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By Rhonda Claridge
Natural beauty has always been Abaco’s long suit. Whether it’s a peaceful morning bonefishing on the flats, an afternoon of snorkeling on pristine coral reefs, or watching birds fly into a sunset, this is a land of natures promise, a solace and sanctuary for the world-weary.
Visitors are willing to pay for this quality experience, and in the last decade most of Abaco has enjoyed a marked increase in high-end, low impact tourism. Yet the future of Abaco’s niche in this market depends on its commitment to preserving what it has by setting aside key ecological sites as protected areas or “reserves.” Fortunately, many leaders in the Abaco community recognize this and are making strides to ensure that Abaco’s natural beauty will be around to benefit the economy, ecology and quality of life for generations to come.
“We all rely on the natural environment,” says former Chief Councilor of Central Abaco Mike Malone. And Don Cornish, director of tourism for the Ministry of Tourism Office in Abaco, agrees: “eco-tourism,” he says, “represents the greatest potential in terms of future tourism in Abaco. We ought to be most concerned about protecting our environment.” He believes Abaco has an advantage because of its variety of endemic birds, blueholes, and deep-sea fishing, but he adds, “there have been threats to our environment posed by pollution and hunters, or fishermen who do not adhere to regulations.”
Businesses such as Froggies Out Island Adventure, a snorkeling and SCUBA diving company, can attest to the potential for eco-tourism in Abaco, which is just now gaining momentum. Entrepreneurs understand that as eco-tourism grows in popularity around the world and here in Abaco, competition dictates the development and maintenance of a parks system of healthy reefs, forests and wetlands. “Our national parks give our visitors a place to go to experience the natural and unique beauty of the Abacos,” says Cornish. “A national parks system is not only instrumental in ensuring that our islands remain attractive to our visitors, but is effective at providing replenishing zones for the country’s fisheries, forests and birdlife.”
As another example of eco-tourism, flyfishing is a significant tourist attraction, a business that suffered minimal damage following the events of September 11 and recent economic downswings in the U.S., and it continues to be a growing industry, according to former Ambassador to the Environment Dr. Earl Deveaux.
Good stuff both grows
and lurks in “Da Bush.”
Abaco has five parks and reserves, one being of impressive acreage, the other four relatively small. The largest is Abaco National Park, a 20,500-acre parcel of land located on southern Great Abaco that protects mostly pine forest, but also natural coppice, duck ponds, and blue holes. This particular tract was selected because the pine forest there is an important nesting ground for the endangered Bahama Parrot, which in Abaco includes about 1,000 birds. Ornithologist Rosemary Gnam, who has devoted years of study to the Bahama Parrot, and local forestry officers such as Jill Weech and David Knowles were instrumental in protecting this important area.
The Abaco National Park is home to many other rarities from the Pygmy Boa, an endemic snake, to the Bahama Pintail Duck. The entire southern end of Great Abaco was recently selected by the international birding community as an Important Bird Area (IBA), and Anthony White, author of A Birder’s Guide to the Bahama Islands, published by the American Birding Association, says, “[Great] Abaco has the best birding of any island in the Bahamas.” The park also covers a large area of the Great Abaco water table.
Bahamians often refer to the native vegetation as “da bush.” Whether this nomenclature is derogatory or affectionate is debatable, but studies by one chemist at the University of Chicago, who has been extracting and examining samples from native trees and plants, show that the Bahamian “bush” deserves a lot of respect. From 45 extracts, according to the study, “12 show good cytotoxic [cellular] activity against human melanoma cells and human bladder carcinoma cells.” These include poisonwood, cinnamon bark and two varieties of stoppers. Eight extracts showed antibacterial activity and two showed antifungal activity. Who knows? Maybe the cure for cancer, among other ailments, is here in Abaco.
Further north, near Treasure Cay, the Abaco pine forest hosts another one-of-a-kind species: the Abaco Barbary horses. Last year the Horse of the Americas Registry, which documents “only horses of irrefutable Columbian era Spanish descent,” registered Abaco’s wild horses based on the research of equine geneticists. The Abaco horses - small and now rotund pintos and bays - are thought to be descendants of horses from the Barbary Coast of Africa, which the Moors transported to Spain, and which became the “Horse of the Conquest.”
Milanne (Mimi) Rehor, Project Director for the Abaco Barbary Horse Project, says, “Abaco and the Bahamas are curators of possibly the purest strain remaining in existence.” Horse of the Americas Registry, in its announcement of these findings, wrote to Prime Minister Perry Christie: “This designationis an honor and will bring positive attention to the Bahamas from horse enthusiasts and animal lovers worldwide.”
The “Abaco barbs,” however, are teetering on the brink of extinction, their population being in the teens. At loose in the groves of Bahama Star Farm, a large citrus farm near the Treasure Cay Airport, the horses are suffering from obesity because of the abundance of grasses, and misshapen hooves because of the soft ground. In an effort to preserve the horses, Mr. Christie announced to Parliament last October that a park would be established in the pine forest adjacent to the farm, a habitat to which the horses are better suited. According to Abaco’s Agricultural Officer David Knowles, the park consists of almost 3,200 acres of crown land east of and adjacent to the farm. It encompasses a popular “blue hole” in the pine forest where the animals can have access to fresh water.
