CENTURIES ago Jamaica's coast was ringed by mangroves, but with the development of major towns such as Kingston, Portmore, Ocho Rios, Negril, Montego Bay and Port Antonio, the coverage of this wetland forest has declined significantly. Though the development of major towns and the continual expansion of activities on the coast threaten the removal of more mangrove cover, there are genuine moves afoot to restore some for the ecological and economic benefits they offer. In short, mangroves which were seen as a nuisance are now considered crucial to sustainable development.
In 2013 Jamaica had 9,800 hectares of mangroves, mostly on the south coast. According to the 2019 World Bank report, Forces of Nature: Coastal Resilience Benefits of Mangroves in Jamaica, more than 770 hectares of mangroves have been lost in Jamaica over the two decades from 1996 to 2016. Other data show that over the last 15 years, 2123 hectares of mangroves and swamps have been lost. The belief is that at least 70 per cent of the recent losses can be restored, but it won't be easy.
"We have had degradation of our mangrove forests, especially along the southern coast, over the last 50 years and we have a lot of work to do to ensure that our low-lying areas are protected, both against climatic events and indeed from climate change," Matthew Samuda said in an interview that was provided to the Jamaica Observer. Minister Samuda is the minster without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation who has, among his many responsibilities, specific oversight for the environment portfolio.
"The issue of mangrove restoration is critical to Jamaica's coastal safety. Seventy per cent of our population lives within 5km of the sea, much of it is protected by mangrove forests," Samuda continued.
Currently mangroves in Jamaica are threatened by extraction for timber, small-scale farming and fishing uses; coastal squeeze from developments; human sources of pollution; changes in land use leading to clearing and land degradation; and climate change. But as pointed out in the World Bank report, mangrove coastlines offer a first line of defence, acting as natural barriers, mitigating flooding by reducing wave energy and slowing down storm surges, and providing stabilisation of soils and mudflats. They also provide numerous other co-benefits such as fisheries maintenance, carbon sequestration, ecotourism and water purification.
"It is important to be able to quantify the economic benefits of mangroves, to better value and conserve these ecosystems, and mitigate the impacts of climate events," according to the report. But what are those economic benefits?
The Jamaican context
The 2019 World Bank study outlines that 82 per cent of Jamaica's wetlands, which are mostly mangroves, "can be found in southern parishes, with the highest distribution in the parish of St. Elizabeth".
"These forests are typified by a low diversity of species, with the black mangrove species dominating. An area of approximately 7,000 hectares located in the Black River Lower Morass represents the largest mangrove -ominated freshwater ecosystem in Jamaica and the Caribbean. Another area of large wetlands in Jamaica is the Negril Great Morass which covers an area of 2,289 hectares (5,657 acres), and accounts for approximately one fifth of all wetland areas in Jamaica. Other smaller pockets exist, mainly across the south coast. All face degradation, even those that are protected by law.
"Mangroves have so many functions. They protect us from storm and provide habitat for fish and other seafoods; it's crazy that we are actually not trying our very best to ensure that they are safe," Ainsley Henry, chief executive officer (CEO) and conservator of forests at the Forestry Department said in an interview that was provided to Sunday Finance for this Eco-Buzz article.
The good news is that restoration is happening, even though, as Samuda points out, it is difficult. While there are several threats to mangroves in Jamaica, the biggest threat is climate change (change in temperatures, rainfall events), solid waste and pollution which can result in destruction of habitat and the animals that call the mangroves home. But as Henry was quick to note, a survey of all mangroves has been done "and we are currently in the process of finalising a national mangroves management plan. This plan will be a road map to guide us on the next steps to ensure we have mangroves into the future."
Henry and Samuda were speaking after participating in a recent mangrove restoration and clean-up project along the Palisadoes in Kingston, a project sponsored by the European Union.
Chauntelle Green, outreach officer at The University of the West Indies' Port Royal Marine Laboratory Biodiversisty Centre in Kingston, shared similar sentiments, echoing the need for more persons to get involved in restoration activities.
