreline of  Mustique Harbor 
Mustique is unlike any island I’ve visited.  It is a private island owned and operated by the Mustique Company.  It has a board of directors (including folks like Mick Jagger, who is also part of the environmental committee); it is where Britain’s royal family goes when they want a break from the winter chill.  The week before we arrived the Duchess of Cornwall (Kate Middleton) and her baby had been on the island for the baby’s first overseas trip.  The head of security told me in jest that “no photos were taken of them, so I get to keep my job”.

The tiny island of Mustique (only 2.5 miles long) has by far the highest per capita income of any island in the region.  Its economy comprises one quarter of the gross domestic product of the country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines!  When a powerful Christmas Eve rainstorm flooded St. Vincent (as it did in St. Lucia while I was there), Mustique donated a million dollars for the big island’s restoration.

We met with Mr. Simon Humphrey who holds several important positions within the Company but importantly he is the island’s Conservation Officer.  He has a broad view of what is happening on land and in the sea.  He worries about how the island runoff may affect the reefs.  The island has banned pesticides and landscaping looks to minimize erosion. The reefs are all currently protected from fishing.  He also wants to see the protection of the island’s coastal zone extended one kilometer offshore (he knows that will be hard but he’d love to see that happen).

Mr. Simon Humphrey explains the conservation challenges of Mustique
Mr. Humphrey arranged for us to dive from the island’s security force boat while Brian, the dive manager, was busy.  Afterwards, we dived with Brian and the dive team.  On our first dive we saw the value of Mustique’s protected area.  Parrotfish and grouper abundance (biomass) were an order of magnitude higher than the average for Bequia and the entire eastern Caribbean. 

A school of striped parrotfish swim over Mustique's coral reef

Pillar coral and fish along my transect line on a Mustique coral reef. 
We spent the week diving other sites and none quite matched up to our first dive but the average for Mustique.  However, coral cover, juvenile coral abundance, parrotfish and carnivorous fish abundance were all well above average for the region and for the eastern Caribbean.  We intend to return to Mustique to follow up a bit on what might be driving coral reefs around this island.  However, the bigger picture that is emerging is that the socio-economic status of the local area creates the need to fish the coral reefs.  Arguably, Mustique can afford to be conservative but Bequia may not.

The value of coral reefs, as with any commodity, is what the market can bear.  There are some dive operations in Bequia but there are many more fishers so the incentive to conserve the coral reefs is low.  However, truly unique and expansive coral reefs exist around Tobago Cays and there they have the Tobago Cays Marine Park, a fully protected ecotourist magnet.  There we can study reefs where the overwhelming value comes from having healthy and abundant reef fish as opposed to those sold in fish markets.

Chancey looking from Bequia to neighboring islands of the Grenadines

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

St. Lucia: stunning island, surprising coral reefs but challenges everywhere

Petite Piton and fishing boats viewed from Soufriere Harbor
To say the island of St. Lucia is stunning is an understatement.  Its volcanic mountains thrust up into the moist tropical clouds of the Caribbean bringing frequent rains keeping everything verdant.

The rain forest at the Millett Nature Reserve.

However, this small (about 20 mile long) island has only a few economic opportunities.  Tourists are the ‘top banana’ but real bananas are second.  However, they don’t make enough money to support the island population so poverty and begging (on land and in the sea) is common.

Coastal village with fishing boats and a life connected to the sea.

With this is the background lets consider the status and conservation of St. Lucia’s coral reefs.  St. Lucia is well known in among the scientific and conservation community for having developed ocean use zoning well before many countries or islands had considered it.  Their reefs are small because the slopes from the mountains are so great so fishing pressure is concentrated over a relatively small area.   That’s a prescription for rapid depletion of reef fish.  So St. Lucia set up areas where fishing was prohibited and other areas they call “Fishing Priority” areas.  The idea is that if fish stocks build up in abundance and size in the no-take reserves, they will spill over into the Fishing Priority areas.

