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Experts split on Grande Riviere action
Government was slow to acknowledge and react to the changing nature of the coastline at Grande Riviere which resulted in the destruction of hundreds of baby leatherback turtles and hatchlings over the weekend. This is the view of Marc de Verteuil of the environmental group Papa Bois Conservation, who said yesterday that the signs were there as long as eight months ago.
Last weekend hundreds of leatherback turtles, which are deemed an endangered species, were destroyed when workers from the Ministry of Water and the Environment’s Drainage Division diverted a river that was eroding the beachfront, putting homes and businesses in danger.
De Verteuil feels the situation could have been prevented if the Government had listened to people of the community eight months ago when they warned that the river was changing its course. Speaking at a press conference held at the beach by the Ministry of Water and the Environment on Tuesday, an outspoken de Verteuil said reports of 20,000 turtles being destroyed were exaggerated.
“We’ve heard from the fishermen that months ago they had a problem with their boats and their boats sank. The problem first started in December. That is eight months ago,” he said. Even though several experts have said the turtle eggs destroyed had a very small chance of hatching, he still believes the problems at Grande Riviere should have been dealt with earlier.
“What happened here was ridiculous. It is not something that should ever have happened on one of the most environmentally sensitive beaches in the world. This should be a beach managed according to the best practices found anywhere in the world,” he said.
Also taking issue with the latest developments was Dr Judy Gobin, environmental scientist and lecturer in life sciences at the University of the West Indies (UWI), who said there needed to be more consultation between the people who were involved in the decision-making process at Grande Riviere.
Gobin, who spoke with the T&T Guardian in a telephone interview yesterday, is also the chair of the board of the Asa Wright Nature Centre and lectures in coastal-zone management. She said no one at her faculty was consulted on the diversion of the river at Grande Riviere. “Redirecting a river of that size is a fairly major activity. What one needs to do is to have a good coastal understanding of the area. They would then be able to make an informed decision.”
Gobin said in her professional opinion the work should not have taken place when it did. “I think the activity should not have been allowed at this particular time when there would be so many hatchlings. This period ends in August,” she said. She also questioned whether the properties that were to be protected by the excavation work were privately owned or public buildings and if they had adhered to the laws on building on the coast in the first place.
Gobin said people who built on the coastline were required to do so at a certain distance from the coast, called a setback distance. “There needs to be important consideration for the environment before any mitigation measure of this nature is carried out,” she said. Also lending her voice to the chorus of protests at what transpired last weekend was president of the Pointe-a-Pierre Wildfowl Trust Molly Gaskin.
In an e-mail message, Gaskin stated her “disgust” at the destruction of the turtles and hatchlings. “What occurred on the beach of Grande Riviere a few days ago is a crying shame, literally. Hundreds of young leatherback turtles slaughtered. The entire world is looking on. What does all of this make us? We sign so many treaties, go to so many conferences and we sign so many conventions at home. Is this what we do to a creature that worldwide is accepted as an endangered species on a priority list?”
But there has been some support for the actions of the Ministry of Water and the Environment’s Drainage Division, who undertook the diversion of the river. Some people who were there said most of the turtles were already dead before the work crew arrived and there is support among the residents of the east-coast village for the Government’s intervention to prevent a greater catastrophe. This view was shared by CEO of the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) Dr Joth Singh.
“In essence the action which was taken by the ministry was informed by local conservation experts and fishermen in the Grande Riviere area and our technical experts,” Singh said at Tuesday’s press conference. He said while the action may have appeared drastic, it was a decision that had to be made.
“We truly regret the slaughter of these magnificent sea creatures but when our excavators went into the area marked for remedial works, more than 80 per cent of the eggs were already destroyed. Our workers reported that the area was not habitable for any eggs that were deposited there.”
Dr Allen Bachan, director of the Turtle Village Trust, who was also at the press conference, supported the Government’s actions, saying even though many turtles were killed, thousands had been saved. “Our organisation has worked for many years with the Forestry Division, and on this occasion we had to go with the facts. This area was determined to be the best place in order to save the remaining 97.9 per cent of the eggs, which is estimated to be over a million eggs,” he said.
And president of the Caribbean Institute of Sustainability Steven Greenleaf admits he is not an expert on turtles, but believes the sensational way the story was reported in some of the media may have led to a lot of misunderstanding. Greenleaf, who is also an experienced ecologist and natural-resource conservation professional, spoke with the T&T Guardian in a telephone interview yesterday.
He said the community of Grande Riviere is an excellent example of community-based natural-resource management, and because of this he believes it was absolutely necessary to have the river redirected. Greenleaf said he spoke to several people from the village and various organisations associated with the beach and could not find anyone who was in disagreement with the earthworks undertaken last weekend.
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