Government and local community work together to restore life to the mangroves of Puerto Rico
Salinas de Punta Cucharas Important Bird Area (IBA) is characterized by mangrove ecosystems, coastal sand dunes, a saline lagoon (Salinas lagoon), open water and a century-old local community. Sand extraction occurred during the 1950s affected Salinas Lagoon´s hydrological regime and current housing and transportation developments limit the natural waterflow and freshwater intake.
Concerned by evidence of mangrove and fish dye-off the local community and government worked together to improve the wetland´s waterflow, resulting in recovery of mangroves and replenishment of the small-scaled fisheries that provide protein and income to local fisherfolk and their families. In support of on-the-ground efforts between local community and government Sociedad Ornitológica Puertorriqueña, Inc (BirdLife Partner in Puerto Rico) plans to restore important shorebird nesting sites and collaborate in upcoming projects to facilitate low-impact, recreational and awareness-raising public use at the site.
Basic site information
Salinas de Punta Cucharas Important Bird Area (IBA) is on the coast of central-south Puerto Rico, on the south-western limits of Ponce municipality. It is comprised by dry coastal forests, a saline wetlands system – dominated by Salinas Lagoon – sand dunes, saltflats, mangroves, open water and adjacent marine ecosystems such as small cays, seagrass beds and coral reefs (Hernández-Delgado, 2010). The IBA is bounded to the north by the P.R. State Road #2 and to the west and east by tourist and urban developments (Méndez-Gallardo and Salguero-Faría, 2008).
The lower slopes of the limestone mountains at the north, feed the lagoon with fresh water. Salinas lagoon is connected to the sea through a short, narrow channel. The mangrove plant community (-c. 1.5 ha) includes red Rhizophora mangle, white Laguncularia racemosa, black Avicennia germinans and button Conocarpus erectus mangroves. Mangrove habitat is distributed unevenly around the lagoon and along the coastline and is in good condition, with the exception of some discrete areas. In fact, compared to other habitats, mangroves have shown the most positive recovery after the intensive sand extraction occurred in the early 1950s (Dávila and Sustache, 2004; Vásquez et al., 2011).
Average annual rainfall is approximately 697mm, with a maximum temperature of 29°C and two distinct dry and rainy seasons. As is the case for many Caribbean countries and territories, there is a history of hurricanes and tropical storms impacting Puerto Rico in general. More than 20 hurricanes and tropical storms have hit the country in the past 40 years with relevant effects to natural ecosystems and people.
The IBA supports a regionally significant breeding population of Least Tern Sterna antillarum. Other waterbirds occur including shorebirds. The shrublands and mangroves are home to restricted-range birds, Antillean Mango Anthracothorax dominicus, Puerto Rican Emerald Chlorostilbon maugeaus, Puerto Rican Tody Todus mexicanus, Puerto Rican Woodpecker Melanerpes portoricensis, Lesser Antillean Pewee Contopus latirostris, Puerto Rican Flycatcher Myiarchus antillarum, Puerto Rican Vireo Vireo latimeri, Pearly-eyed Thrasher Margarops fuscatus, Adelaide’s Warbler Dendroica adelaidae, Puerto Rican Bullfinch Loxigilla portoricensis, Puerto Rican Spindalis Spindalis portoricensis and Antillean Euphonia Euphonia musica.
Punta Cucharas is also a Key Biodiversity Area (KBA). Additional to birds, it is home to other animals such as the Common coqui Eleutherodactylus coqui, Dryland grass anole Anolis poncensis, Crested anole Anolis cristatellus, Puerto Rican bush anole Anolis pulchellus and Puerto Rican ground lizard Ameiva exsul. There are also several threatened plants species present: Cordia rupicola (CR), Sebucan Leptocereus quadricostatus (CR), Cock’s-spur Erythrina eggersii (EN), Holywood Lignum Vitae Guaiacum sanctum (EN), Guaiac Tree Guaiacum officinale (EN), Maytenus ponceana (VU) and Trichilia triacantha (CR).
Local livelihoods and economies
The local community of Punta Cucharas – found within the IBA and to the south-east of Salinas Lagoon – has existed for nearly a century. Originally a settlement of agricultural workers, it is currently a small-scale fishing community that lives without electricity or running water services. To the north-east is the nearest town (1.73 miles) of El Tuque and other urbanized communities of Punta Diamante, Punto Oro and La Matilde which in all total about 33, 867 people (Vásquez et al., 2011). Although Punta Cucharas community comprises 16 houses, 11 are owned by fishermen that don´t reside there but rather use the houses as a base while conducting fishing activities – typically over weekends. The livelihoods of the 12 fishermen who live in direct proximity of Punta Cucharas depend solely on the use of coastal and marine resources provided by the IBA.
