Manage shared natural spaces

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37 minutes ago

Remains of old boats facing the lagoon along Pigeon Point. – Anjani Ganase

On small islands like ours, natural spaces are shared with wildlife. Dr. Anjani Ganase discusses some of the human influences we should all be aware of.

Populations are expanding around the world, not only in cities and towns, but also into wilderness areas. Now is the time for us to learn to share urban spaces and to respect all natural spaces, whether they are actively protected or not.

Outdoor activities surged in Trinidad and Tobago as people saw the appeal of dancing, exercising or under the stars against a picturesque backdrop of tropical forests, beaches and lagoons. Large group hikes of over 100 people and outdoor festivals are prevalent. Once, I observed Pigeon Point Beach in the days following a beach bash. Remember, Pigeon Point is located in TT’s only marine reserve, with unique habitat and biodiversity. Walking along the beach, I collected a handful of cable ties, scraps of wire, beer bottle caps and cigarette butts that were buried in the sand even after the organizers dutifully cleaned them up. It’s just material waste; chemical waste washes into lagoons and the sea. The sand that stretches along the beach is compacted by infrastructure, vehicles and foot traffic. Sand compaction makes it difficult for burrowing amphipods (crabs and small creatures), nesting turtles, and other animals to use the sandy interface for digging, foraging, and nesting. While the impacts may not sound severe, they are slowly making the beaches less home to coastal and marine life. Unfortunately, many of these activities are detrimental to the environment we seek to escape. We need to understand how these ecosystems work and how we impact the spaces we share with wildlife.

physical influence

When developing ecotourism products responsibly, it is important to understand the carrying capacity of a space. This refers to the number of tourists and activities that a location can accept without harming the environment and avoiding risks to the tourists themselves. Consider hiking trails along Rincon Falls in the northern mountains. Some of the steeper sections require safety ropes; how much use is the rope before it breaks; how much foot traffic should be allowed before the path hinders forest connectivity? How does this affect the health of the ecosystem itself as the infrastructure is installed to keep us safe? This is a necessary balancing act.

A more severe form of disturbance is a large event that brings too many people into sensitive ecological spaces. Hosting an event such as a banquet or outdoor event often means adapting the space to the event—installing a stage, clearing vegetation, leveling the ground, removing presumed pests, blocking natural paths. All of these actions undermine the health of the habitat and the organisms (large and small) that use the space—whether it’s a beach or a forest, a lake or a lagoon.

Beaches such as Pigeon Point in Tobago are home to many marine life, seabirds and marine tourists. – Anjani Ganase

waste pollution

Waste pollution is inevitable. Even with carefully managed events or activities on waste, there will always be a portion of waste that is released into the environment, for whatever purpose. The more people present in natural spaces, the more waste (chemical, biological, plastic) is in the environment.

light pollution

Artificial light at night illuminates many coastlines, coasts and land areas around the world. Unfortunately, this light transcends the natural cycles of all creatures that use the night to forage, hunt, and migrate. There are two main types of light pollution: astronomical light pollution occurs where city lights (for example) block the starry sky; ecological light pollution alters the natural light in a space, whether terrestrial or aquatic, with effects on natural activity. Light pollution affects wildlife in a number of ways.

Unnatural light can disorient wildlife and has been linked to the death of migratory birds by striking or flying off course due to lighting structures in their flight paths. For nesting turtles and hatchlings, artificial light at night may guide them away from the ocean like moonlight. Exposure of nocturnal creatures such as bats, birds, reptiles and fish to bright light can temporarily blind some people until they can adjust and change their behavior. Some animals are attracted to the light, and fish like tarpon are often hunted on reefs at night by scuba divers’ underwater flashlights. Bats and frogs come to eat insects attracted by street lights. But other animals, including many carnivores like mountain lions, avoid light, which can reduce their foraging abilities. Amphipods that foraged marine litter or algae on beaches at night ate less and had more light pollution.

At sea, zooplankton migrate vertically in the seawater column according to light. At night, they move toward the surface to prey on algae, then move deeper to avoid predation during the day. Since zooplankton are the foundation of marine food webs, obstacles to this food chain can have serious consequences. Artificial light limits visual and audio communication. Fireflies flash to attract males. During the new moon phase (dark night), coyotes bark and howl, signaling territorial territory to rivals.

noise pollution

Noise pollution often occurs along with light pollution and other pollution associated with human activities. Certain moths attracted to mercury vapor lamps are vulnerable to predation because they lose their ability to detect predatory bats due to the buzzing sound of the light. Noise pollution in the ocean can be incredibly disorienting, as sound travels more efficiently through water and can have an impact on the behavior and physiology of marine life. Coral larvae are guided by reef sound to encourage reef replenishment and are therefore influenced by industrial sound. In noisy urban areas, hummingbirds appeared to increase pollination activity; but the animals responsible for seed dispersal avoided noisy areas, resulting in less seedling dispersal.

Where possible, natural spaces should be protected to preserve function and biodiversity. In shared natural spaces used by humans and wildlife, such as Pigeon Point Beach in Chaguaramas or Tucker Valley, our activities must fit the environment, not the other way around. Think about where you go, the noise you make and the waste you leave behind. Even if temporary, these areas should not be divided by lights, roads, waste or infrastructure. Land use planning in these areas is critical to designate areas of least disruption. More broadly, more must be done on island-scale land-use planning and management. We must understand how important forest reserves maintain watersheds and connections to offshore and coastal spaces that harbor marine life important to our livelihoods.

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