New survey points to lasting impact of Hurricane Maria on marine environments in Dominica

Seagrass beds

Scientists from the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) have recently discovered large seagrass beds where coral reefs might have been expected off the Island of Dominica, likely due to damage caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017.

The survey was conducted as part of the UK’s Commonwealth Marine Economies (CME) Programme.

Dominica’s position in the Eastern Caribbean means it is highly susceptible to natural disasters. In 2017 Hurricane Maria (a deadly Category 5 hurricane) crossed the Island, severely damaging the coastline and its fishing community. Recovery of marine habitats following damaged caused by the hurricane in the surveyed areas had not been assessed prior to the NOC’s recent study.

Working with the fisheries department of the Ministry of Blue and Green Economy, Agriculture and National Food Security, NOC scientists conducted a baseline marine environmental and topographic survey in areas that are renowned for their fishing and diving resources. The information collected will improve the marine spatial planning and management of these areas, supporting the development of sustainable coastal blue economies and helping to mitigate the impacts of future natural disasters.

Scott Furssedonn-Wood, High Commissioner to Barbados & Eastern Caribbean, said: “Surveys like these provide invaluable scientific data that can help in understanding the damaging effects of climate events, which can help in mitigation efforts to protect vital ocean ecosystems and resources on which the people of Dominica depend for their livelihood.

Using a small remote-controlled camera system, videos were captured of the seabed between five and 100 metres in depth to distinguish the environmental conditions for fish, seagrass, and coral. The survey revealed that a significant amount of sediment that originated from the coastline was covering the seafloor further offshore, while very large seagrass beds were found nearer to the shore than before. Although coral reefs were also detected in the survey, they were typically smaller than would normally be expected at those water depths.

Dr Tim Le Bas, a Marine Environmental Mapping Expert at the National Oceanography Centre, said: “Dominica is no stranger to hurricanes of such magnitude, so it’s uncertain how long it will take for the seafloor to fully recover. Habitat surveys such as this are therefore essential for understanding and monitoring seafloor evolution and can help officials to identify specific causes of damage to the marine environment.

“Throughout this project we worked closely with officers within the fisheries department in Dominica, enhancing their capabilities in marine habitat mapping so that they can continue to acquire and interpret this type of data in the future.”

Furssedonn-Wood added: “The data will also play a critical role in underpinning strategies by the Government of Dominica to plan for future severe weather events, given the country’s susceptibility to hurricanes. We welcome the UK’s commitment to helping vulnerable SIDS navigate climate challenges and to work with key agencies to build capacity.”

Funded by the UK Government, the CME Programme supports Small Island Developing States (SIDS) to better understand and utilise their marine resources, resulting in sustainable and growing marine economies that create jobs, drive national economic growth, reduce poverty, ensure food security and build resilience.

Learn more about the CME Programme