St. Lucia's progressive marine zoning map for multiple uses.
It appears this worked for a period of time.  However, meeting with the Jeannine Compton the managers of the Soufriere Marine Management Area (SMMA) she tells me that in recent years “compliance is a problem”.  The SMMA region has Rangers who patrol the region daily but areas that are out of sight or everywhere at night has little or no patrolling.

Ms. Jeannine Compton the Director of the Soufriere Marine Management Area (SMMA).

Jeannine arranged for Chancey Macdonald and I to survey all of the important reefs of St. Lucia’s SMMA and CAMMA (Canaries Marine Management Area).  For this, SMMA Rangers would pick us up each day from Alaria for dives at two reef sites.  We did this all week and got a good feeling for the status of St. Lucia’s reefs.

SMMA Rangers Mario Justin (left) and Francois Kerjackie (right).  Great company and wonderful Rangers!

First of all, this is a high island so much of the substrates on which coral could live are boulders that rolled off the island.  They had coral growing on them – and some sites had considerable coral.   What is so odd is how little of the coral accumulated.  I have to assume that as soon as a coral dies in this environment, it gets bioeroded to sediment that is washed away.  That’s very different from most of the Caribbean reefs I’ve studied (e.g. in Belize, Mexico, Jamaica and St. Croix) where as coral dies they leave their skeleton and the reef as a geological structure persists.  Not so with few exceptions in St. Lucia.

Boulder reefs of St. Lucia (but not all reefs are like this)
Stoplight parrotfish grazes a boulder reef.  Strings are from a worm that eats particles that fall on the reef.
The other difference we found in St. Lucia’s reefs is the abundance of the black spined sea urchin named Diadema.  This sea urchin was, until 1984, one of if not THE dominant grazer on Caribbean coral reefs.  In the early 1980s this sea urchin reached population densities averaging over 15 per square meter.  It was a virtual carpet of poison-filled spines that were literally and figuratively a pain in the ass.  Well over 90% of Diadema died throughout the Caribbean and their recovery has been slow or non-existent.  However, at a few sites on St. Lucia’s reefs, Diadema population densities were enough for them to be the dominant grazer.  Where that happens, the seafloor turns pink from the calcifying red algae (called crustose coralline algae or CCA for short).  The reef takes on an entirely new look.  Light reflects off the reef, the water is clear and baby corals do very well.

Two Diadema urchins grazing with pink coralline algae and a few corals (along my transect line)
We do wonder why Diadema has come back to only a few places in the Caribbean.  After a long period where no Diadema were easy to find on reefs, they started to come back… but only to a point.  The pattern often is, they do well in some back-reef environments and they do well at 3 – 5 meters water depth (10 – 15 feet) but not usually at the 10 m (30 foot) depth where we work. 

However, we did find sites in St. Lucia where Diadema thrived at 10 m and we have to wonder why here but not in lots of other places (recall we found NO Diadema in Barbuda). 
Baby (small) corals in a well urchin grazed portion of the coral reef
One possibility is that the key Diadema predators such as queen trigger fish and some of the larger grunts (e.g. bluestriped grunts) and Spanish hogfish are rare or absent at the key Diadema sites.  Our data suggests this may be the case.  Some of the sites with relatively few Diadema predators had the highest abundance of the sea urchin.  While sites with lots of Diadema predators had relatively few sea urchins.  The data are messy and this is far from resolved but it may be that the heavily fished predators allow Diadema to thrive and when that happens the reef appears healthy.  Perhaps in an ideal world, it would be better to have the big carnivorous and big herbivorous fish of yesteryear, but alas, we are not living in a perfect world so the Diadema patch we studied was one of the nicest reefs we’ve seen in the eastern Caribbean!

Sponges, clear water and Diadema ... just a pretty reef!
Some staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) a rare but not absent coral in St. Lucia.

Peacock flounder (just pretty)

Very pretty small anemone that lives in a sponge.  It is called Parazoanthus
Fishing is the only option for lots of the folk.  What surprised me was they target ballyhoo and flying fish (by netting them) for food.  Ballyhoo is most commonly used for bait elsewhere but there just aren't many big fish left so this is what they eat.

