One of St. John’s largest red mangrove wetlands, endangered since Hurricane Irma tore through the Virgin Islands in 2017, is about to get some help.
On April 7, the St. John’s Coastal Zone Management Committee voted unanimously to approve a plan that will allow the National Park Service to rebuild the shoreline along the Annaberg Highway, clear clogged culverts by storm debris and to plant mangroves and seedlings of native species along the shores of Leinster Bay.
Park Service staff hope the project, first shown to the public in an online hearing in January, will do exactly what is needed to keep the mangroves alive and stabilize the shoreline.
Mangroves play a critical role in ecosystem health by serving as breeding grounds for fish, shellfish, and birds, as well as forming a barrier to protect terrestrial habitats from storm surges while protecting marine life from the land runoff.
It’s not just the storms that have threatened the mangrove wetland. Human activity, including the construction of a tarmac road to Annaberg in the 1960s, has altered the landscape of this region which contains extensive ruins of sugar production centuries ago.
The Annaberg Road provides easy access to the popular ruins, but it also separates the mangrove wetland from Leinster Bay, disrupting the natural drainage pattern between the wetland and the sea. better drainage, four culverts were installed under the platform.
These culverts became clogged with storm debris in 2017 when surge from hurricanes sent waves crashing over the road and into the wetland.
Passers-by may think the mangroves have grown back because they saw a healthy “wall” of vegetation blooming along the road next to the wetland; although this vegetation is pleasing to the eye, most of it is not Endangered Red Mangrove.
Many of the world’s 70 mangrove species are now threatened. As early as 2007, concerned scientists noted: “The Caribbean region has the second greatest loss of mangrove area compared to other regions of the world, with approximately 24% of mangrove area lost over the last quarter century,” according to the Global Environmental Law Alliance.
With approval from the STJ Coastal Zone Management Committee, the National Park Service can now begin the process of shoreline restoration.
In addition to cleaning culverts, contractors will regrade drainage ditches, install 60 feet of rockfill along the shoreline, and repair the U-turn area at the end of the paved road.
As a result of the storm surge, there is now a nearly two foot drop from where the road ends and the trail to Waterlemon Bay begins. (It should be noted that the popular trail was a motorable road until Hurricane Luis washed out most of it in 1995.)
In addition to repairing the road, the Park Service now has permission to plant seedlings of red, black, and white mangroves and other native species throughout the area.
More than 1,500 seedlings are being grown by Iowa State University, according to Thomas Kelley, natural resources officer for Virgin Islands National Park. Half of them will be planted in the fall of 2022 and the other half in 2023, Kelley said.
Kelley said some of the seedlings will be protected by fencing for up to two years to prevent them from being eaten by deer. “We expect high survivability,” he said.