Egg Island is a small uninhabited island of approximately 12 acres located in Eleuthera, Bahamas. It’s so named because it was once home to chickens owned by residents of other nearby islands who travelled there to collect their eggs.
The island has two crescent shaped beaches on the ocean side that are protected by a reef that protects the entire island. The water behind the reef is generally less than 7 ft deep making it a good place to swim or watch the sea life. Since the water is so shallow and well protected, it tends to be warmer than the surrounding sea. More than half of the Island’s area consists of a shallow protected pond that is only open to the ocean at high tide. This unique pond is home to a wide and diverse range of marine life, bird life and fauna, and is both fragile and vulnerable. There is another beach on the South side of the island which is home to nesting endangered Loggerhead turtles.
The Bahamas is known for its picturesque waters and coastlines. They are part of its culture and are critical to its economy. The livelihoods of so many people are dependent on the beautiful islands and seas. Yet, the natural resources on which The Bahamas rely so much are under pressure from overfishing and coastal development.
The Nature Conservancy and its partners are working in The Bahamas to create a network of marine managed areas to protect important habitats and replenish fish, conch, and lobster populations—keeping these coastal environments healthy for the tourism industry, fisheries and recreational use. The Conservancy is working closely with the government to improve fisheries and coastal management, and also providing scientific advice to help identify important ecosystems in the Bahamas so that the best protection measures can be established.
Recently, 15 new marine managed areas were formed and 3 marine reserves were expanded, comprising over 11 million acres of protected marine habitat. It is with conservation victories like this that the Bahamas will continue to be a place where both people and nature can thrive. It is critical that the Egg Island area is included in this group before it is too late.
By definition an ecosystem is defined as an ecological community made up of plants, animals, and microorganisms together with their environment. A pond or a rain forest is each an example of complex ecosystems.
Ecosystems are areas where the community, or communities, is self-sustaining. This involves what we call food chains and webs – that is describing who eats who and following the energy flow (in the form of food) all the way to the bottom of the food chain. The bottom is where the producers are found. The producers are the photo synthesizers and depend on carbon dioxide and light so that they can make their own food. Gases are cycled and recycled in ecosystems through cellular respiration and photosynthesis. Nutrients are cycled by decomposers (bacteria and fungi) in ecosystems that are involved with rotting (decomposing) any dead materials and releasing the nutrients from these cells. Food is cycled through what we call atrophic pyramids – always with the producers at the base. Ecosystems can be interpreted as very large areas (like the entire planet Earth) or smaller subunits (like the Egg Island pond) depending on how strict one uses the term ‘self-sustaining.’
“Bahamians, perhaps like many other island people, have historically had a close personal relationship with the land and the sea. The remarkable clarity of the water, the incredible colors embracing the full spectrum of blues and greens, speaks to us about who we are, and where we come from.
From our earliest days (“since I knew myself”, a Bahamian would say) we have enjoyed the bountiful harvest of our islands. What could be better than Nassau Grouper, Bahamian crawfish, passin’ jacks, goggle-eye and conch! As children, we could stand on a rocky shore and catch shads. The older generation was able to walk on sand flats and pick up conchs.
We grew the sweetest pineapples, bananas and melons. Childhood was spent setting our teeth on edge eating guineps, hog plums, cocoplums, gooseberries and tamarinds. The fields of the islands were planted with native corn, tomatoes, pigeon peas, cassava and sweet potato. Rainwater filled our cisterns, and we drank and bathed in God’s “sweet water”.
Slowly, imperceptibly, “things” began to change. The color of the water still takes one’s breath away, but the harbors and bays of the islands are laden with the refuse and rubbish of a thoughtless society. From sail boats, motor craft, picnic crowds and cruise ship passengers, the ugly discards of a society mad for convenience float in our waters, layer the once-clear, sandy or grassy bottom, and disfigure the beaches, poking out from among the sea-oats and bay cedar which frame the shores.
Grouper and crawfish are among the most expensive items on a menu in the best restaurants. The demand from 300,000 Bahamians and three and a half million tourists, and the international market, has put severe pressure on marine resources. Fishermen dive thirty feet or more, and far away from shore, to find conch.
We no longer cultivate hog-plums and gooseberries; we import peaches, grapes and plums from other lands. The new generation hardly knows what cassava is, and most have never seen a breadfruit.
The diminishment of our Bahamian biodiversity is distressing. But it is staggering to remind ourselves what the country has lost since its “discovery” in 1492. Historians describe waters then teeming with seals, porpoises and whales. Ships’ captains reported harbors where turtle were so abundant they were a menace to anchored vessels. Skies were “darkened” at times by parrots, and other birds of brightest hue.