Asides fishing for subsistence and small-scaled commercial purposes, the community dedicate a significant amount of time to the maintenance of Salinas Punta Cucharas IBA. Though less frequently, the natural area is used for recreational activities (e.g. sports fishing, birding, hiking, biking, and nature photography). Nature interpretation and debris clean-ups are undertaken by schools, universities and environmental groups who care for the IBA.
Policy and legal framework
Salinas Punta Cucharas is a legally-protected area (Natural Reserve). National government owns the land. However, nearby properties are privately-owned. The Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DRNA in Spanish) is the official authority and primary responsible for the conservation and management of the site, although they have a shared-management agreement with the community-based organization Comunidad Punta Cucharas.
Several NGOs (including BirdLife Partner in Puerto Rico Sociedad Ornitológica Puertorriqueña, Inc.) universities, agencies and individuals play a role in the conservation of the site and collaborate in its management but without any formal agreement with the national government. There are currently no planning or management instruments relevant to the conservation or management of the site.
State of knowledge and awareness of the mangrove ecosystem
A series of studies, research and projects have been conducted to guide and inform a management plan: hydrologic and natural value assessment, characterization of coral reefs, socioeconomic study and monitoring, bird monitoring and invasive species management. Economic valuation of the mangrove ecosystem has not been studied yet there is interest to develop such studies.
The site was used as a “clandestine dumping site” especially for scrap-metal, plastics, glass, tires and other types of wildlife-damaging solid waste. Uncontrolled recreational activities at the site generate additional garbage and disruption to local wildlife (e.g. terns and shorebirds) through use of all-terrain vehicles. Free-raging horses and stray dogs are a problem. The population of stray dogs is reportedly increasing due to reproduction of existing females and increased number of unwanted individuals (pets) abandoned at the site by non-resident people. The marine area is mainly threatened by disruption caused by a transhipment port facility and water pollution from water sewage discharges (although activities has been suspended due to current global economic crisis).
Surrounding roads as well as residential, industrial and high-impact tourism complexes pose a constant threat to Salinas de Punta Cucharas natural systems and processes. Housing, infrastructure and highway development on the northern side of the IBA limit the flow of freshwater into the wetland (Méndez-Gallardo and Salguero-Faría, 2008). Furthermore, uncontrolled sand extraction activities that occurred in Salinas Punta Cucharas during the 1950s affected Salinas Lagoon´s hydrological regime and altered the natural waterflow and freshwater intake.
BirdLife Partner and other stakeholder response
BirdLife Partner Sociedad Ornitológica Puertorriqueña Inc. (SOPI) advocated for the recognition of the natural area as an Important Bird Area and later advocated for its legal protection as Natural Reserve through a letter of support and participation at public hearings conducted at Ponce municipality. After its legal designation as protected area, they have participated in local discussions regarding management of the site. Other conservation efforts by SOPI include collaboration in a rat eradication project in Ratones Island – an adjacent island located within the confines of Punta Cucharas Natural Reserve, bird monitoring and educational activities with participation from Punta Cucharas community.
In 1971, the natural channel became obstructed due to increased accumulation of sediments (i.e. construction material) and natural sand build-up (Dávila and Sustache, 2004). Problems progressed until Punta Cucharas community members took on the initiative to repair the channel, primarily motivated by claims from fishermen who noticed death of red mangroves (interior) and fish – most likely as a result of oxygen deprivation and increased salinity in the lagoon. Comunidad Punta Cucharas organization – in collaboration with the DRNA and support from US Fish and Wildlife Service were able to open up the channel and repair a small bridge with the intention of improving waterflow and exchange of nutrients, organisms and minerals in and out of the wetland system. They also installed fences around damaged mangrove areas in order to limit human and vehicle access, and allow for vegetation and mangrove natural recovery.
The hands-on interventions of the community together with government support have resulted in improvement of the waterflow, recovery of mangroves and consequently, replenishment of the small-scaled fisheries that provide protein and income to fisherfolk. Furthermore, the empowered actions of Punta Cucharas community members have earn them popular recognition, helped increase public attention and societal perception towards mangrove ecosystems and built the foundation for collaborative action on the ground in this IBA.
Other stakeholders also undertake conservation initiatives at the site:
- The Universidad Interamericana (Interamerican University) Ponce Campus and Boy Scout troops in collaboration with the DRNA have planted trees in different areas in order to reforest human- impacted locations and naturally limit accessibility into fragile areas;
- Regular debris clean-ups by a variety of key players are solving the litter problem;
- Ponce municipality´s Animal Control Department of coordinates regular removal of stray dogs in order to reduce impact on existing wildlife and conflicts with people who use/visit the area.
