February 6, 2023
Header image: Aerial shot of Saba Island (c) Daniel Norwood
(SABA MARINE PARK, SABA DUTCH CARIBBEAN) –
King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands will be on Saba Island on February 9th, 2023, to learn more about the innovative urchin restoration project at the Saba Research Center. The new laboratory is located at the island’s Fort Bay harbor. The facility will be overseen by the Saba Conservation Foundation and is expected to attract visiting scientists to study Saba’s resilient marine life. The Saba Research Center will be the first marine lab in the Windward islands of the Dutch Caribbean where applied research can take place.
International marine conservation organization Mission Blue has declared Saba and the Saba Bank a Hope Spot in recognition of the ongoing efforts to ensure long-term sustainability and health for the island’s waters by many, including Hope Spot Champions Lynn Costenaro, Founding Director and Emily Malsack, Operational Director of the Sea & Learn Foundation.
Dr. Sylvia Earle, Founder of Mission Blue, says, “I’ve seen for myself what a special place this is.” She continues, “So much of the Caribbean has been depleted, but this place has had some protection for a long time. The Saba Bank is the largest actively growing underwater atoll in the Caribbean. Even with its research just beginning, it is apparent how valuable this area is to the region. Saba Bank is an example of the success of long-term care, even in the face of common threats like climate change and over-exploitation that many areas around the world currently face.”
The opening of the laboratory coincides with Sea & Learn Foundation’s 20-year anniversary. “Our primary goal for establishing the Saba and the Saba Bank Hope Spot is to promote the science, research, and exploration in our own backyard”, explains Malsack. Some of the research areas that the Saba Conservation Foundation is working on, in collaboration with other organizations, including tiger shark behavior, marine mammal populations and how they are impacted by the local shipping industry, and more.
In 2003, Costenaro’s vision of enhancing environmental awareness came to life with the launching of Sea & Learn on Saba. The Sea & Learn Foundation provides the platform to support the research of these organizations with public outreach and citizen science activities for the entire community of Saba, as well as visitors. The premise of the program has remained while the breadth of the program has continued to evolve and expand. Improved technology, including live streaming, broadened community inclusion, networking among scientists, and international collaboration are just some of the successes of this unique program.
The Saba Marine Park was established in 1987 and encompasses the entire island from the high-water mark to a depth of 60m (200 ft), including the seabed and overlying waters. “The Saba Marine Park was not developed to repair a damaged environment, but rather to ensure the continued quality of an extraordinary resource for the benefit and enjoyment of everyone”, explains Costenaro. “Saba, including the Saba Bank, is a shining example of how historical resource management can provide a hopeful future in an increasingly jeopardized world,” she says.
According to Conservation International in 2017, Saba is one of only eight locations around the world to score 99 on their Ocean Health Index demonstrating that the island is working effectively to conserve the region’s rich variety of species and habitats, reduce extinction risk and maintain and restore marine habitats.
Kai Wulf, Executive Director of the Saba Conservation Foundation (“SCF”) describes some of the marine life in Saba’s waters, “The Saba Bank is a biodiversity “hotspot” in the Caribbean, providing critical habitat for sea turtle species, more than 200 species of fish, a breeding ground for numerous shark species, including large tiger sharks, migratory humpback whales and vulnerable seabird species, specifically Red-billed tropicbirds and Audubon’s shearwaters.”
King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands have long supported the efforts to maintain the health of Saba’s marine life. In 2017, Saba and nearby islands were struck by a hurricane. Following a visit to the island in which King Willem and Queen Máxima went SCUBA diving, they remarked how “unspoiled” the island’s marine life remains.
“The level of protection has been good – but new challenges require new attention ”, explains Malsack. A major focus is on continuing coral restoration efforts. “This work involves not just nurseries, but addressing and mitigating the effects from the proposed new marina”, she says. The area slated for the marina is home to some of the last remaining Acropora corals in the park. The project leader, employed by the Island Government, requested the Saba Conservation Foundation to formulate a mitigation plan as the environmental impact assessment recommended.
The program includes outside expertise and the use of the new Saba Research Center to attempt to preserve the biogenetic diversity of Saba’s corals. Based on a coral relocation trial and other studies, it is projected that 60-70% of the coral removed will survive; however, this is optimistic due to unknown conditions at the time of the transplantation, including water temperatures, storm surge, and other stresses. “The SCF goal is to try to save as many of these corals as possible but additional support is needed to reduce the impacted area of coral removal, access the most sophisticated equipment possible to reduce silting and assess the risk and impact of noise pollution on the marine life which may be created by the construction of the marina”, explains Costenaro.
Dr. Lauren Esposito, Director of the Islands 2030 program at the California Academy of Sciences voices her support. “I have been carrying out scientific research in the Eastern Caribbean for the past twenty years through various international to national projects, and am convinced that the biodiversity-centric economy of Saba makes it poised to be a leader among a region of tourism-dependent struggling economies.”
Peter Johnson, President of the Saba Conservation Foundation concludes, “The Saba Bank’s abundance was one of the main reasons for the original settlement of Saba and it is no less important today. Amazingly, there is still so much to learn about this cornerstone of the Saban way of life. We welcome any contributions to sustainability and study of the Saba Bank that this designation may provide, and are grateful for all who contributed towards it.”
About Sea & Learn Foundation
The Sea & Learn Foundation is a not-for-profit organization on the Caribbean island of Saba, bringing together the local community and visitors to understand the value of preserving and protecting our natural environment and cultural heritage by empowering the stakeholders of today and the activists of tomorrow. The foundation’s inception stems from its month-long environmental awareness program aptly named Sea & Learn.