A small group of Puerto Rican and international conservationists work on rebuilding natural wonders destroyed by the strongest storm to hit the island in nearly a century. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Crew with seeds, corals restore environment in Puerto Rico

  • Mar. 9, 2018 7:50 a.m.

FAJARDO, Puerto Rico — As crews re-string electric lines and clear debris from Hurricane Maria, a small group of Puerto Rican and international conservationists is working on rebuilding natural wonders destroyed by the strongest storm to hit the island in nearly a century.

Environmental groups and volunteers are gathering native seeds to replant forests across the U.S. territory and grafting broken coral back onto shattered reefs to help repair damage in the largest-ever effort of its kind for Puerto Rico.

The Category 4 storm damaged 1.2 billion trees and snapped hundreds of thousands of corals off reefs around the island when it hit on Sept. 20. Despite the widespread destruction, a lack of funding and pressing human needs kept pushing back long-term plans to replant trees and rebuild corals.

Now that Puerto Rico is slowly regaining its footing after the storm and initial funding has been secured, conservationists are fanning out across the island and into its waters to repair and restore what’s left of the island’s flora.

“The damage is huge,” said Nilda Jimenez, marine ecology director for the island’s Department of Natural Resources.

Helping nature recover has environmental and economic importance: Puerto Rico’s natural beauty is one of its biggest tourist draws. Experts also note that reefs protect coasts from heavy swells and serve as habitat for many species consumed on the island, including red snappers, lobsters and octopi.

Last week, a group of divers assembled on a dock in the northeast coastal town of Fajardo, a popular destination for tourists eager to explore reefs that once boasted bright colours and a multitude of fish. Now, hundreds of broken corals that are still alive lay scattered across the turquoise waters, ranging in size from a grapefruit to a car.

Armed with buckets of cement, divers pick up the broken pieces and swim to reefs that have been identified as healthy despite the battering they received from the storm. The divers brush away any algae that have built up and push the pieces down into the freshly laid cement.

“If you think about what you’re seeing, it’s broken animals,” said Jim Ritterhoff, executive director of Force Blue, a non-profit organization made up of retired U.S. Special Operations veterans working on coral reef conservation projects.

The group is participating in a nearly $1.5 million project largely funded by the U.S. government with help from the U.S. non-profit organization Ocean Conservancy to help restore between 100 and 300 corals a day in Puerto Rico for two months. They are focusing on the island’s northeast region, where swaths of mostly elkhorn and staghorn corals received the brunt of large swells generated during the hurricane. If further funding is available, divers will target other areas as well.

“The sooner we get out there, the better,” said Sean Griffin, coral reef restoration ecologist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “There are still tens of thousands of corals out there that are upside down or even just on their side that we can get out there and save.”

Similar restoration efforts are taking place on land miles away from the divers.

At a greenhouse run by the non-profit group Para La Naturaleza in the capital of San Juan, volunteers and workers tend to thousands of budding plants that will grow into trees as they’re planted across the island. They have planted nearly 1,900 trees since January, with a goal of 750,000 in the next seven years, said Luisa Rosado, the group’s habitat manager.

“This is a project where we really won’t see the results,” she said. “The results will be from now to 100 years.”

It’s also a labour-intensive project where crews have to return every three months to the site where the trees are planted to monitor their progress during the first year, then every four months in the second year. Rosado said more volunteers are needed, especially because the non-profit is tied up visiting places around the island trying to find seeds for native and endemic species.

Sometimes they get lucky and people call them, saying they uncovered seeds amid hurricane debris. A man from the western mountain town of Lares recently brought in a 4-foot-tall bag filled with branches and leaves but also a tiny black seed known as aceitillo, which is now a rare species.

The find drew a big smile from Manuel Sepulveda, greenhouse managing co-ordinator for Para La Naturaleza.

“There are very few seed banks in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean,” he said. “We need millions of seeds.”

The efforts also have a deeper meaning for Rosado.

“This is a way for us to recuperate together,” she said. “To recover the island.”

Just Posted

Buffalo Lake residents voice opposition to proposed RV Resort

County of Stettler holds contentious Public Hearing on Paradise Shores RV Resort

Budget good for RDC, not so much Red Deer businesses

College can apply for more tech spots, but minimum wage is still going up

Red Deer hospital expansion advances to square one

Planning for future needs gets $1-million over five years

Case of former MLA accused of sex assault, interference back in court next month

Former Innisfail-Sylvan Lake MLA Don MacIntyre’s case to return to court on April 19

WATCH: Hundreds come to Red Deer Rebels Fan Fest

The Red Deer Rebels met with legions of their of fans just… Continue reading

Excavator frees dolphins trapped by pack ice in Newfoundland harbour

HEARTS DELIGHT, N.L. — A pod of dolphins trapped by pack ice… Continue reading

Structure fire destroys home in Mirror

A house in Mirror is completely damaged due to an overnight structure… Continue reading

Trudeau warns senators not to thwart will of Canadians on marijuana bill

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is reminding senators that his government… Continue reading

Burgers outselling classic baguette sandwiches in France

PARIS — Forget the baguette. The French are going crazy for burgers.… Continue reading

Can Zuckerberg’s media blitz take the pressure off Facebook?

NEW YORK — In the wake of a privacy scandal involving a… Continue reading

Brace for more red ink, no good plan for balance in Alberta budget: opposition

EDMONTON — Opposition parties say Albertans should brace for a provincial budget… Continue reading

Police: Austin bomber’s motive still unknown, despite video

PFLUGERVILLE, Texas — A 25-minute cellphone video left behind by the bomber… Continue reading

Facebook crisis-management lesson: What not to do

NEW YORK — The crisis-management playbook is pretty simple: Get ahead of… Continue reading

Most Read

Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $185 for 260 issues (must live in delivery area to qualify) Unlimited Digital Access 99 cents for the first four weeks and then only $15 per month Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $15 a month