St. Maarten currently lacks terrestrial protected areas, yet the island is home to several areas of remarkable splendour that qualify for the status of protected area. These areas could be made into hillside nature parks because of their sheer natural beauty and the variety of plant life found there.
Mullet Pond: Protected Ramsar site
One of Sint Maarten’s most important wetlands, Mullet Pond, has been listed and protected as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Treaty on the 13th of October 2016. The Ramsar Convention, signed in Iran in 1971, is a global commitment to maintain the ecological character of global wetland areas, including in the wider Caribbean region.
Wetlands, including Mullet Pond, are vital for human survival. They are among the world’s most productive environments; cradles of biological diversity that provide the water and productivity upon which countless species of plants and animals depend for survival. They also provide countless benefits or “ecosystem services” ranging from biodiversity, to flood control, groundwater recharge, and climate change mitigation.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands has designated Mullet Pond in Sint Maarten as its 55th Ramsar Site. Mullet Pond (Ramsar Site no. 2270) is a semi-enclosed area of permanent shallow marine waters within the Simpson Bay Lagoon. The Site holds some of the few intact sea-grass beds in the wider Lagoon as well as 70% of the mangrove forest remaining on Sint Maarten, the Dutch part of the Caribbean island of Saint Martin.
The mangroves and sea-grass beds act as a major nursery area and important habitat for juvenile fish species which develop in the lagoon before moving to local coral reef ecosystems including in the Man of War Shoal Marine Park. The nationally critically endangered buttonwood Conocarpus erectus is found on Mullet Pond. The Site is also the last remaining habitat in the wider Simpson Bay area for Anolis pogus, a species endemic to the island, and the last intact foraging grounds in the Lagoon for the globally endangered green turtle Chelonia Mydas.
The mangroves provide coastal protection during hurricanes and tropical storms, and help to cycle nutrients in the larger Simpson Bay area. As well as supporting the fish stocks which local fisheries depend on, the Site is also used for eco-tourism activities such as kayaking tours. The area is under continuing pressure from development, while other threats relate to dredging, recreational and tourism activities, storms and flooding and invasive alien species including the red lionfish Pterois volitans.
From left to Right Former Senior Policy Advisor for Environment Claire Hooft Graafland, Nature Foundation Director Tadzio Bervoets and EPIC Board Member Fleur Hermanides in the Mullet Pond Ramsar Site.
Back Bay is located on the high-energy east coast of St. Maarten and is circled by hills. The area covers approximately 1 km² (100 ha) and has a number of different owners.
Back Bay has been identified as having a special conservation value as it is one of the few places on St. Maarten where no construction has taken place. It is also home to a number of possible historical sites and geological formations. Back Bay has a beach as well as rocky shores with significant intertidal communities, including mussels, chitons, sea urchins, grazing snails, sea stars, hermit crabs, sea anemones and mosses.
Simpson Bay Lagoon
Simpson Bay Lagoon is a dominant feature of St. Maarten and is one of the largest lagoons in the Lesser Antilles, covering approximately one fifth of the island (1,250 ha.). Its saline water is up to 6 meters (20ft.) deep, and relatively stable.
Simpson Bay Lagoon is located on the southwest coast of St. Maarten, adjacent to the Princess Juliana International Airport. About half of the lagoon lies in the French part of the island. The bay has calm waters most of the year as it faces south and is therefore protected from the northeastern winds.
Simpson Bay used to have the most significant stand of mangroves and seagrass beds on St. Maarten, but coastal developments have removed much of the forest. Red Mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) is most abundant along the water’s edge. Three species of seagrass have been recorded at Simpson Bay Lagoon: Manatee Grass (Syringodium filiforme), Paddle Grass (Halophila decipiens) and Turtle Grass (Thalassia testudinum).
The seagrass and mangrove areas that remain provide a perfect habitat for a wealth of species, including the Upside Down Jellyfish (Cassiopeia frondosa) and gastropods such Queen Conch (Strombus gigas), Common Atlantic Bubble (Bulla striata) and King Venus (Chione paphia). They also are important feeding and nesting grounds for a variety of shorebirds such as herons, plovers and sandpipers.
As one of the largest lagoons in the Caribbean, the Simpson Bay Lagoon provides a large protected boat harbour around which a maritime industry has grown.
The environmental, recreational, and commercial value of the Simpson Bay Lagoon drives a significant portion of St. Maarten’s economy. Most of St. Maarten’s fishermen are based in Simpson Bay. The bay also serves as a landing site for commercial fishing boats that operate offshore on the Saba Bank.
Much development has taken place at Simpson Bay, and the area is now full of hotels, restaurants, shops and casinos. As a result, Simpson Bay Lagoon is extremely polluted with heavy metals, sewage, oil, and other pollutants. The seagrasses in Simpson Bay Lagoon have all but disappeared as a result of pollution, anchoring and eutrophication. The start of the construction of the Simpson Bay Lagoon Causeway in 2012 has meant the clearing of much of the lagoon’s mangrove forest. To compensate for this loss, thousands of juvenile mangroves have been replanted in the lagoon as well as at other locations on St. Maarten. EPIC’s project “Love the Lagoon” aims to protect and restore the Simpson Bay Lagoon. Education and outreach are used to encourage the community to be good environmental stewards, reduce pollution entering the lagoon, and protect the remaining habitat.