And the indigenous people, the Lucayans, lived in peace and harmony in a virtual paradise. Four hundred years later, all the seals and many whales had disappeared, having been slaughtered for their oil and skins. Five hundred years later, a national park was created in the northern Bahamas on Abaco Island, for one of the two last breeding flocks of Bahamian parrots. Parrots and turtles both are on the endangered species list, while grouper and conch are not far behind. And there are no Lucayans left with whom to share a culture and history; they had been wiped out in The Bahamas long before the turn of the 17th Century.
We must recognize that our biodiversity is the basis of our national wealth. We have neither gold nor silver, coal nor oil to mine. Instead, we have what the world yearns for: a beautiful land, scattered like 700 pearls in an emerald sea, capped with startlingly clear, blue skies, bathed in sunshine and moonlight year-round. The natural environment is “relatively” clean, “relatively” unspoiled.
What we do have is an undetermined variety of marine and terrestrial flora and fauna which must be preserved for the future of our children and our grandchildren.” stated Lynn P. Holowesko, Ambassador for the Environment, Bahamas Environment Science and Technology Commission.
The ecosystem of Egg Island is diverse and is formed by the interaction of a community of organisms within their physical environment. While it may be easy to warn of the danger of disturbing the natural protective environment for juvenile fish, conch, turtles and lobster, it goes much further than that because all the elements of the system are so closely interconnected. From the Mangroves to the tiny invertebrate creatures that live there, to the fish eggs that hatch in the shade of a mangrove root to the absorption of carbon dioxide by the sedimentary mud, it is all connected and any disturbance of any of the components of the system would be disastrous.
Mangroves serve many purposes including a basis of the marine food chain, a species habitat, a nursery ground, sediment filtering and water quality improvement, and carbon fixation. Mangroves provide habitats and feeding grounds for more than 220 fish species, 24 reptile and amphibian species, 18 mammal species and 200 bird species. Some of which include economically important fish such as grunts, parrotfish, snapper, snook, tarpon, barracuda and mackerel. Many marine and terrestrial birds such as brown pelican, frigate bird, great blue heron, green heron, royal tern, ibis, mangrove cuckoo, white crown pigeon, and the endangered West Indian whistling duck rely on the mangroves for their existence. Of critical importance is the habitat for Crustaceans such as lobster, shrimps, and crabs. The list goes on and on to include various species of algae and sponges, jellyfish and starfish.
Many reef fish require a mangrove forest to complete their life cycle. Adult fish migrate to the mangrove forest to spawn (lay eggs or larvae), juvenile fish depend of mangrove roots to serve as a refuge from large predators. When they grow larger (less susceptible to predators) they move to more open habitat such as seagrass and coral reefs, this includes grunt, parrotfish, snapper, and barracuda. They then return as adults to mangrove forests to spawn. It is estimated that 75% of game fish and 90% of commercial fish rely on mangrove forests at some point in their lives.
Mangroves filter nutrients and sedimentation from land based runoff hence improving water quality before reaching seagrass. Seagrass further filters nutrients and sedimentation before discharge onto reefs (improved water quality). Reefs acts like a buffer to dissipate wave energy before reaching seagrass beds and mangrove stands thereby maintaining integrity of the coastline. Mangroves and Seagrass in the Caribbean strongly influence the community structure of fish on neighboring coral reefs. We depend on these ecosystems to sustain our way of life as they depend on us to protect and conserve them for continued sustainability.
The threat to natural Mangrove growth is affected by natural events however these effects are exacerbated by human activity. Specific problems include the increased suspended matter in coastal waters caused by coastal developments and degraded watersheds, and the increase in Tourism and Real estate development, and in particular by dredging.
The Bahamas are very vulnerable to coastal eutrophication, primarily from land use change on small islands. Eutrophication is defined as “increase in the rate of supply of organic matter to an ecosystem”. Eutrophication or nutrient pollution has been called the number-one global threat to coastal marine biodiversity. A study conducted by the Coastal Ecology laboratory, Department of biology, University of Miami, mapped hypoxia occurrences by identifying both “hot spots” for chronic eutrophication, and areas impacted by acute eutrophication after major storms or hurricanes. Over 170 sites on 10 different islands were surveyed seasonally over one-year periods, and 27 sites surveyed over multiple years to document the occurrence of coastal hypoxia, and the impacts on benthic algal species assemblages. The results show widespread hypoxic events throughout the archipelago, even on islands with low human populations and development (e.g. Egg Island) and documented shifts in benthic macro-algal species assemblages after storms, and over years following land-use change. Eutrophication thresholds for each system are unique: differing with geomorphology, climate, and ecology. Benthic algal communities are also unique to coastal geomorphology and ecology; but were observed to rapidly change with changes in nutrients and run-off. Algal assemblages are key indicators for nutrient pollution. Results were used to determine limits for nutrient loading in The Bahamas as well as identify candidate locations for coastal restoration and management.
Queen conch is economically and culturally important throughout the Caribbean. A decline in queen conch abundance has been documented throughout their range, particularly in populations surrounding several out-islands of The Bahamas, where queen conch is the second largest fishery.
