Perry Institute receives grant to assess, restore damaged ecosystem

PIMS executive director, Dr Craig Dahlgren surveys dead mangroves off South Abaco post Hurricane Dorian. Photo courtesy of Perry Institute of Marine Science, via Precision Media.

Much-needed measures to regenerate an extraordinary ecosystem which safeguards people, infrastructure and the environment are underway, as the Perry Institute of Marine Science (PIMS) mobilizes a two-island, mangrove restoration project funded by the Bahamas Protected Area Fund. 

As low-lying nations like The Bahamas are subjected to more frequent and powerful hurricanes, mangroves – which straddle land and sea – act as a form of natural coastal defence, protecting shorelines from storm surge and erosion by decreasing the intensity of waves.  

The Bahamas has a lofty goal of protecting 20 percent of its nearshore and marine environment. Hurricane Dorian devastated the mangrove population on islands hard hit by the storm. About 73 percent of Grand Bahama’s mangroves and 40 percent of the coastal wetland in Abaco was destroyed by its September 2019 passage, according to reports. 

“Mangrove restoration is important, but it’s too expensive and difficult to do it everywhere. Using a special-equipped drone, we can look at everything, and then prioritize sites for restoration where we can make the greatest impact,” said Dr Craig Dahlgren, PIMS executive director.  

PIMS is committed to protecting oceans, and has researched and rehabilitated mangroves in The Bahamas for more than 25 years. Aside from sustaining livelihoods in fisheries and tourism, mangroves provide great recreational opportunities for Bahamians and tourists in search of nature-based experiences. 

A leader in marine research and conservation initiatives, PIMS was an obvious choice to identify and determine the impacts of Hurricane Dorian on priority mangrove areas. The institute will devise and launch a targeted mangrove restoration program within protected areas of Abaco and Grand Bahama, with nearly a quarter million dollars budgeted in the first year alone.  

To ensure sustainability and promote biodiversity over the long-term, PIMS’ work is expected to take four years and will involve community partnerships. During that period, scientists will spearhead clean-up and repopulation exercises and implement a monitoring and evaluation program to gauge the success of their restoration efforts. The results of which will be communicated to national and international audiences.     

Mangroves are critical habitats that act as nurseries and reduce coastal erosion. Approximately 40 percent of Abaco’s

mangroves were reportedly destroyed by Hurricane Dorian in 2019. This photo shows one area in South Abaco.
Image courtesy of Perry Institute of Marine Science, via Precision Media.

The scientific staff of the non-profit organization are experts in mangrove assessment and restoration, mangrove fish assessments and monitoring. More importantly, they have gathered, managed and analyzed marine data pre- and post-Hurricane Dorian.  

From June 2018 to July 2019, Dr. Dahlgren led a team of researchers to conduct extensive underwater assessments of reef health throughout Abaco and Grand Bahama. About a month after Hurricane Dorian struck, PIMS revisited dozens of these sites. Consequently, the organization possesses a good grasp of the before and after picture of hurricane impacts. 

For this latest project, the marine research and conservation organization will utilize advanced drone technology to produce habitat maps and 3D scenes in their assessments. Using these resources, PIMS can measure its restoration impact, and how well the mangrove habitats function as a nursery for scale fish and crustaceans including juvenile groupers, snappers, crabs and crawfish.  

PIMS boasts a long history of assessing, restoring and monitoring mangroves across The Bahamas. Another plus is its technical expertise in utilizing drone surveys and hyperspectral imaging to supplement findings derived from traditional in-water assessments. 

Will Greene, PIMS research associate and resident drone pilot explained the technological component of the work: “For the first time, we’re able to survey huge areas in just a few hours with high accuracy and precision. From the 3D models, we’ll be able to measure individual trees that were killed by the hurricane and identify them down to the species level – all from a computer screen.”  

Due to the ecological value of mangroves, PIMS executive director said it’s imperative The Bahamas move  speedily to reverse any decline. 

“In the era of climate change and worsening tropical storms, mangroves are the last line of coastal defense,” said Dr Dahlgren. “That’s why it’s so important that we protect them – just like they protect us – and restore areas that were heavily damaged before it’s too late.”