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Posted by:Jan 7th 2008, 12:29:49 pm
Fig Tree News TeamConjuring a Prehistoric Bahamian Landscape at the Abaco Science Conference
by Larry Smith
www.bahamapundit.com

MARSH HARBOUR, Abaco "Man, I got no time for these politicians and civil servants," John Hedden snorted derisively, lounging on his ramshackle verandah deep in the Abaco pineyard.

His long grey hair was pulled back into an untidy ponytail, and a bottle of Appleton rum was slowly emptying as the afternoon sun sank beneath the pine trees out in the middle of nowhere.

Hedden - a one-time technical officer at the Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries who quit years ago to 'rough' it in Abaco - is truly the master of all he surveys. From his little clapboard house, built with his own hands on a rise deep in the forest, it's a long, dusty haul down a disused logging track to reach the Great Abaco Highway.

"They come here and talk crap from time to time, but nothing ever happens. Our local communities have to take power for themselves and use it - Nassau ain't going to give it to them or do nothing for them."

The conversation had been sparked by the arrival of Minister of Works and Utilities Earl Deveaux (himself a former agricultural officer and a contemporary of Hedden's) who was in town to open the third annual Science Alliance Conference put on by Abaco's Friends of the Environment.

Last week's meeting drew almost a hundred researchers, residents and students for two days of talks at the New Vision Ministries auditorium in Marsh Harbour. Topics included wetland protection, fossil wildlife, blue holes, marine mammals, invasive species and the island's threatened cultural heritage.

"One of our greatest challenges is the protection of our marine and terrestrial environments," Minister Deveaux acknowledged in his opening speech. "And research is necessary to inform our policy decisions. We expect organisations like Friends of the Environment and institutions like the College of the Bahamas to play a vital role in this."

Deveaux went on to attribute the recent flooding on Long Island after Hurricane Noel to the loss of wetlands and the filling in of blue holes, which would have allowed the water to drain off had they existed. It was a point later taken up by Dr Craig Layman of Florida International University, who has been involving Bahamian students in tidal creek restoration on Abaco since 2006.

Layman said the documented collapse of global fisheries over the last 20 years could be addressed by protecting marine habitats with no-take reserves like the Exuma national park and by restoring critical ecosystems like coastal marshes. The Bahamas has a policy to protect wetlands, but it is little more than words on paper with no force of law.

"The number of degraded creek systems throughout the Bahamas is striking," Layman said. "They are blocked off, filled in, and heavily polluted. The causeway to Little Abaco and the tidal creek at Cross Harbour are prime examples. Yet these systems are important nursery habitats for grouper, snapper, lobster, crab and conch."

The Cross Harbour creek near Marsh Harbour, was sliced in two decades ago by a quarry causeway that blocked tidal flow and was slowly filling in the wetland. With the help of Friends of the Environment, Layman organised hundreds of local high schoolers and adult volunteers to restore water flow by inserting culverts through the causeway and selectively removing encroaching mangroves. He used it as an educational exercise.

"There was an amazing transformation," Layman told the conference. "Trapped fish were able to move back to the sea to spawn and 150 acres of new wetland was created. We track fish movements in and out of the creek with acoustic telemetry, so this is one of the first studies that directly demonstrates the connectivity between mangrove and ocean habitats."

Abaco's marine environment is still a powerful draw for local fishermen and affluent visitors, but scientists say it is not nearly as healthy as it may seem. One good indicator, according to Dr John Durban of the Centre for Whale Research in Washington state, is the bottlenose dolphin - a top ocean predator.

Durban has been working with the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation led by Abaco resident Diane Claridge, which has monitored the Little Bahama Bank dolphin population since 1992. Like our marine fisheries, these near-shore dolphins are also threatened by habitat destruction, with the sand banks they rely on for feeding being heavily dredged as Abaco's economy booms.

"We can use dolphins like canaries in a coal mine," Durban told the conference. "They are an iconic indicator of environmental change. And drawing from hundreds of dolphin encounters over the past 16 years, we have determined that the isolated Little Bahama Bank population has dropped by half and individuals are much harder to find today."

Claridge reported on the preliminary findings of a three-year survey of beaked whales in the Great Bahama Canyon - the world's largest underwater trough, which includes the Tongue of the Ocean dividing New Providence from Andros.

These deep-diving whales are the least-known mammalian group, and they are particularly vulnerable to man-made sound - especially military sonar. In fact, the current survey is funded by the US Navy and the data will be used to help mitigate the impact of naval operations initiated by the AUTEC base on Andros.

Beaked whales can dive for over an hour to depths of more than 6,000 feet, and over the past two years the survey has made 91 sightings of 11 cetacean species in Bahamian waters, including three different types of beaked whale. These are the most common whales in the Great Bahama Canyon, parts of which should be protected as an important marine habitat, according to Claridge.

Brian Kakuk, who worked at AUTEC for years, is now the chief diver for something called the Sawmill Sink Project on Abaco. He told the conference that Bahamian blue holes like Sawmill Sink are unique time capsules.

"These cave systems hold hidden but vital historical data on our past global climate," he said, "giving benchmark evidence of past sea levels. They are not simply holes in the ground in which to throw things, but precious containers of potable water and rare marine life, time vaults of Bahamian history and generators of tourism revenues."

Kakuk has more than 2000 exploration cave dives to his credit. He established Guardian blue hole and Ocean blue hole on Andros as two of the world's deepest, plunging to depths of 436 and 472 feet respectively (Dean's Hole on Long Island is the current record holder at over 600 feet). And he extended Conch Sound blue hole (also on Andros) to a distance of 6,223 feet from the entrance - making it the longest ocean cave in the world.

Sawmill Sink is an inland blue hole in south central Abaco that extends 150 feet below sea level. Kakuk and others have lately found a treasure-trove of fossils in its depths - all perfectly preserved by the cavern's unique water chemistry. Nancy Albury, whose husband Michael is the outgoing president of Friends of the Environment, reported the project's newest findings to the conference.

Among the fossils are bones from a 10- to 13-year-old child that have been dated to about a thousand years ago - the earliest evidence for human occupation in the northern Bahamas and the oldest radiocarbon date on human bone in the entire archipelago. The Lucayan Indians settled the Bahama Islands about 600 AD and were extirpated by the Spanish in the 1500s.

Some 38 non-fish vertebrate fossils from Sawmill Sink have been identified so far. They include six species of reptiles, 27 birds and five mammals, and further exploration is expected to add to this diversity. The most interesting finds are of an extinct (and previously unknown) species of giant tortoise, together with 42 individual crocodiles (seemingly related to the endangered freshwater Cuban crocodile) that lived on Abaco over 3,000 years ago.

These ancient Bahamian crocs were a point of interest for Dr David Campbell, a celebrated biology professor at Grinnell College in Iowa who directed the Bahamas National Trust in the 1970s and published a popular natural history of the Bahamas called The Ephemeral Islands in 1977. Campbell and his father used to collect crocodiles years ago as a hobby.

In his talk, Campbell wondered why Columbus never mentioned such things as crocodiles in his log, which represents the first natural history of our islands. The skeletons of these animals are being found in sink holes all over the archipelago and they were often described by later explorers (including Catesby in 1725 and McKinnon in 1804).

Noting that on October 21, 1492 Columbus reported the killing of a large "serpent" at Crooked Island with the intent of taking the skin back to Spain, Campbell speculated that this could in fact be a reference to the now extinct Bahamian crocodile.

"I have been to Seville looking for this skin to confirm what animal it was that Columbus saw," Campbell said. "All the scholars I spoke to said the skin was in Madrid, so I am planning another trip to find out whether it is that of a crocodile or an iguana."

Well, whatever the outcome of that journey of discovery, spending an afternoon on John Hedden's remote verandah makes it easy to conjure a prehistoric Bahamian landscape - with grassy woodlands stretching as far as the eye can see, inhabited by toothsome crocodiles hunting giant tortoises.

But an accurate translation of Columbus' "serpienta" will have little bearing on the critical development issues confronting Abaco and other rapidly growing islands today. Friends of the Environment is one of several groups that are trying to educate Bahamians to avoid the careless destruction of the ecosystems on which we rely for our own survival.

What will the Bahamian environment be like twenty, fifty or a hundred years from now? More on that next week.

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