The Cape Eleuthera Institute conducted a comparative study between 2003 and 2011 in shallow-water sites off of the islands of North Eleuthera. The results show a trend toward decline, with an observed 80% decrease in population density. In addition, population surveys were conducted between March-May 2012 and September-November 2012. Utilizing towed snorkel surveys, densities of adult, sub-adult, and juvenile individuals were counted to determine the current population size structure of queen conch in the waters off North Eleuthera. The results of these surveys show a mean density of 10.6 adults ha-1, well below the minimum threshold density of 50 adults ha-1 required for mating to occur, and a mean density of 13.5 juveniles ha-1. This assessment can assist in structuring a management plan for the Bahamian conch fishery that will allow the populations to recover and remain a viable source of income for Bahamian fishing communities. It can also provide insight as to best placement of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) or a network of MPAs to protect crucial habitat for queen conch, though further assessment of the stocks are needed to make informed management decisions. At a time when the very existence of a crucial marine species is in danger, it would seem that the ‘nursery’ pond area of Egg Island should be high on this list of protected areas.
The queen conch remains one of the most culturally and economically important species in The Bahamas. The Bahamas conch fishery is one of the few remaining in the Caribbean region that still supports large domestic and export markets. Recent studies suggest that queen conch stocks in The Bahamas are declining. Surveys of conch populations inside and outside of a marine reserve, the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, The Egg Island tidal ponds, and several surveys of important commercial fishing grounds have provided scientists, resource managers, and the conservation community with a clearer picture of the impact of fishing and land development on several measures of conch fishery sustainability: 1) the density of mature adult conchs in a population; 2) the size of juvenile conch aggregations, 2) and the age at which conch become sexually mature. With a new appreciation of the challenge of conserving conch populations in hand, it is now time for stakeholders and policymakers to seriously debate changes to current management policy for the sustainability of the Bahamian conch fishery. The Bahamas is in a unique position to avoid the total fishery collapse that other countries have experienced by protecting reproductive stock, juvenile nurseries, and limiting the overall harvest of conch.
Many shorebird species that occur in The Bahamas breed in the middle and northern latitudes of North America, some as far north as the Arctic Circle. They travel southward in the summer and early fall, stopping over during migration or overwintering in The Bahamas, and return during late spring. The majority of their annual cycle is spent at overwintering sites. These long distance migrations are energetically expensive and shorebirds often arrive at stopover or wintering sites with depleted fat reserves. They need of high quality food and foraging habitat to survive the winter and replenish fat reserves that will fuel spring migration. Identifying the sites that support shorebirds during migration and winter is important to implementing successful conservation strategies. Overall, overwintering sites for high-priority shorebird species in The Bahamas, species such as piping plovers and red knots, is poorly understood. In 2011 and 2012, thorough shorebird surveys were conducted in the Joulter Cays, the Berry Islands and the remote islands of North Eleuthera. These surveys resulted in the identification of previously unknown and significant wintering areas for piping plovers, red knots, and other shorebirds.
The environmental impact of a drastic change to a pristine area of the Bahamas will have a ripple effect throughout the local community and to the entire country. When other countries like Brazil are being condemned by the rest of the world for devastating the Amazon rain forests, and China for polluting the atmosphere with coal burning emissions, it goes against all that is important for the Bahamas Government to even consider sacrificing Egg Island to an American Cruise ship company. To date there has been considerable speculation as to the extent of this proposed Egg Island ship berthing project, but there is evidence on hand to make this project of concern to all thinking Bahamians. The irreversible effect on the Egg Island ecology has been documented here. But there is a more worrying effect on the environment of the whole of North Eleuthera.
This artist’s sketch shows a permanent structure spanning the gap between Egg Island and Little Egg Island. This structure is NOT a simple wooden dock set on pilings for a fishing boat, but is a deeply anchored massive concrete structure able to berth a 400 foot long, 125,000 gross tonnage ocean liner. The draft requirement for such a ship would mean the dredging and excavation of over 250,000 cubic yards of ocean bottom rock and sand. During the construction period vast quantities of sand and silt will be carried northwards through the channel to suffocate and destroy the Egg Island reef that is the eastern most tip of the long reef that encircles the shore of North Eleuthera. This live reef that protects Egg Island, Royal Island, Russell Island, Spanish Wells, and the North shore of Eleuthera almost all the way to Harbour Island, is already under considerable stress from the effects of global warming, is critical to the very existence of all the island communities. Any change could have catastrophic results.
A large cruise ship carries upwards of 5000 passengers and crew, this number is more than the combined populations of all the communities of North Eleuthera including Spanish Wells and Harbour Island. Thousands of people bring thousands of unwanted problems to a pristine environment, and even with well planned regulations and well intentioned participants the net result will be a disaster.
A final thought: as many old-time residents of the area will tell you, the very beach that has attracted the developers to the Egg Island site could disappear almost overnight with a change in the ocean current, and there will be such changes if the project is approved.