Drought in the U.S. Caribbean: Impacts to freshwater ecosystems

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Abstract

Healthy and functioning freshwater ecosystems are needed for successful conservation and management of native fish and invertebrate species, and the services they provide to human communities, across the U.S. Caribbean. Yet streams, rivers, and reservoirs are vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather events, urbanization, energy and water development, and other environmental and human-caused disturbances (Neal et al., 2009). One major management concern is the impact of prolonged drought on freshwater ecosystems. Drought impacts streamflow, dissolved oxygen content, water quality, stream connectivity, available habitat, and other important freshwater habitat characteristics necessary for sustaining fish and invertebrate populations (Covich et al., 2006). These changes can impact species interactions, abundance, life history events, and the presence of native and non-native species (Larsen, 2000; Covich et al., 2006; Ramírez et al., 2018).

Drought impacts aquatic ecosystems and species both in the short-term and long-term, depending on the severity and duration of the event (e.g. Covich et al., 2006). In Puerto Rico, all native freshwater fish, shrimp, and snail species spend part of their lives in estuarine and marine ecosystems and depend on being able to move between these habitats to survive, so maintaining connectivity is key (e.g., Engman et al., 2017). Freshwater ecosystems also provide recreational, cultural, and ecological value to humans (Kwak et al., 2007; Neal et al., 2009). For example, some communities in Puerto Rico engage in artisanal shrimp and freshwater crab fishing (Neal et al., 2009). Artisanal fishing for postlarvae gobioids, known colloquially as “cetí” also occurs at the river mouths of large drainages and has strong cultural significance in parts of Puerto Rico, such as Arecibo (Kwak et al., 2016).

The U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) is particularly sensitive to drought, because almost all streams are ephemeral and typically only flow after rainfall. These intermittent channels, known locally as “ghuts”, run down the surface of steep slopes, rather than through the ground, and are important sources of freshwater. Natural springs are often located in ghuts and can form pools of freshwater that serve as habitat for wetland and migratory birds, freshwater shrimp and fish, and amphibians (Nemeth and Platenburg, 2007; Gardner, 2008).

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Additional publication details

Publication type Conference Paper
Publication Subtype Abstract or summary
Title Drought in the U.S. Caribbean: Impacts to freshwater ecosystems
Year Published 2019
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center
Description 2 p.
Other Geospatial Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands