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Ashton Lagoon Restoration Project launched

Ashton Lagoon Restoration Project launched

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by Marslyn Lewis

A long-awaited moment of renewed hope came for the people of Union Island on Friday, September 18, with the launch of the Ashton Lagoon Restoration Project.

The event, organized by the Sustainable Grenadines Inc, in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture, Rural Transformation, Forestry, Fisheries and Industry, saw more than 100 people in attendance, representing varying sectors of the island community and also various government departments and ministries.{{more}}

The Sustainable Grenadines Inc (SusGren) is a transboundary non-governmental organization (NGO) between St Vincent and the Grenadines and Grenada, committed to the conservation of the coastal and marine environment and sustainable livelihoods for the people of the Grenadines.

The launch ceremony, which featured brief remarks from supporting agencies, was like a breath of fresh air, long overdue as most will say. The road to this end was rocky and challenging, but amidst the many obstacles encountered along the way, SusGren remained optimistic, and has been the driving force behind this initiative, with support from Birds Caribbean, championing the cause for restoration efforts over the last 10 years, from 2005.

“The process which involved lobbying with government for permission to proceed and holding talks with various government agencies and donors was long, but we never give up, and we are happy to have received permission this year, January 7, 2015 by Cabinet,” said Martin Barriteau, special advisor to SusGren.

The Ashton Lagoon Restoration Project was initiated as a result of the negative environmental impacts caused by a failed marina development in 1994, encompassing Frigate Rock and the Ashton Lagoon. The Marina Project proposed to join Frigate Rock to Union Island, construct a 300 berth marina, a golf course, and large condominiums, but was abandoned in 1995. At the time, the project was well favoured and showed much potential for the people of Union Island. Their hopes were built and the economic climate took on a shift, which propelled locals to invest in the promise that was to come. This thrill was short-lived and died just after one year into the construction phase. This changed the festive atmosphere and things turned grim quickly for the people of Union Island.

“Fortunately, the wetland that has been damaged here in the past can be restored, but it is essential that restoration projects benefit the local community and also include training and education and must always work with governments to implement policy changes to ensure that the development does not affect environmental sensitive areas like this one,” stated chief fisheries officer Jennifer Cruickshank-Howard, who delivered remarks on behalf of the Ministry of the Agriculture.

The project was shut down after the owners declared bankruptcy and bailed out. The area was left abandoned, which put Unionites in a state of shock and disappointment. It was not just the news of a failed marina that troubled the islanders, but the glaring sight of “the worst environmental disaster in all of St Vincent and the Grenadines,” said director of Grenadines Affairs, Edwin Snagg.

The once fishing haven was no more; the family fun areas for picnicking were gone also; the passageway to ease fishers’ journey to their fishing sights was cut off; the calm waters of the lagoon, where coconut and gum boats once sailed, were now murky and stagnant; it was also the training ground for developing basic skills in swimming and fishing.

The disaster had a trickledown effect, as it saw the failure and closure of many shadow businesses on Union Island, which had emerged as a result of the development. A wave of economic hardship hit the island. The abandonment created an eyesore and became an environmental hazard, cutting off the water flow to the Ashton Harbour, which caused a redirection of current and water flow, creating stagnation, hence destroying the seagrass beds, resulting in depletion of much marine life in the area.

SusGren, recognizing the urgent need for restoration work to be done, met with a team and did a tour of the lagoon in 2005. The team consisted of representatives from Avian Eyes, the Ministries of Youth, Education and Sports and Lisa Sorenson from Birds Caribbean. They looked at the lagoon and out of this exercise, the concern for urgent restoration became a subject. Since then a series of workshops were held to conduct participatory planning and to discuss and review restoration and sustainable use of the Ashton L­agoon between 2006 and 2007. Out of this was birthed the idea for a restoration project, which was later developed and found favour with National Migratory Birds in 2010.

The Ashton Lagoon is the largest bay in the Grenadines and provides important habitat area for various animal species, including fish, invertebrates, and populations of seabirds, shorebirds, water-birds, and landbirds. The lagoon also represents one of the largest continuous mangrove habitats in the region, which occupies an expanse of 330 hectares of land space and is also one of the last in St Vincent and the Grenadines. It is located on the south coast of Union Island, at the southern end of the Grenadines. The wetland supports a diverse (25 hectares) stand of mangrove, tidal mud flats, salt ponds, sea, and some dry scrub forest. On the seaward side of the mangroves were (originally) diverse sea-grass beds and coral reefs (fringing, patch, and barrier reef).

The Ashton Lagoon wetland is state owned. The harbour is a designated a Marine Conservation Area under the Fisheries Act of 1986; it was also designated an Important Birding Area (IBA) in 2008. The wetland supports a large number of migratory shorebirds and offers a home to a vast array of wetland, shore, land and sea birds species.

The Ashton Lagoon Restoration Project’s goal is to restore life to one of the largest lagoon environments, by improving mangrove habitat, coral reefs, seagrass beds and fish life, whilst providing opportunities for sustainable livelihoods and development with a focus on restoring hydrology and tidal flushing of the Ashton Harbour and to develop a plan for sustainable tourism and livelihood option.

The project phase will take a four-pronged approach, being guided by the four main objectives: to include restoration of Bird/Fish Habitat by re-establishing natural circulation, which will see improvement to the circulation in the lee of the existing interlinking causeway and will be achieved by the removal/resetting of some of the backfill material and the removal of some of the running length of steel sheet piles.

Secondly, it will take into consideration monitoring and evaluation, with emphasis on mangrove and salt pond habitat for birds, as well as associated biological and physical parameters critical to the ecosystem approach to assessment and guiding adaptive management possibilities. Thirdly, SusGren hopes to focus on Community Outreach and education, this in an effort to bring about awareness and appreciation of the links between the environment and sustainable livelihoods and the importance of using our natural resources wisely among the general public, stakeholders and government officials.

Lastly, the focus will also be in maintenance and management which will be aimed at developing sustainable local tourism and livelihood opportunities for local people (kayaking, trails, kite surfing etc).

The large gatherings were treated to local cultural presentations by Roots Connection Culture Club, the SusGren Junior Rangers and Danny Alexander.

At the project launch, the feature was the unveiling of the restoration billboard, which depicted three different scenarios of the area. The first showed an outline of the demarcated area of the abandoned marina; the second highlighted the projected areas for restoration work; and the third portrayed a future depiction of what the area is likely to become after the planned restoration work is completed. This was the scene that stimulated much of the interest. Some of the proposed potential sustainable livelihood development opportunities emphasized were: Bird watching, Nature trails, Kayaking and Paddle boarding, Kite surfing, Snorkelling and Scuba diving, Mooring fields, Education and Research and Fishermen protection zone.

With this first phase of the restoration in effect, persons can expect to see an increase in the water circulation in the Ashton harbour, a bypass bridge to cross over to Frigate Island, bird watching towers and trails. This is likely to increase visitor flow to the area, which will, in turn, create additional livelihood opportunities for the people of Union Island.

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