Emilio Wilson Estate
The Emilio Wilson Estate is located on the western side of the road that runs through Cul de Sac valley to St. Peter and covers about 0.9 km² (90 ha.) from the road to the top of Sentry Hill. It has significant cultural and historical values and is the last and best-preserved plantation on the Dutch side of St. Maarten.
The Estate includes remnants of sugar cane plantations (Industry and Golden Rock Plantation) and slavery related buildings. Other areas of cultural importance include Ebenezer, Union Farm, Madame Estate, Belvedere, Bishop Hill slave cemetery, Cul-de-Sac cemetery and Sentry Hill caves. The caves on Sentry Hill were mostly used as shelters during hurricanes.
The Emilio Wilson Estate is one of the very few areas of St. Maarten that has not been developed. It contains areas of high biological value that are undisturbed. Some of St. Maarten’s endemic plant species such as Lidflower (Calyptranthes boldinghii) and Galactia nummelaria can be found on the trails that pass through the estate to the top of Sentry Hill.
The top of Sentry Hill is mostly undisturbed forest covered with hilltop vegetation, including a profusion of bromeliads, ferns, mosses and orchids. The higher parts of the estate are dominated by regionally significant semi-evergreen seasonal forest.
The Emilio Wilson Estate Foundation strives for the protection, conservation and preservation of the natural, cultural and historical heritage of the Emilio Wilson Estate property through the establishment of a terrestrial protected area. The foundation is committed to the preservation and restoration of the historical monuments on the estate, the study of its flora and fauna, the development of sustainable agriculture and aquaculture on the estate as well as educational programmes and a public awareness campaign.
St. Maarten Ponds
St. Maarten is one of the few islands containing expansive wetlands in the mostly dry region of the eastern Caribbean, making it a critical habitat for many animal species. Little Bay Pond and Fresh Pond are especially significant sites as they are two of the few permanent freshwater wetlands in the Dutch Caribbean.
These areas are especially important roosting, foraging and breeding grounds for many species of wetland birds including herons, egrets, stilts and coots. Depending on water depth, the ponds shelter populations of fish, molluscs and small invertebrates that provide a great source of food for the birds. Green Iguanas (Iguana iguana) have also been reported to inhabit the areas around the island’s ponds. St. Maarten’s ponds were once fringed with extensive mangrove forests, but the majority of these have now been destroyed by development and hurricanes. Small portions of mangroves are still present Mullet Pond and around Little Bay Pond and Fresh Pond. These mangrove areas provide a perfect habitat for roosting, nesting and migrating birds as well as a wealth of other species.
Little Bay Pond
Little Bay Pond is located 1.5km (0.9mi) east of Philipsburg and covers an area of 0.02 km² (2 ha). It is a permanent freshwater pond, up to 3m (10ft.) deep. The depth of the overall pond attracts many swimming and diving birds, including waterfowl and seabirds. It is bordered with aquatic grasses and mangrove trees. Birdlife International has designated Little Bay Pond as an Important Bird Area for St. Maarten (IBA AN001). The pond is significant for its population of the endangered Caribbean Coot (Fulica caribaea). Up to 22 birds have been recorded and some pairs breed. A number of other waterbird species breed at the site.
Fresh Pond is a permanent freshwater pond located in northern part of Philipsburg, just west of Great Salt Pond. It covers an area of 0.02 km² (2 ha) and is up to 3 meters deep in the center. The southern and western edges of the pond are fringed with Red Mangrove trees (Rhizophora mangle); the artificial islands at each end of the pond are also vegetated with mangroves. It is a public space and therefore does not receive any form of protection; the area around it is privately owned and completely developed. Birdlife International has designated Fresh Pond as an Important Bird Area for St. Maarten (IBA AN002). Due to its low salinity, Fresh Pond supports bird species that are less common in other parts of St. Maarten and the Lesser Antilles. The area has been identified as especially significant for its breeding population of endangered Caribbean Coot (Fulica caribaea). The artificial islands at each end of the pond provide popular nesting sites for waterbirds. The tall mangrove trees in the area provide a roosting habitat for egrets and herons.
Great Salt Pond
Great Salt Pond is located in south-central St. Maarten, north of Philipsburg. It is bordered on all sides by downtown Philipsburg and its suburbs. It is the largest permanent saline lagoon saltwater pond on the island; it covers an area of 2.25 km² (225 ha) and is up to 10 meter (33ft.) deep. It is unprotected, and its shorelines have been completely cleared of their native mangroves and grasses for urban development. This site is primarily used for landfill and land reclamation purposes. Birdlife International has designated Great Salt Pond as an Important Bird Area for St. Maarten (IBA AN003). The area is especially significant as a stopover site for Laughing Gulls (Larus atricilla), with up to 5,800 gulls congregating prior to the breeding season. Great Salt Pond also provides a habitat for regionally threatened species: the White-cheeked Pintail (Anas bahamensis), Caribbean Coot (Fulica caribaea) and Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis).