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Mangrove Project

Updated: Jan 19, 2022

By Amy Gordon

Chances are you already know that Vieques is home to the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world. But do you know why the conditions here lead to such a striking glow?

Several factors, like a narrow mouth and shallow depth, contribute to maintaining the health of the glowing plankton, but one of the most important is the mangroves that surround Puerto Mosquito (the bay’s official name). You can easily spot these vital trees with tangled roots around the perimeter. “The mangroves maintain the morphology of the bay,” explains Lirio Márquez D’Acunti, project manager and executive director of the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust. “The bioluminescent plankton need vitamins from the mangroves in order to survive.” Mangroves also generate blue carbon, which is extremely important in this age of climate change, and they protect against storm surge and wind.

The day after Hurricane Maria ravaged Vieques in September 2017, the island awoke to a startling scene. Utter devastation in the form of displaced trees, collapsed buildings, and downed power lines was visible everywhere. But some of the damage inflicted on Puerto Mosquito wasn’t as simple to see. The road to get there was unnavigable, and access only got more complicated from there.

It wasn’t until a year later that scientists from the Center for Applied Tropical Ecology and Conservation at the University of Puerto Rico were able to make an assessment of just how extensively the storm affected the bay. Their conclusion? They needed 6,000 new mangroves to replace what was destroyed, an alarming number. But even more troubling was the projection that without human intervention, the forest would take up to 30 years to restore itself.

“Everyone in the room looked at each other and said no, we have to do something!,” says Lirio, “and so the project began.” The group formulated a plan to create a full-scale mangrove nursery where they could successfully grow new trees and eventually return them to the bay. Erick Bermúdez Carambot, the Mangrove Project biologist, undertook designing a system to grow mangroves in a controlled environment that gave them the greatest chance of survival.

“Mangroves start out as propagules, not seeds, meaning that by the time they fall from the tree, they’re already full plants,” explains Mark Martín Bras, Field Research Director of the Mangrove Project. To begin the regrowing process, Mark, Erick and the team collected propagules from the bay and brought them to the nursery on the grounds of the former Barbosa School in Puerto Real. The first stop was a tank of fresh water.

“Early in life,” explains Lirio, “propagules expend a lot of energy keeping the salt from coming in. By beginning the plants in fresh water, they’re much more efficient. A peek into the tank and you’ll spy tilapia swimming about, too. They provide nutrients to the growing plants.”

After two to three months, they transferred the mangroves to brackish water with a lower level of salinity, a stepping stone to moving to a tank of salt water that mimics the conditions of the bay. “That way, when they are planted, they survive and continue to grow,” says Pedro Ayala, the Mangrove Project nursery manager.

That initial presentation from the UPR team was back in January 2019, and today the Mangrove Project is well underway. Staffed by just a handful of employees and volunteers, it is the most ambitious undertaking ever executed on Vieques, and the first time it’s been done in Puerto Rico. “For us, it’s a sense of pride because it is a Viequense initiative,” points out Lirio, “staffed by Viequenses, happening in Vieques. We purchase most things locally and have used several island contractors. We have created jobs, and on a small island, that is very important.”

So far, the team has planted roughly 500 red mangroves, with 2,000 more currently maturing at the nursery. Three more varieties of mangroves (black, white, and button) are cultivated on site, but red is the most vital since it protects the shoreline from erosion. The Mangrove Project aims to return trees to the bay at least once a month, but doing so comes with issues to overcome. The small boat they use can transport only a limited number of people, plants and supplies, so securing enough resources for a bigger vessel is a top priority moving forward.

“One of the things we are hoping to do is to find ways to safely expose people to the site,” says Mark. He’d especially like to take students there for hands-on learning. Hiring more staff and building another greenhouse are also high on the to-do list, but as always, securing capital is the biggest challenge.

The Mangrove Project is currently funded by a combination of grassroots efforts and grants, along with in-kind assistance and lots of volunteer hours. And word is spreading. VCHT has been approached by communities in Piñones and Culebra who want to learn about the project. The Ocean Foundation recently filmed the process and plans to share it on a global scale. For Pedro, getting the word out is paramount. “Perhaps someone who sees it knows someone who can help. Share the story, and get involved.” He says visitors and volunteers are welcome to visit the property, just be sure to schedule in advance. Mark is equally enthusiastic. “This project shows that things can be done in a good, innovative way. It gives us all hope. We can do things to protect against the problems that come from hurricanes and climate change. There is a way. We can do something.”

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