The other existing Abaco parks are located in the outlying cays. Pelican Cay Land and Sea Park protects 2,100 acres, including a large fringing reef (Sandy Cay Reef), which is habitat for a variety of marine life, and an ideal spot for snorkeling and picnicing. The surrounding cays are important nesting sites for a variety of terns. Tilloo Cay National Reserve is an 11-acre wilderness shoreline, where sea birds such as the elegant, long-tailed Tropic Birds nest. Further north is the Black Sound Cay National Preserve, two acres of mangroves in the harbour of Green Turtle Cay. Finally, at the northern-most point of Abaco is Walkers Cay Reserve, a reef area popular with SCUBA divers.
Marine reserves: still plenty more fish in the sea
There’s nothing like boiled, buttery chunks of grouper on a winter morning, or a fresh, tender conch salad anytime. In Abaco, these delicacies are staples; diving for conch or spearing grouper is the essence of life in the islands. Most Abaconians have secret fishing grounds, where they can depend on catching a meal. But nature’s abundance here is in a precarious balance, one that has already been dangerously tipped elsewhere. If you travel south in the Caribbean, or even around densely populated New Providence, the Queen Conch and Nassau Grouper have been largely fished out. In Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Nassau Grouper is “economically extinct,” and a year-long fish survey around the coasts of the Dominican Republic found only three individuals.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) included the Nassau Grouper as an endangered species on its Red List 2000, meaning that the species “faces a high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future because of actual or potential levels of exploitation.” Due to overfishing and loss of nesting habitat, all species of marine turtles that were once populous in the Bahamas are now endangered, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), as are 16 different corals. The prognosis for marine resources like conch, crawfish and grouper - targets of the commercial fishing industry - is a future of diminishing returns.
The good news is that Central Government in Nassau and conservation organizations such as the Bahamas Reef Environmental Education Foundation (BREEF), Bahamas National Trust (BNT), and, in Abaco, Friends of the Environment, are increasingly proactive in protecting critical marine and terrestrial habitat to ensure the continuance of species, for their economic value to the tourism and fishing industries as well as their ecological and cultural importance. The Department of Fisheries, after consulting with BREEF, other conservation groups, local representatives, and scientists, in the last few years established five new marine reserves or “no-take” zones in the Bahamas, one of which is off Walkers Cay in North Abaco. Fisheries’ goal is to create a nationwide network of these reserves totaling “at least 20% of the productive shelf edge of The Bahama banks.” The Department of Fisheries publication, “Marine Reserves Network,” states: “Long-term protection of our valuable marine resources absolutely requires the development of a network of fully protected marine reserves.”
The Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, a 22-mile chain of small islands and surrounding waters, is a pioneer Marine Reserve, having been designated a “no-take” zone by BNT in 1986. For more than a decade, researchers have studied the Exuma park. They have found that the grouper, conch, lobster and other species within the park “are bigger and more abundant” than outside. In addition, grouper that were tagged within the Exuma park have been found at spawning aggregations off north and south Long Island. Within the park there is also a greater diversity of fish than outside it. “These studies conclusively show that the park not only works as a sanctuary, but also acts as a reservoir for restocking the adjacent fisheries.”
Besides their importance to fisheries replenishment, Bahamian culture and preservation of a fragile and unique ecology, marine reserves also enhance the tourist experience of snorkeling, SCUBA diving or bone fishing (which does not constitute “taking” since the fish are released).
Saving it now means
having it for later
The Bahamas has doubled the size of its parks, most notably in April, 2003, when the Bahamas National Trust endorsed a proposal from the Andros Conservancy and Trust (AnCat), an environmental nonprofit comprised of fishermen and people of High Cay, Andros, to protect 330,000 acres, encompassing barrier reefs, mangrove stands and inland dry forest. Members of AnCat were awarded $25,000 by The Nature Conservancy, which considers the Bahamas to be an especially important conservation site because so much of its ecology is still intact. Lory Kenyon, a past president of Friends of the Environment was impressed by comparisons with other areas which had major environmental deterioration. “I learned that the Bahamas is a jewel that must be saved,” she says. “Prevention is better than cure!”
Friends of the Environment has focused on establishing marine reserves in the Sea of Abaco to preserve mangrove shoreline, which is a natural hatchery. Conch beds and coral reefs, primarily the Fowl Cay Reef between Man-O-War and Scotland cays, are also on the preservation agenda. “There’s definitely a need for more parks,” say Kenyon. “Sustainable fishing is only going to be possible if we have replenishment zones. Exuma has this huge land and sea park [186 square miles], and the amount of visitors and the population there is small compared to Abaco. The area of Pelican Cay Land and Sea Park is not nearly enough to replenish the whole of Abaco Sound.”
Mr. Cornish says he would like to see the Pelican Cays Land and Sea Park extended to include Snake Cay on Great Abaco as a protected hatchery. In 1983, The Bahamas National Trust proposed that Fowl Cay Reef and the Marls, a massive mangrove hatchery on the west coast of Great Abaco, be designated as reserves, but government approval is still pending.
Meanwhile, with much already accomplished, Abaco is looking at a strong future for eco-tourism, where visitors will have access to some of the world’s best snorkeling and diving, as well as birding, hiking, kayaking, boating and fishing.