Melanie Meijer zu Schlochtern officially took the reins this week as the new Manager of St. Maarten Nature Foundation (NF) following the departure of Tadzio Bervoets, who after almost 10 years of working for NF, has taken on a new role as Interim Director of the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA) based in Bonaire.

Melanie has always worked closely with Tadzio, having been the foundation’s Project and Research Officer for the past three and a half years. While the details of some management tasks may be new, most work that she’s done for the foundation, especially field work, has always been done together with Tadzio.

There won’t be any grand shake-up in terms of the foundation’s direction, vision, or priorities, Melanie said in an interview with The Weekender. These aspects remain steadfast, and have been consistent throughout the years. The priority, really, is to keep established projects running – with one fewer staff member – paying special attention to coral reef protection, marine life and pollution.

NF’s mission is to “preserve and enhance the natural environment of St. Maarten through proper management, education, public awareness, law enforcement, scientific research and monitoring relating to all aspects of the terrestrial, wetland and marine surroundings.”

Background

Originally from Haarlem, The Netherlands, Melanie pursued her higher education in Amsterdam, and has gained work experience on each of the SSS islands (Saba, Statia, and St. Maarten) having worked on these islands during her studies, and ever since.

She first came to work in the region for her Master’s thesis on the distribution and abundance of conchs in the waters of St. Eustatius, which was done for the fishery department, in collaboration with St. Eustatius National Parks Foundation, also known as STENAPA, and Wageningen University.

Her master’s degree was in Ecology, completed at the University of Amsterdam, as was her Bachelor’s degree in Biology. Melanie moved to Saba to find work after her studies, first working at Dive Safaris for a few months, and then as a Saba Bank Officer for Saba Conservation Foundation.

It was at this time that she was introduced to St. Maarten, later moving here in order to work with Nature Foundation. While there are no “real” days off at Nature Foundation, Melanie enjoys the gym, yoga and – naturally – water sports, when she’s not on the job.

Vantage Point

Her favourite part of the job? “Scuba diving and seeing first-hand the beauty we have. Because of the nature of the work, it really validates the value of the nature we have on the island. A lot of people don’t get to see it with their own eyes. I get to see first-hand why it’s worth protecting.”

While this special perspective allows her to see the island’s beauty, it’s also a front-row seat to the coral reef’s struggle to survive. The ecosystem is invaluable to wildlife, surge protection to the island’s coastline, and to the economy in terms of fish stock and tourism.

In the span of her time on St. Maarten, three and a half years, Melanie has seen first-hand the degradation of the island’s coral.

As with the destruction of other habitats, that of the coral reef is associated with poor water quality, poor waste management, overdevelopment, and lack of oversight. Add to that the blow dealt by the hurricanes of 2017 and the most urgent threat faced these days – Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease – first discovered in St. Maarten waters in October 2018.

The disease affects some 20 species of coral, and has been plaguing reefs in the Atlantic Basin for months on end. It can kill colonies within several weeks or months.

The island has been experiencing relatively high mortality rates, but infection and mortality rates in protected areas such as the Man of War Shoal Marine Protected Area and the famous dive site “Proselyte Reef” have proven to be lower. Poor water quality aids both the spread and lethality of the disease, and so do warmer waters in general. The healthier coral in these protected areas also proved more resilient during the hurricanes.

Through painstaking research, the foundation has shown that conservation works to promote the reef’s resiliency. However, it also depends on the support of the public as well as government, to make positive changes.

Nature Foundation has been rehabilitating coral for years through a restoration programme. The planted coral is doing well, but at the end of the day, the rate of reef destruction simply outpaces the restoration process. “We need to prevent it from happening in the first place,” she explained.

One limitation on restoration efforts is coral’s generally slow rate of growth. “The fastest growing coral is at just about 1cm per month.” And while the foundation is rehabilitating two species, there are about 50 around the island. Restoration techniques for some other species are unavailable, and for others, non-existent.

So, what are the most important things the public can do to help the coral reef as well as the environment in general? “One of the most important things the public can do is to make sure that septic tanks are pumped out on time [for those who have that system]. Refuse single-use plastics, and stand up and say something if they see someone doing something illegal.”

As for the departure of Tadzio, Melanie says it should be seen as a new type of working relationship; the foundation enjoys a close working relationship with DCNA, which offers support, especially in terms of outreach and funding. DCNA is a non-governmental, not-for-profit foundation, designed to assist the national park organisations on all of the Dutch Caribbean islands.

Photo credit: Demian Hartman.