"Mangroves: The Forest Through the Trees"
An Ocean in Focus Conservation Photography Contest Essay
by
Matthew D. Potenski

Man walking in water through mangrove roots

Man monitors a mangrove forest

Mangrove tree roots from underwater

Shoal of baitfish swirling amongst mangrove roots

Shark in mangrove roots, underwater

Juvenile lemon shark searches for a meal

Sunset on water with mangrove flower

Mangrove shoot at sunset


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"Mangroves: The Forest Through the Trees"
An Ocean in Focus Conservation Photography Contest Essay
by
Matthew D. Potenski

Mangrove forests deserve to be included in any conversation about ecologically diverse and important habitats. However, they almost always take a back seat to 'favorites' like rain forests and coral reefs. In many ways, mangroves are simply a combination of a forest and a reef. Mangrove forests are located at the intersection of the land and the water, and their complex structures both above and below the waterline allow for an abundance of spaces for organisms to inhabit. Mangroves may not be fully appreciated because their maze-like tangle of roots makes them very difficult to penetrate. Much of the daily lives of mangrove denizens occur on a small scale, where the mangrove roots really are a forest of their own. Life residing in and around the mangroves is also dominated by the slow rhythm of the tides. The mangrove trees themselves are biological wonders; they are plants that can survive living directly in salt water. They create both structure and energy for the food web in a place where plants should not be. Many times we can easily overlook life on the small scale or slow pace, especially when it is hidden away in a tangle of roots. We must have patience and look deeper to see the intricate and diverse world of the mangrove forest.

One of my favorite places to experience mangroves is around the islands of Bimini, in the Bahamas. The mangrove-fringed channels and lagoon in Bimini are one of the most important nurseries for scores of finfish, shellfish, and invertebrates in the Western Bahamas. Included in this variety of animals are commercially important species like conch, lobster, grouper and snapper. Spend enough time out in the mangrove-lined lagoon, and the mysteries of this alien world will start to open up to you. You can see the daily dramas of nature play out. Dark clouds of silvery baitfish swirl through the outstretched prop roots of a mangrove and run for cover when a juvenile lemon shark on the hunt makes an appearance. Tiny reef fish in patterns of stripes and spots scatter as a stingray glides by. A sea turtle slowly munches on seagrass in a shallow mangrove lined lagoon. These are just a sample of the everyday wonders of the mangroves of Bimini. All of these somewhat mundane daily occurrences add up to a whole that is of serious ecological conservation importance.

The close proximity of Bimini to the mainland US has made it a target for resort development. Building projects have already eradicated most of the mangroves on the western side of the lagoon. In order to preserve and protect the mangrove habitats and organisms of north Bimini, a strong campaign to push for the protection of the remaining pristine mangrove areas was mounted. The efforts culminated in the Bahamas government officially declaring the "North Bimini Marine Reserve" in December 2008. The Bahamian government should be applauded for recognizing the value of Bimini's mangrove habitats and preventing their further destruction from development. Unfortunately, this is not where the story ends. Even where the value of mangrove habitats is finally acknowledged, the process of management can break down. It is 2013, and to date the details of the NBMR have still not been finalized. The final boundaries, the regulations and approved usages, and the management plan all have not yet been legally defined. While the NBMR officially exists, it will not offer the levels of protection and management that its declaration mandates until the details of delineation and implementation are completed. Only full protection can preserve Bimini's mangroves, their important ecology, diverse inhabitants, and the sheer tranquil beauty that I have been rewarded to see.

portrait headshot of Matthew PotenskiMatthew D Potenski is the Director of Field Operations for Shark Research Institute. Potenski's research deals mainly with whale sharks. He has studied whale sharks in Honduras, Galapagos, Costa Rica, and Tanzania. Potenski also works with the Bimini Biological Field Station - Sharklab on lemon shark projects. "I fell in love with photography and take pictures as often as I do research." Potesnki is currently based out of Sayreville, New Jersey, USA.