As we enter the dry season, the public is reminded to not set fires on offshore islands as fires have negative effects on natural areas, both on land and in the ocean. Many islands in the Grenadines are refuges for wildlife, including globally important populations of nesting seabirds, and all are sensitive to fires and their consequences. In addition, setting fires in Wildlife Reserves, including Battowia and Petit Canouan, is against the law.

Fires can devastate biodiversity on remote islands and are prohibited in protected areas. Credit: Juliana Coffey

After burning events, there is less vegetation to hold the soil in place; when it rains, the soil is washed into the sea and covers nearby coral reefs, limiting the sunlight reefs need to thrive and support healthy fisheries.  This tragedy under the sea is mirrored by the death of plants, insects, reptiles and other wild creatures that live on the islands. Each plant and animal plays a role in this sensitive ecosystem. Fires disrupt that balance, reducing the diversity of species on an island. For example, Petit Canouan is subjected to periodic burning and is now dominated by Guinea Grass (Panicum maximum), which competes with native plants and is invasive in the Caribbean. 

This is also the start of nesting season for seabirds like terns and gulls that seek out the remote islands of the Grenadines to raise their chicks. Under the Wildlife Acts of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Grenada, it is illegal to harvest seabird eggs, chicks, or adults at any time of year.  Illegal harvesting or poaching is therefore an offense that is punishable by law.

It is illegal to harvest eggs, chicks, or adults of seabirds such as this Laughing Gull. Credit: Katharine Lowrie

Fires are not the only concern at this time.  Human presence on nesting islands, especially within nesting colonies, can prove harmful.  When a seabird is scared off its nest, such as by a nearby person, the exposed chick or egg can die in as little as several minutes of exposure to the hot tropical sun and predators.

Many seabirds only lay one egg per year, meaning if that one egg or chick is taken or dies, there will be fewer of these birds in future generations.  Seabird populations are declining worldwide; harvesting and disturbance will only hasten their decline and can result in the disappearance of seabirds from our waters altogether.  This has happened for many seabird species around the world.

Seabirds are part of the natural and cultural heritage of the region. They assist fisherfolk in finding fish, reading weather patterns, and navigating. They also circulate nutrients between land and sea, while studies have shown their guano is critical for healthy reefs and fisheries. It is crucial that we respect our seabird neighbors if they are to survive. To this end, Environmental Protection in the Caribbean (EPIC) is working with communities to raise awareness about conserving seabirds, training citizen scientists through the Grenadines Seabird Guardians program to collect data, and hosting meetings of the Grenadines Seabird Conservation Plan Working Group to develop long-term solutions to key issues.

This project is made possible through support from St. Vincent and the Grenadines Environment Fund, U.S. Agency for International Development, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.