Fisherman prepares the ballhoo he caught as Chauncey looks on.
Ballyhoo and other fish seasoned for tomorrow meal.
There are also ideas of trying to deploy fish aggregation devices in order to get pelagic fish to stick around.  No one was talking about them so I'm not sure they succeeded.

Fish aggregation device "guarantees bigger and better catch" but I didn't hear anyone talking about them.
Jeannine warned us that poaching within the no-take reserves has been increasing in recent years.   This doesn’t surprise us because getting one large lobster to market would be worth more than a day of begging for money.  While it is arguable that maintaining the marine reserves will sustain a healthier reef ecosystem, when you have no financial resources, liquidating the natural resources to which you have access becomes rational.  Note, that does not mean it is sustainable, just that it is a rational option given the lack of alternatives.

When the Rangers took us to our last site, which is around the back of Gros Peton (the biggest of the two famous pitons), we came across three local guys swimming.  The rangers asked them what they were doing but they had no evidence of having any fish.  Given that we were not within site of any houses, it is unlikely these guys were just out for a swim.  Nevertheless, Chancey and I had to do our surveys so we suited up and jumped in the water.  As we got to work, I noticed a fish trap not far away.  These are clearly illegal and there was a string of them.  Jeannine thinks they are checked and rebaited at night in the dark.

Illegal fish trap in the Gros Peton no-take zone.
Parrotfish (with spots) and other fish in the trap.

I’ve seen plenty of fish traps over the decades but I can’t think of many (any?) with as many fish or the diversity we saw in this trap.  I saw in this one trap, Spanish grunt, French grunts, white grunts, blue tang, ocean surgeon, surgeonfish, stoplight parrotfish, spotted drum, Caribbean king crab (Mithrax) and Caribbean lobster (Panulirus argus).  Obviously the fishing was very good in this no-take reserve.  We reported this to the Rangers and they asked that we open the trap and let the fish go (which we did).  It is unlikely the fellows swimming had anything to do with the traps (they require a boat to service) but everyone agreed that they were undoubtedly fishing but dropped their catch and their spear guns when they saw the Rangers.

The income inequality is striking and we of course were part of that.  Next to fishing villages with no opportunity for work or income are expensive cruising yachts.  St. Lucia is a destination for a range of cruising ships.  Sadly, only a tiny fraction of the wealth from a cruise ship of 3000 passengers is passed to the island community of St. Lucia.

Sailboats and big cruise ships frequent Soufriere Bay, St. Lucia.

As it happens paying for moorings is one of the best sources of income for coastal villages.  But the villagers know it is their job to try to extract as much money as possible from transient sailors.  You cannot tie up your dingy at the town dock without a boy waving at you as you approach to point out the obvious spot where you should tie up.  Then they offer their services to watch your dinghy.  This is worth the few dollars we spent for this because an inflatable dingy is vulnerable (although we had the smallest and dingiest dingy in the harbor).

After being in St. Lucia for nearly two months I could now see and feel the “edge” that divided the haves from the have-nots.  Children would paddle to the boat on a broken found surfboard asking for food or money to take our garbage.  We’d love to support them all but it would be hopeless.  There was also an aggressiveness we encountered from time to time.  People would not take “no” for an answer.  On the occasions when we gave something to one person we’d find a rapid increase in beggars wanting more from us. It is hard to say no to those in need but our giving would not change this situation. 

So it was with mixed emotions that we departed St. Lucia at 5 am under a starry canopy.  As we sailed out, we gazed at the shadows of the conical hulks of the pitons for the last time.  Just above them we saw the famous Southern Cross constellation marking our way south to Bequia (St. Vincent) where we hoped to find healthier reefs and happier communities.

The setting sun from St. Lucia.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Sailing to the Windward Antilles and a holiday hiatus

Alaria in English Harbor clearing customs out of Antigua
We finished all of our priority sites of the “Leeward Antilles” (the northeast corner of the eastern Caribbean) on schedule.  So the next step was to sail 200 miles from Antigua to St. Lucia where we would take a holiday break.

