Wetlands- More Than Meets the Eye

As many are aware, there has recently been news of a residential development planned north of San Pedro in the Buena Vista area. Due to the fact that the proposed area is comprised mainly of wetlands (surrounded by lagoons and mangroves), we at Green Reef, as well as other members of the community, are concerned about this plan and feel that more environmental studies in the area are necessary before the development continues. Because it may not be clear to some why there is a need to preserve this area, Green Reef believes it is only fair that this week's Reef Brief be devoted to discussing the significance of the valuable habitats of wetlands, including lagoons and mangroves.

True to their name, wetlands are areas where soil is saturated with water for prolonged periods of time. As with the proposed area of development, wetlands are often in low-lying areas, covered with a shallow layer of water. Because of their effectiveness in absorbing and holding a large amount of water, wetlands are almost always described as giant sponges. In times of heavy rain, the ability of wetlands to absorb water becomes critical in preventing flooding. Likewise, the presence of seagrass and water hyacinths in this habitat help trap sediments and toxins from terrestrial run-off that would otherwise degrade the island's ecosystem, not to mention the coral reef. Together with mangroves, wetlands also help maintain and stabilize the island structure, as well as buffer the winds and waves of big storms.

On a worldwide scale, it has become evident that wetlands play a vital role in slowing down global warming. Simply put, global warming is the gradual increase in the Earth's temperature due to the presence of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. Wetlands remove carbon from the atmosphere by allowing the decomposition of carbon through a mixing of bacteria and a deposit of peat. Essentially, carbon is stored in the peat and prevented from again entering the atmosphere.

Reef Brief is a weekly column published in the San Pedro Sun
Coastal wetlands often extend from lagoons and form when fresh water flows from the land and mixes with the salt water from the sea. This brackish environment has a high density of phytoplankton, as well as benthic microflora (algae) and macroflora (seagrass and mangroves), creating an area of very high productivity that attracts animals such as crocodiles and other marine life. Fish such as mutton snapper, cubera and tarpon inhabit the lagoons, presumably using the habitat as a spawning and nursery ground. In addition, lagoon sinkholes link to underground caves that occasionally offer up lobsters are found in this area. There is little doubt however, that of all the animals found in this ecosystem, it is migratory and resident birds that have most significantly become dependent on the area for food. For threatened bird species such as Roseate Spoonbills and Reddish Egrets, wetlands are considered a critical feeding habitat, providing important nutritional resources such as fish.

To summarize, wetlands are critical in their ability to protect the island from storms, to provide important habitat to many animal species, and to slow down global warming. Additionally, wetland areas such as those located north of San Pedro are often comprised of open water and lagoons, and offer a unique recreational area for fishermen, kayakers and birdwatchers. For these reasons, as well as many others, it is essential that wetland ecosystems, including the lagoons and mangroves of Ambergris Caye, not be taken for granted. Moreover, it should be remembered that once these ecosystems are gone, they are gone forever.

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