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EMERGENCY CLEAN UP of the manatee habitat

Sunday, August 26 2012

For the first time in 30 years, the pristine manatee habitat at Manzanilla was invaded with man- made garbage and debris, prompting the Manatee Conservation Trust to mobilise an emergency clean-up this previous week. Along with its members, other stakeholders including farmers, workers from the Forestry Division and members of the Zoological Society of Trinidad and Tobago descended into the manatee area to remove several bags of plastics, bottles, and an assortment of waste items generated from surrounding communities.

Michael James, member of the Trust who lives on the Nariva estate, lamented, “In all my years here, and as one of the team members monitoring the manatees daily, I have never witnessed this kind of pollution. When I saw that the Ministry of Works was dredging Main Line and opening the drains linking into this sensitive area, I had a sinking feeling that this could not be good for the manatees.”

Secretary of the Plum Mitan Farmers’ Group, Hansraj Ramlal present at the clean-up commented that in trying to alleviate the Plum Mitan resident farmers of their flooding problems, he was sorry to see that this situation was created down-stream for the manatees. This was also commented on by one of the forestry officials on site, who stated, “With the dredging that took place, several channels and rivers including Petit Poole, Poole and Willough Rivers are now linked to Main Line, bringing stuff down from the areas of Biche, Plum Mitan and other nearby areas straight into the Manatee Pond.”

There was evidence of this during the clean-up as volunteers had to pick up rubbish and debris collecting in the mangroves of the swamp and floating in the open waters.

James, further commenting on the consequences of what he termed as “run-away dredging” , elaborated: “Before, the rubbish would be blocked from entering because of natural filtration, but it is now a free-flow for everything. We should also be concerned about other pollutants such as pesticides, which will not have time to be filtered out by the natural system.” By removing the natural obstacles, there is now interference with the inherent filtration mechanism of this ecosystem. The hyacinth plants that usually line the mangroves were removed in the dredging process which has two main functions. The first is to filter out debris preventing foreign objects from entering the swamp. The second function is that it serves as the manatees’ main source of food.

President of the Manatee Conservation Trust (MCT), Lisa Ramkissoon-Maharaj expressed gratitude for the immediate response by concerned stakeholders in this unforeseen clean-up. She emphasised the need to be cautious in taking actions which can affect the Nariva Swamp, within which the manatee habitat exists as basically any sudden change in the manatees’ environment can lead to detrimental outcomes in the future. In both cases, there is a legal obligation for safeguarding, as the Nariva Swamp is a declared environmentally sensitive area and the manatee is an environmentally sensitive species.
Gupte Lutchmedial, president of the Zoological Society of Trinidad and Tobago, who coordinated the clean-up operations, stated, "It is upsetting to see that the manatees are in danger as a result of this dredging but we must focus on moving ahead to put in place mitigation measures. Although the Minister of Environment and Water Resources, Mr Ganga Singh had taken immediate steps to stop the dredging upon being alerted, some damage was already done. ” Elaborating on the way forward, Lutchmedial said, “The Trust has since had discussions with several stakeholders, including the farmers, Forestry Division and the Environmental Management Authority in a bid to devise ways in which garbage and debris can be trapped from entering Main Line. The aim is to ensure a safe and debris-free habitat for the remaining manatees at Nariva Swamp.”

Monitoring of the area is continuing on a daily basis by the Manatee Conservation Trust.

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