Between Antigua and St. Lucia lie three islands.  Guadaloupe (French) Dominica (Independent country but part of the British Commonwealth) and Martinique (French).  If we wanted to sail to any of these islands for a day, we’d be required to clear customs.  So, the easiest way to do the run to St. Lucia is to go straight. 

To sail straight to St. Lucia takes about two days so I wanted a crew of four.  So, to get new crew, we posted a notice in a few places around Falmouth Harbor Antigua.

Notice board where we advertised for crew to help deliver Alaria to St. Lucia
Our call for crew (composed by Paul Calder)
We had several “applicants” for the delivery to St. Lucia.  Most were down and out and liked the idea of free room and board with a flight home to Antigua.  Some had some time off with little to do so … why not? 

We settled on two folks who seemed to have the right mix.  One fellow started his resume with the sentence: “Sailing is in my DNA”.  I wasn’t sure what that would look like in a human but it did appeal to me.  A young woman wants to be a skipper (rare for women) and she wanted the hours and experience.  We had our crew!

Alaria under full sail (Photo George Stoyle)

We fueled up and headed out of English Harbor about 3 pm with a stiff breeze.  We sailed quickly (reaching over 7 knots) to Guadaloupe.  The wind was on the beam and the seas were lumpy so it was nice sailing in the lee of Guadaloupe that evening.  However, I noticed one delivery-crew member (Mr. DNA we’ll call him) wasn’t looking so great.  When he went to the rail, I knew he wasn’t feeling that great.  Nevertheless, each time his watch came up, he was at the helm and did a terrific job.  Then he’d go below and lose some more of his lunch.  Clearly sailing was in his DNA but I don’t think anything was in his stomach the entire two days of the passage.
Our cruise path to date. South of Dominica is the beginning of the Windward Antilles
We arrived to Marigot Bay, St. Lucia at 5:30 am.  All the cruising guides said, don’t enter a harbor you don’t know in the dark so we sailed back and forth waiting for sunlight. 

Marigot Bay seen from the highest hill (photo George Stoyle)
Marigot Bay with Alaria the left-most sailboat in the photo.

James Mitchner once said that Marigot Bay is the most beautiful bay in the Caribbean.  I don’t know if that’s correct but it is beautiful!  It is narrow with a palm tree lined peninsula blocking your view to the end.  The high lush sides of the bay are a great backdrop and a good place for us to stay a while.

Alaria on the mooring in Marigot Bay.

We had reserved a slip at the marina but when we saw the crowded line of sailboats all stern to the dock (called a yacht ghetto), we opted to stay on the mooring.

The "yacht ghetto" at the Marina in Marigot Bay
We arrived mid December and soon George left to go home and Jo arrived to spend Christmas and New Years with me.  Christmas 2013 will be forever be remembered by St. Lucians for the massive rainstorm that hit unexpectedly.  No one was sure how much rain fell but roads, bridges and banana plantations were wiped out.  Sadly, six people died from the floods on this tiny 20 mile-long island.

The island lost its water pipes so the marina had to shut down their toilet and shower facilities.  Alaria, however, did fine since we were able to fill our water tanks from the rain so we could shower on board in comfort.  We celebrated Christmas aboard Alaria.
Christmas Eve on Alaria (note the festive clothes pins!)

Despite the floods (boy, you wouldn’t believe the muddy runoff), when it was over-- Jo and I were able to tour the island and see the beautiful island.  There are several wonderful botanical gardens, waterfalls, a volcano park and hikes with splendid views.

Gros Peton (left) and Petite Piton (right).
An amazing tropical rain forest.
Waterfall with unusual colors thanks to the active volcano in the region.
New Years Eve culminated at midnight with terrific fireworks from two competing hotels.  Jo and I went to the best restaurant and had a seven course meal starting with lionfish ceviche (lionfish is a non-native fish from the Pacific that eats baby reef fish so I encourage anyone who wants to spear fish, spear only lionfish!).

After the new year, George and his wife returned and Jo and I flew back to Maine for this, my only scheduled hiatus from the Caribbean odyssey.

My amuse bouche in Maine (view from our living room)