Continued degradation of Salinas Lagoon and the potential loss of important ecosystem services (e.g. fish and crab for food, and a natural space for leisure and recreation) triggered the self-initiated mobilization of Punta Cucharas local community. Fisherfolk born and raised within the community worked together to reduce direct threats to the mangroves and wetland ecosystems of the Salinas de Punta Cucharas IBA. This turn of events shows that self-mobilization of local resources and social “tissue” is enabled by a strong level of attachment and sense of ownership/localness to a given site and its natural resources – particularly in the case of key interest/user groups.
Understandably, these same actors opposed to the legal protection of the area as a Natural Reserve, claiming that for years they solely had been interested in protecting and managing the site and its natural resources. They are particularly resistant to working with NGOs – who visible led legal designation of the process – and demonstrate will to collaborate only with government. To ensure full “buy-in”, it is crucial to ensure that all relevant stakeholders (including local community) are included from the start in decision-making processes that influence the use and control of natural resources overtime.
Local fishermen and crab harvesters have long depended on the use of the Salinas de Punta Cucharas coastal resources for their livelihoods. However, after designation as a legally protected area some of these uses were immediately considered illegal (namely crab harvesting). These activities were prohibited yet an alternative was not provided which may have led to discontent and a sense of loss among the traditional users who most directly depend on natural resources.
Collaboration between government and local community is possible when an enabling frame of work for collaborative action exists. This seems to be the case in Salinas de Punta Cucharas where the DRNA share management with the local community granting the latter a level of responsibility and control over the site. Furthermore, continuous support from the local community is also cost-effective for the DRNA. With limited financial and human resources, the government depends greatly on the man power and local resources provided by the community members for ongoing maintenance and management of the area.
Illegal activities – beyond the control of the community and that call for action of enforcement – continue threating the area: use of RVS vehicles, crab harvesting, overfishing, presence of dogs and garbage dumpster. Though there are many policies and a legal structure to protect the area and its wildlife, they are ineffective in the absence of insufficient law enforcement and vigilance – so threats persist.
In support of on-the-ground efforts between local community and government in Punta Cucharas, SOPI plans to restore important Least Tern nesting sites and participate in projects dealing with the construction of low-impact, recreational infrastructure (to facilitate public use).
Dávila, D. y Sustache, J. 2004. Informe sobre el valor natural del Área Natural Punta Cucharas, Barrio Canas, Ponce. Informe, Áreas de Planificación Integral, División de Patrimonio Natural, Departamento de Recursos Naturales y Ambientales, Puerto Rico: Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico.
Hernández-Delgado, E.A. 2010. Baseline biological characterization of coral reefs at Punta Cucharas Natural Reserve, Ponce, Puerto Rico.
Méndez-Gallardo and Salguero-Faría. 2008. Puerto Rico chapter. In: BirdLife International. 2008. Important Bird Areas in the Caribbean: key sites for conservation. Cambridge, UK: BirdLife International. (BirdLife Conservation Series No. 15).
Soler-López, L., F. Gómez-Gómez and J. Rodríguez-Martínez. 2005. Hydrologic, water-quality, and biological assessment of Laguna de Las Salinas, Ponce, Puerto Rico. January 2003-September 2004: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2005-5154, 50 pp.
Vásquez Cruz, R., C.J. Carrero Morales, J. Ramos García, A.K. Valdés, A. Maldonado Arroyo and G. Pons Cintrón. 2011. Reserva Natural Punta Cucharas, Ponce, Puerto Rico. Centro Interdisciplinario de Estudios del Litoral, de la Universidad de Puerto Rico en Mayagüez. Departamento de Recursos Naturales y Ambientales de Puerto Rico.
- Government and local community are working together to restore life to the mangroves of Puerto Rico. State of the world´s birds case study.
- Salinas de Punta Cucharas IBA
- Coastal Zone Management Program for Puerto Rico [in Spanish]
- Educación Ambiental: Herramienta para proteger la Reserva Natural Punta Cucharas [in Spanish]
- Reserva Natural Punta Cucharas
- Punta Cucharas on-line video
Alcides L. Morales. President. Sociedad Ornitológica Puertorriqueña Inc. (SOPI)
Verónica Anadón-Irizarry. Caribbean Program Manager. BirdLife International
Laura Perdomo. Mangrove Alliance Coordinator. BirdLife International