"One of the main reasons for doing restoration projects like these is to add back to mangrove ecosystems because they provide a multitude of goods and services. In many places we have lost mangroves to several threats so by having people come out and participate, it makes the work easier. It also helps with environmental education and raising public awareness about the importance of mangroves to not only our environment, but also to the local economy," Green shared.
EU Ambassador to Jamaica Marianne Van Steen says the best way to address this issue is by getting the public involved in conservation and restoration activities.
"We can fight climate change with as many projects and programmes with the Government and NGOs as we want, but what we really need is the involvement of the public. Every single one of us needs to start changing how we live and our relationship with nature — because if we continue to abuse the environment there will be nothing left for future generations. So, each and every one of us must take responsibility by reusing, reducing and recycling. And although these are small actions, they make a big difference," she stated.
The impact of mangrove protection and restoration
In addition to providing protection from flooding, storm surge and hurricanes, these unique forests provide other invaluable functions. Mangroves reduce the amount of pollution which flows out to sea, thus reducing the negative impacts on coral reefs. They also serve as a breeding ground and habitat for several species of marine life. Mangroves also have a very large potential for natural products with medicinal purposes, salt production, apiculture, fuel, and fodder. Additionally, mangroves play a role in the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, by storing this in their roots and branches.
According to the World Bank report, the economic and social costs of mangrove protection are numerous. The report even quantified the benefits and costs of protecting the coastal wetlands to help guide the restoration plans.
For example, it points out that at present, coastal flooding from storms in Jamaica is estimated to result in US$136.4 million in damages every year, in the presence of mangroves. It estimates that if these mangroves were lost the expected damage from flooding would increase to US$169 million annually, and concluded that mangrove forests in Jamaica provide over US$32.6 million in annual flood-reduction benefits to built capital. That's approximately US$2,500 per hectare per year in benefits for protecting mangroves. This represents a nearly 24 per cent annual reduction in flood risk. The loss of Jamaica's mangroves would further result in a 10 per cent increase in the total number of people afftected by flooding every year, many of whom live in poverty, according to the report. This means that the protection offered by mangroves (US$32.6 million per year for all Jamaica) translates into protection of US$16.6 million for residential stock (50 per cent of total stock protected), US$4.5 million for industrial facilities (14 per cent) and US$11.4 million protection for services stock (35 per cent of total stock), according to the report.
Using global averages, 3.7 million tons of carbon are sequestered annually by Jamaica's mangroves. Mangroves contribute between US$5,218 (at Salt Marsh) and US$54,145 (at Portland Cottage) in mixed fisheries per hectare per year. Other currently untapped benefits include the potential for high-end recreational fishing, low impact mariculture, and ecotourism. There are also potential economic benefits from the development of a locally based, high-end, recreational fishery focused on catch and release based on species associated with mangroves.
When it comes to carbon sequestration, mangroves are effective as well. The World Bank report, using global estimates, concluded that the value of annual sequestration for Jamaica is US$179.9 million, with net present values (NPV) calculated for a 100-year time span showing estimated values for keeping carbon sequestered at US$17.8 billion. When simulations were done with the devastation that comes from a 1-in-500-year storm, mangroves in Jamaica were expected to protect 177,000 people, and nearly US$2.4 billion or 50 per cent of the total affected population and built capital. This translates to economic benefits of more than US$186 million per hectare of mangroves.
Given the benefits, Samuda made this call.
"Jamaica has a three-million tree-planting initiative that was announced by the prime minister about a year and a half ago.We are halfway to achieving that goal but we also have a national mangrove restoration programme, and today's activity is part of that initiative." He added, "There are many agencies that are a part of this, including the Forestry Department, NEPA [National Environment and Planning Agency], and our international partners like the EU. So it's an all-hands-on-deck approach because we have a lot of work to do, having lost a lot of our mangrove forests on the south coast."