In a previous article on resilience in the U.S. Virgin Islands, I stated that the determinants of vulnerability, risk, and resilience include the natural attributes of a system. One of the most important features of the ecological systems in the U.S. Virgin Islands is its wetlands, locally called swamp, mangrove swamp, pond, or salt pond.
“Wetland” is a generic term covering several types of natural areas that are perennially wet or where the soil is waterlogged for extended periods of time. The definition adopted for the U.S. Virgin Islands is based on the definition by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, a wetland is defined as “an area that is inundated or saturated by surface or ground water at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions.”
The 2010 edition of Wetlands of the U.S. Virgin Islands identifies seven types of wetlands in the U.S. Virgin Islands:
- Watercourses (ghuts/guts),
- Artificial ponds and impoundments,
- Salt/saline ponds,
- Lagoons, and
- Shallow seagrass beds.
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, wetlands are generally regarded as places of little value, with some types viewed as useless smelly places to be filled and used for ‘development’ purposes. It is a view that is not informed by knowledge of the importance of wetlands to human well-being.
Globally, wetlands are acknowledged as one of the most biologically productive ecosystems. They contribute to human well-being by providing a large range of goods and services, including:
- Fresh water for domestic, industrial, and agricultural uses, including recharge of groundwater sources.
- Food; from subsistence level to large-scale industrial operations.
- Materials for fuel, crafts, and biochemical products.
- Risk reduction; for example by regulating flood water discharge, protecting shorelines from wave action and storms, or acting as fire brakes.
- Functioning as habitats for a large number of biologically and economically important species, including many commercially important fish and shell fish.
- Maintaining the integrity of adjacent ecosystems by reducing soil erosion, regulating pollution, and re-cycling nutrients.
- Regulation of climate change through carbon sequestration and storage.
- Spiritual and cultural renewal; through their identity as places of cultural and spiritual significance, including places for practicing cultural traditions.
- Health and recreation services for local populations and tourism.
Estimates of the total economic value of wetland ecosystems indicate that wetlands are economically valuable. The estimates vary, depending on the factors considered, but it is generally agreed that the values are underestimated. A 2008 compilation of studies on the economic values of coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrasses suggests that the economic value of intact mangrove ecosystems may be several times higher than if the mangrove ecosystem is converted to a different use.
These three ecosystems are critically important components of the coastal ecosystems in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Not only do we not know the economic contribution of wetlands to the local economy, we do not know the status of these vitally important resources.
There are several local and national laws and programs that are intended to protect wetlands. Notably, Title 12, Chapter 2, Section 105 (f) of the Virgin Islands Code prohibits the cutting, pruning, removal, and disturbance to mangroves. Title 12, Chapter 21, Section 96 requires the establishment of coastal zone management policies and rules to protect wetlands and other significant coastal ecosystems. Yet there is continuing degradation and loss of wetlands, particularly coastal wetlands, due to human activities.
In the context of resilience of the U.S. Virgin Islands, the three most important things to remember about wetlands are:
- Wetland ecosystems are among the most valuable ecosystems, providing a large number of goods and services necessary for human well-being.
- Damage to wetlands by human activities reduces the flow of goods and services, thereby reducing the contribution to the economy and human well-being.
- Intact ecosystems generate higher returns to the economy than replacement uses.
Maintenance of healthy ecosystems, particularly wetlands, is critically important if the U.S. Virgin Islands is to remain a vibrant community.
We know how to restore and maintain the integrity of these important ecosystems. We know where to start, at the level of both the policy framework and programs. We need to work individually and collectively to protect our future.
Sources of Information Cited
Applying the Concept of Resilience in the United States Virgin Islands
Economic Values of Coral Reefs, Mangroves, and Seagrasses: A Global Compilation (2008)
Framework for Management of Wetlands in the U.S. Virgin Islands
Global Wetland Outlook 2018
Wetlands of the U.S. Virgin Islands: 2010 Edition
World Wetlands Day