Saturday, April 20, 2024

Team of scientists suggests nature-based solutions for San Pedro’s shoreline erosion; SPTC hosts scoping mission

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The island of Ambergris Caye has experienced significant development over the years with minimal input from the science and engineering community, particularly concerning coastal infrastructure. The negative impacts of climate change can be seen in the continuous erosion that is taking a toll on the beaches of Belize’s prime tourism destination.  A recent visit by a group of scientists indicated that many of the efforts to protect the shoreline are instead causing more harm and aggravating the erosion issue. As a result, local stakeholders discussed nature-based solutions, including Mayor Gualberto ‘Wally’ Nuñez, intending to look at the entire shoreline and address the problems for the benefit of the island community.

The scoping mission was facilitated by resident scientist Valentine Rosado and included Dr. Maya Trotz, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of South Florida, USA. Her research connects built and social infrastructure, especially around water resources and water quality; Dr. Christine Prouty, a consultant in environmental engineering who currently works with clients at academic institutions and within United States government agencies;  Jamani Balderamos, a Belizean engineer whose expertise includes coastal engineering and port development; and Mercedes Requeña, a Caye Caulker native with a graduate degree in environmental science who specializes in aquatic ecology for sustainability. The group visited different areas of the island, witnessing, and discussing the grave problem eating away at the shoreline. The visiting scientists are familiar with Ambergris Caye, and while they have worked throughout the country, this visit was to focus on the situation in San Pedro and to recommend appropriate nature-based solutions for the island.

Positive Findings

The scientists were invited through the San Pedro Town Council (SPTC) efforts, headed by Mayor Nuñez. The current administration has shown a high interest in addressing the situation and welcomes input from experts in the field. According to Rosado, the group found out that San Pedro has a strong and healthy business community, and tourism has (to a certain extent) recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic. Some property owners invest in protecting their shoreline while also joining the efforts to address the sargassum washing up on the coast. The group was also encouraged to learn that islanders have a good understanding of historical shoreline changes, the effects of storms, and climate change, among other natural factors.

The Challenges

One of the hurdles highlighted is projects implemented to reduce the rapid beach erosion, particularly in downtown San Pedro. Some of these, such as seawalls, groynes, and breakwaters, are causing more erosion to the shoreline. The findings indicate that many of these structures are built without studying the effects of the sea’s circulation/currents. Other construction is also affecting these already vulnerable areas and properties. The task is difficult, but not impossible. An education campaign is essential, as it is vital to understand that the rampant development is changing the natural aspect of the island. It has changed from being where there once were long and wide beaches like in other parts of Belize (Placencia). However, the new norm of mass development has taken over that natural image and forced people to accept the new era of development in the name of jobs and other opportunities, while the natural beauty of the island is jeopardized.

Opportunities and threats

Although it seems like an uphill battle, many active stakeholder groups are advocating for the restoration of beaches and the salvation of San Pedro’s shoreline. Groups like the local chapter of the Belize Tourism Industry Association and the San Pedro Tour Guide Association continue supporting nature-based solutions, especially those that would make the island more resilient to climate change. These include increasing efforts for conserving and restoring coral reefs, protecting coastal seagrass beds, and reforestation of mangroves and beach vegetation, all of which protect the shoreline.

Climate change impacts are making the shoreline much more vulnerable, threatening to increase in the long term. The increase in seawater temperature is killing the corals and weakening the protected barrier in front of Ambergris Caye. Another threat is coastal development lacking science and engineering input in their planning and building. Moreover, there is minimal enforcement of national policies on Ambergris Caye when it comes to the issue of permits to build docks, dredge the seabed, or clear mangrove forests.

It is time to intervene, and action must be taken before it is too late. Residents and island stakeholders should start working together with experts like these scientists. As a result of this visit and meeting with stakeholders and officials of the SPTC, Mayor Nuñez has formalized a bridge of communication with the said scientists. They will be included in the planning efforts to address the island’s shoreline issues.

In addition, each of the visiting scientists has a network of colleagues and partners willing to support the efforts of the island community. Therefore, the team will be proposing recommendations for immediate actions to alleviate areas of erosion, prevent maladaptation and advise the ongoing sargassum management. A significant effort will be to implement recommendations for medium-term and long-term measures for shoreline management. The objective is to make San Pedro a regional example of a climate-smart and resilient community.

 

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