How Hurricane Maria hurt Puerto Rico's ecosystems

September 26, 2018, 4:06:03 PM EDT

By Luis Joel Méndez

Weathered by heavy rains, intense winds and constant swells, fish, bats, insects and birds have been affected in Puerto Rico following hurricanes Maria and Irma last year. Losses of their habitats and food sources exemplify the suffering of wildlife on the island for these phenomena. But, with the contribution of scientists and volunteers, the local fauna is seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.

The decline of bat populations

“The decrease in the population of bats in Puerto Rico due to Hurricane Maria has been having an effect in agriculture and human health. This may delay the recovery of forests by native trees that depend on these mammals to disperse their seeds,” said Armando Rodríguez, coordinator of the Bat Conservation Program of Puerto Rico.

Of the 13 bat species that inhabit the island, the fruit bats were the most affected, said Rodríguez. This, in large part, was due to the lack of food as well as the flooding in the caves where they live.

"We were monitoring [the bat population] in Culebra, Arecibo, Bayamón and Toa Alta, but in all four places, there was a significant impact," Rodríguez said.

"The decline [in population] of those insectivorous bats that died by drowning in their caves could increase the amount of insects like it has happened in the past," said Rodríguez,

It is estimated that bats consume about 21 tons of mosquitoes per month, so having a decrease in their population could become a threat to health that could bring illnesses such as Zika, Dengue and Chikungunya, according to Rodríguez.

"A decrease in the bat population as seen in Puerto Rico... would cause an annual loss of $25 million to agriculture," added Rodríguez.

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Drastic reduction in fishing

Many fishmongers had to close in Puerto Rico after the passage of Hurricane Maria due to the shortage of several types of marine fish for commercial fishing, which caused the fishing industry to suffer losses of up to $3.8 million, according to information provided by the Department of Agriculture of Puerto Rico.

"After Hurricane Maria, everything went down," recalled George Thomas, vice president of the Fishermen's Corporation in Naguabo. "The storm surge and the turbid water greatly affected the fishing and sale of fish in the [Naguabo] area."

On the other hand, the high sedimentation and intensity of the tides in the seabed had an impact at 30 meters under the sea and affected the population of coral reefs, said Raimundo Espinoza, marine biologist in charge of the Conservacion ConCiencia organization.

"In the coastal areas of the west of the country, erosion has been destroying the homes of the sea turtles that nest there," Espinoza said, adding that in the waters of eastern Puerto Rico, soft corals were plucked from their area by the intensity of the waves.

"In the fishing season, when the local merchants went fishing, they obtained normal amounts of lobsters, but with the conch, it was the opposite... I do not know if they went into the deeper waters, if they are buried in the sand or if they are simply dead," said the marine biologist.

Native birds disappear

(Photo/Gabriel Soto)

The bird known as Bobo Menor was one of the species that suffered the impact of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico.

(Photo/Gabriel Soto)

The bird known as Bobo Menor was one of the species that suffered the impact of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico.

(Photo/Gabriel Soto)

The bird known as Bobo Menor was one of the species that suffered the impact of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico.

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Small birds, such as the bullfinch, jilgueros and buzzers, have been damaged by a significant population decline after the passage of María and Irma, which has led to an increase in their need to reproduce, said Sergio Colón, one of the founders of the Puerto Rican Ornithological Society.

"Because of the great destruction in the central area of the country, Turkish pigeons migrated to the coasts in large flocks searching for food," the connoisseur shared.

The force of the winds and lack of food harmed the native birds more than migratory ones because the latter continued their course toward South America during the atmospheric phenomenon, added Colón.

"Exotic birds that may be in their place of origin were not used to being hit by hurricanes, practically disappeared... In Culebra, where I went recently, I did not see any crested buzzer, which are very common there. In Vieques, these buzzers have not been seen either," he said.

Insects alter the flora

Butterfly Puerto Rico

"Mariposa Julia" (or Julia Butterfly), is one of the insects that migrated to new environments in order to survive. (Photo/Gabriel Soto)

The Department of Agriculture estimated that crops in Puerto Rico may have suffered damage valued at more than $2 billion after hurricanes María and Irma.

Due to the lack of data on the damage suffered by the insects after María and Irma, the entomologist Amelia Franqui, a professor at the Agricultural Experimental Station of the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, mentioned that some of these populations such as queresas, butterflies, flies and tree crickets could be affected, according to multiple studies conducted in El Yunque National Forest after the passage of Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

Using previous hurricanes as a starting point, Franqui explained that non-native insects could have arrived in the country through masses of air, as happened in El Yunque after Hugo.

Equally, Franqui is convinced that the population of bees on the island has been adversely affected not only by Irma and María, but by all of the hurricanes that have occurred in the last three decades. This would have an adverse impact on agriculture. An investigation carried out by the magazine "Ecological Economics" concluded that bees have a crucial role specifically in agriculture in southern Puerto Rico.

The Department of Agriculture has estimated an 80 percent loss of artificial hives in Puerto Rico as a result of María and Irma. "We suspect that extinction processes may have occurred in native bees [considering previous experiences]. This has happened in other places like in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, where it has been proven that their native bees are in danger of extinction due to the effects of hurricanes," said the entomologist.

Long recovery with new challenges

A year after María and Irma, the recovery of the local fauna is just beginning. Based on past experiences like hurricanes Hugo in 1989 and Georges in 1998, this process could extend to more than a decade, concluded the fauna experts.

"We have gone through about eight [hurricanes] in a period of 30 years, which could reduce the speed of recovery of many species," said Franqui.

However, the expert mentioned that citizen cooperation through social networks in order to protect the insect population was a movement that surprised her, and she thinks that it could contribute to the recovery of animal life.

Marine biologist Reimundo Espinoza commented that governmental agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture, have financed long-term studies on the ecological restoration through federal funds of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

"Organizations such as the United States Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) funded the removal of debris at sea and reef reconstruction in Puerto Rico," he added.

However, marine species in full recovery from the hurricanes that occurred last year will come up against obstacles that will affect their survival. According to Espinoza, factors caused by climate change, such as marine erosion and the increase in water temperatures, will be challenges in which one must think about how to cope.

"So far, there are no studies on what the impact will be [from climate change] to fishing in Puerto Rico. However, Hurricane Maria has allowed efforts to be made viable to see what kind of measures are necessary to face these future challenges," Espinoza said.

Editor's note: This project was a mention of honor in the AccuWeather Environmental Journalism Scholarship.

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