Reclaiming Paradise: St. John’s Mangrove Restoration Project

Reclaiming Paradise: St. John’s Mangrove Restoration Project

Tucked away near Annaberg and Leinster Bay is a collaborative initiative between the National Park Service, Friends of the Park, and Iowa State University. Students and community members alike have been hard at work revitalizing the local ecosystem by planting mangrove saplings around the existing Annaberg salt pond. 

When Hurricane Irma struck in 2017, a majority of the mangroves were destroyed, and a once thriving coastal forest was almost completely wiped out. Since October of this past year, Friends of the Park employees and Iowa State University students have been restoring this area. What are sometimes referred to as “rainforests of the sea”, mangroves protect our shorelines from erosion, maintain a biodiverse marine life, and encourage carbon sequestration, all vital to the balance of a healthy ecosystem here on St. John. 

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Friends of the Park employees and Iowa State University students; photo courtesy of Taylor White

Because mangroves are able to grow in salt water without risk of over salination, they play a vital role in protecting coastal areas from natural disasters like hurricanes and tsunamis. Their complex, aerated root systems can take the blunt of wave force and prevent further damage to communities and vegetation on the shoreline. On St. John, mangroves are a necessity because of our vulnerability to hurricanes that form in the Atlantic. 

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Mangrove forest can protect shorelines from devastation.

One of my favorite things to do on St. John is mangrove snorkeling. Snorkeling along the red mangroves in Hurricane Hole is an unparalleled adventure because of the intimate lens it provides into an otherworldly habitat. Hurricane Hole on the East End of St. John is surrounded by a red mangrove forest. These mangroves are a nursery for all kinds of reef fish in their beginning stages of life. The intricate root systems provide an oasis for juvenile fish and colorful coral from larger predators while they develop into maturity. To see baby butterfly fish, snapper, and blue fish darting playfully among their roots is such a unique experience, and I developed a newfound appreciation for the importance of mangroves. 

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In addition to providing coastal protection and being a marine nursery, mangroves are blue carbon sinks. According to Mazella Maniwavie, a mangrove scientist in Papua New Guinea, “mangroves store 3 to 5 times more carbon per hectare (2.47 acres) compared to other tropical forests like rainforests.” These ingenious trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their leaves, branches, and distinctive roots for an extended period of time. The trees and surrounding soil/sediment become carbon rich and create a carbon sink, which reduces the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. 

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According to the WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature), “the mangrove is considered a nature- based solution. A nature-based solution leverages the strengths that already exist in nature to mitigate or adapt to the impacts of change.” Implementing more mangrove forests could be the million-dollar solution to climate change. 

Understanding the need for this million-dollar idea locally, the National Park Service awarded a grant to Iowa State University’s EARTH program to restore the hurricane-damaged mangrove forest near Annaberg and Leinster Bay. Iowa State’s EARTH program was established in 2010. It stands for Education and Resilience through Horticulture. An excerpt about the program was the ISU website:

The ISU EARTH Program hosts service-learning interns from ISU and the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI). Through the ISU EARTH Program, ISU students travel to St. John in summer, spring, or fall semesters and live, work, and provide service to local communities. ISU students are actively involved with education, horticulture, agriculture, food, natural resources, and environmental projects in the community, and incorporate their various disciplines to communicate about and contribute to resource systems practices.”

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Building a fence around the new saplings Courtesy of Taylor White

Graduate and undergraduate students part of the EARTH Program, coordinated by Louis Hilgemann, ISU Assistant Teaching Professor, came down to St. John for two phases of the mangrove project – the 1st phase in October and 2nd phase concluding at the end of this month. Iowa State University subcontracted Friends of the Park, who hired local, conservation minded community members to help with the mangrove restoration, in addition to the UVI and ISU students. 

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Restoration efforts began by growing native red, white, and black mangrove saplings in the Gifft Hill School greenhouse until they were mature enough to be planted. Last October, the 1st phase of planting, visiting students and community members planted around 750 mangroves. By the end of this month, Higelmann estimates there will be another 250 saplings planted, totaling to an impressive 1,000 new mangroves fringing the Annaberg salt pond. 

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Photo from the Annaberg mangrove site courtesy of Brittany Mistretta

Last week, I had a chance to sit down and chat with Louis Hilgemann from the EARTH Program and Mark Gestwicki with Friends of the Park, and they shared some insights and what they hope this project will achieve for the local community. 

One of the goals mentioned would be to get the local youth involved by doing environmental talks at schools and hosting field trips to the mangroves. Showing young St. Johnians how valuable mangroves are at a young age could instill a passion for environmental concern and advocacy. They could be the future leaders we need in the fight against climate change.

With the success of this environmental restoration project, further rehabilitation efforts will hopefully continue on St. John. Notable success stories of restoration projects around the Caribbean include St. Lucia’s Ma Kôté, Union Island’s Ashton Lagoon, and the Bahamian island of Abaco. 

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Successful Mangrove Restoration at Ashton Lagoon

To summarize, mangroves are an essential part of a healthy, balanced coastal ecosystem and a nature-based solution for climate change. Facing continued threats of coastal resort/urban development and natural disasters, the future of St. John’s mangroves could be uncertain. Through continued community outreach, collaboration between local and federal organizations, and restoration projects, these unique coastal treasures will make a thriving comeback.

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Works Cited: 

  • Roberts, N. (2021, January 26). Large-Scale Mangrove Restoration Project Begins in The Northern Bahamas | Bonefish & Tarpon Trust. Bonefish & Tarpon Trust. https://www.bonefishtarpontrust.org/blog/2021-01-26-large-scale-mangrove-restoration-project-begins-in-the-northern-bahamas/
  • A Woman Scientist Saves Mangroves and Battles Climate Change in Papua New Guinea. (2020, July 22). The Nature Conservancy. https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/asia-pacific/asia-and-the-pacific-women-in-conservation/woman-scientist-saves-mangroves/
  • Daniel M Alongi (2012) Carbon sequestration in mangrove forests, Carbon Management, 3:3, 313-322.
  • About the EARTH Program – Global Resource Systems. (2023, March 1). Global Resource Systems. https://www.globe.iastate.edu/about-the-earth-program/
  • Mangroves and the climate crisis. (n.d.). World Wildlife Fund. https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/mangroves-as-a-solution-to-the-climate-crisis
  • Jones, J. S. (2019, November 13). Everything You Need to Know About Mangroves – Ocean Conservancy. Ocean Conservancy. https://oceanconservancy.org/blog/2019/11/13/everything-need-know-mangroves/
  • Kentish, J. A. (2022, March 30). The Caribbean mangrove forest that defied destruction. BBC Future. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20220329-how-a-caribbean-community-restored-its-dying-mangrove

2 thoughts on “Reclaiming Paradise: St. John’s Mangrove Restoration Project”

  1. Great informational article. Great job on making such a positive impact on our challenged environment. We enjoy kayaking through the mangroves in the Florida Keys. I now have a better appreciation of how vital they are.

  2. I love this! I am an Iowa State Alumni and I love seeing this grant and collaborative effort. Cyclones working hard for the earth and the USVI! Super cool. Thanks for the article.

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