Black River Great Morass

Year of compilation: 2007

Site description
The Black River Great Morass IBA is in south-west Jamaica in the parish of St. Elizabeth. It lies on the coastal flood plain of the Black River and consists of low marshland with limestone islands, which support human habitation, grazing of livestock and cultivation. At its southern extremity is the town of Black River which is the capital of the parish. The IBA includes the following areas: Black River Lower Morass (Ramsar Site) - 5,700 ha a. The Black River, its many tributaries in the flood plain, feeder streams and adjacent wetlands. b. Parottee (part of the Great Morass) wetlands, east towards Thatchfield and is a complex of tidal and highly saline/brackish lagoons, mudflats, mangrove and fresh water ponds. c. Crane Road and Parottee sea shore which is of dark coloured sand and mud (southern extrem-ity of the Great Morass) which extends from the mouth of the Black River in the west, then east towards Parottee and Thatchfield d. Luana/Font Hill The Black River Lower Morass is bounded on the west and on the north by major roads linking the towns of Black River, Middle Quarters and Lacovia, on the east by Santa Cruz Mountains and on the south by the coast. It includes the largest freshwater wetland ecosystem in Jamaica. Black River Upper Morass -1,762 ha This area of fresh water wetland with its many tributaries and streams, is generally bounded within the road network linking Lacovia, Santa Cruz, Braes River, Elim and Newton. The Black River Upper Morass was a rice production area in 1950’s and 60’s but this activity ceased in the 1970’s. This form of agriculture shaped much of the landscape which now includes shallow ponds and a dyke system. The area currently contains a commercial fish farm (tilapia) which is a major attraction to birds. Apart from this, the area is still used for cultivation of sugar cane and grazing of livestock.

Key biodiversity
Frequency of ornithological visits For the most, the sites within the IBA are infrequently visited by ornithologists. This is particularly true of the Upper Morass, except Elim Pools. When sites in the Lower Morass are visited, it is usually only the margins of the river that are observed from a boat. Large tracts are therefore seldom or never visited however there are few open areas of water in the interior. In terms of the Parottee area, again, it is only the road that transects the site which is fairly frequently visited by birders. It would therefore be true to say, that only a limited picture of the species range and populations is available. The area was extensively covered in aerial surveys for ducks carried out for Ducks Unlimited in the early 2000s. Sources of Ornithological Information Species and population information has been drawn from four main sources: Birds of Jamaica- Audrey Downer and Robert Sutton BirdLife Jamaica – Bird Notes and Index Ornithological Survey of The Negril and Black River Morasses by Soren Svensson 1983 Contemporary local knowledge – Charles Swaby, John Fletcher (President BirdLife Jamaica) Ri-cardo Miller (NEPA), Vaughan Turland, Editor, The Broadsheet, BirdLife Jamaica who lives with-in the IBA area. Endangered Species, Rare Species and Vagrants The West Indian Whistling Duck (Dendrocygna arborea) is a Caribbean region endangered spe-cies. Whilst there have been no national surveys of its population, it is a fact that this IBA is the last stronghold of the species in Jamaica. Its population in this area is currently estimated at around 300 (Charles Swaby date?). This figure much higher than estimates from surveys carried out in 1999 (Haynes-Sutton and Sutton 1999). The impacts of alien predators (cats, mongoose, dogs), illegal hunting and loss of habitat are probably the main causes of these low numbers in such a large area. Much of the information on vagrants and rarely seen species was taken from Soren Svensson’s report. This list of observations from 1983 would include: Spotted Rail (Pardirallus maculates) Five observations made on Middle Quarters River and Salt Spring River in 1983. A pre-vious report of a single specimen in 1977 from the Upper Morass. (Robert Sutton). One dead bird recovered in Mandeville 1987. (Robert Sutton) and subsequently observed in the Upper Morass in 1996. Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis) also known as Black Crake – One adult and young observed in the Middle Quarters River It would be of significant interest to know if these species still survive here and if so whether they breed in the area. Bird List for the IBA Some 149 species of bird have been observed and reported in this IBA. 66 of these species are classified winter visitors. In terms of species numbers and population, the IBA, is the most impor-tant habitat for winter visiting birds in Jamaica. Only 12 Jamaican endemic species are repre-sented here as in the main endemics rely on forest and woodland habitat. In compiling this bird list, it is true to say that the species range of the Upper and Lower Morass is very similar. Whereas, the mud flats of Parottee and the sandy sea shore provide habitat for large numbers of wintering birds and vagrants. Access to bird watching sites Bird watching on the Lower Morass is best achieved by boat. The Black River and the lower reaches of its main tributaries are usually navigable throughout the year, to some of the best bird-ing spots. The Upper Morass is best accessed by 4WD vehicles via the road at Newton. The roads in this area are narrow and unpaved and not recommended for vehicles after prolonged heavy rain. Access to the lower morass at Parottee is by road from Black River town. During the rainy season, October in particular, the road that runs between the morass and the sea at Parot-tee can flood making it impassable. At this time, the bird population becomes scattered through-out the morass rather than concentrating on the mudflats beside the road. During the period Feb-ruary to September, the mud flats can extend for several hundred meters north of the road. Again, this makes bird watching difficult. Local fishermen can be hired to carry birdwatchers into the morass from the road at Parottee.

Non-bird biodiversity: The morass provides nurseries among the mangroves for shrimp such as Macrobrachium acanthurus and M. faustinum and fish which are of commercial value such as the tar-pon (Megalops atlantica), snook (Centropomus undecimalis), jack (Caranx la-tus), and snapper (Lutjanus apodus) as well as the endemic ticki ticki (Gambusia melapleura). Reptiles of the Lower Morass include the American Crocodile, Crocodylus acutus, five species of Anolis lizard, Aristelliger sp., the endemic freshwater turtle Pseudemys terrapen, and the edible endemic freshwater turtle Chrysemys ter-rapen. Amphibians include Eleutherodactylus luteolus and the introduced Bufo marinus and Rana catesbiana. The Morass supports a rich indigenous flora and com-prises an important genetic reserve with 92 species of flowering plants, 25% which are consid-ered rare, and 8% endemic to Jamaica.

Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
In considering the vegetation, soils and hydrology, it is evident from research that there is a dis-tinct linkage between the Upper and Lower Morass areas. From a conservation perspective, they should therefore be considered as a single wetland rather than two separate areas. Plant associations throughout the wetland have been reduced over the years by stresses such as extensive fires in the reed/grass beds, removal of trees for timber and fuel, harvesting of palm fronds, thatch and Phragmites for construction material and basket weaving. The most ob-vious negative impacts occur in the Swamp Forest and Mangrove Forest. The Black River Lower Morass has been the subject of much previous study which was aimed at exploiting this resource base on a large scale for agriculture, and peat mining. Other current issues affecting the lower morass are as follows: The pollution of the lower morass as a result of industrial/agricultural activ-ity in the upper morass; Large scale illegal cultivation of marijuana with associated problems of heavy use of pesticides and the inhumane practice of releasing cats at cultivation sites to control the birds. The operation of recreational (guided) tours in the wetland (mainly on the main river to Broadwater and then on the Salt Spring River. These have exceeded carrying capacity and im-pact bird populations directly as the wake of the boats destroys nests on the banks), an activity which may have a disruptive effect on local wildlife; The destruction of wetland vegetation by fire that are mainly anthropogenic fires. The impacts of introduced species on food chains have not been documented but the several species including tilapia, catfish and Red-claw Lobsters are proliferating. Proposals for extensive peat mining in the lower morass would undoubtedly disturb the sensitive balance of the eco-system. In addition, the infill of the morass at Parottee in order to facilitate property development for domestic and tourism purposes has started to affect the deli-cate balance of the habitat. In particular the natural connection of the pond to the sea has been blocked, so that there is no tidal flow, and the pond is subject to excessive high and low water levels.

Conservation responses/actions for key biodiversity
An Environmental Awareness Survey of the Black River was conducted in November 1996. An-other study was conducted to look at the impact of human activities and habitation of wetlands as well as awareness and knowledge of issues such as environmental degradation and conserva-tion. (Past research includes the feasibility of, and the potential impact of peat mining on the mo-rass 1983).

Protected areas
The area has been declared a Game Reserve under the Wild Life Protection Act, 1945. The Black River Lower Morass was also designated a Ramsar site in 1997.

Habitat and land use
The wetland consists of a varied number of habitats, including the following: Sedge Marsh domi-nated by Cladium jamaicensis (sawgrass); Riparian Swale dominated by Typha domin-gensis, mangrove forest consisting of Rhizophora mangle (Red Mangrove), Avicen-nia germinans (Black Mangrove), Conocarpus erectus, (Grey Mangrove or Button-wood) and Laguncularia racemossa (White Mangrove); Riparian forest and the now rare and restricted Swamp Forest dominated by the endemic Grias cauliflora (Anchovy Pear) and Roystonea princeps (Endemic Swamp Cabbage). The limestone islands are impor-tant physical features. These islands are covered by completely different vegetation, which has been modified. The economically important Sabal jamaicensis (Bull Thatch) is the domi-nant natural plant form, but most have been replace by Haemotoxlyum campechianum (Logwood) and tree crops such as ackee, coconut, mango and cashew. Agricultural activity includes the cultivation of sugar cane, dasheen, other food crops and fruit trees and illegal cutivation of Cannabis sativa (ganja).Fishing and harvesting of shrimp takes place and in many cases this is the only means of livelihood for people. Tourism related activities are presently occurring in the morass including boat tours along the Black River, swim-ming, bird watching and limited sports fishing. There is potential for further expansion of tourism in the area.

Land ownership
Owned by the Government of Jamaica and the Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica with some areas of private agricultural and residential ownership on the periphery.

This IBA reports was complied with the help of Charles Swaby, South Coast Safari; John Fletch-er, President Birdlife Jamaica; Ricardo Miller, Environmental Officer, Fauna Bio-diversity Branch, NEPA; Vaughan Turland, BirdLife Jamaica

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2021) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Black River Great Morass. Downloaded from on 27/10/2021.