By Tanner Gregory
From May 12, 2018
Today in Tropical Marine Ecology, we traveled north to a small fishing town called Canaries, about a 30-minute car ride from Soufrière. When we arrived, we split into our 3 groups. The first group would be showing a local group of divers how to perform the same transects that we are completing in Soufrière. Another group was teaching school kids about the local watershed. The last group, of which I was a part of, was going to the river bed with a local farmer named Morgan to plant grasses and trees to help prevent erosion into the river. While we waited for Morgan to run some quick errands, a group of local fisherman and farmers struck up a conversation with us. They began by asking us about what we were doing in St. Lucia, and we explained that we were here to survey the reefs and check sediment levels in Soufrière to see if there have been changes since the last set of data collection. They seemed very intrigued with our findings so far. We explained that we had only completed a few surveys and had not yet analyzed the data that we had collected. But, based off the data from 1995, the year the marine reserve was established, and the most recent survey (paper reference),the coral coverage had significantly declined in the timespan. One of the fisherman, Isreal, said that this is the way of nature, and that he has not noticed any significant changes in either the fish or the coral that he had seen in his time fishing. The other two agreed with him that this is only the patterns of nature. They said the same thing for the sediment that got into the river: from their experience it seemed more like a yearly thing and it was not a reason to worry. They were all extremely nice, and it was an insightful conversation about the outlook of some of the locals.
Shifting baselines is an idea that over time, people will adjust what the baseline is based on their experiences. All 3 of these fishermen and farmers were young, about 30 or so. The decline in coral coverage in the Caribbean began before many of them and us became adults. We have all realistically only seen reefs in a state of declined coral coverage and high sedimentation rates in our adult lives, and this has been established as the baseline for the state of the reef and fish abundances in the area. Older fishermen would have a different baseline than these younger fishermen. This also ties into the idea of traditional ecological knowledge, which is basically the knowledge of the locals regarding resources and their management. It is often very useful when other people come into areas, as the fisherman know the reefs and fishing areas better than any researcher ever will. This certainly seemed true with these three guys. Local knowledge is being used in many scientific studies to get information missed in scientific studies about the historical trends in fishing grounds and other marine resources. This is connected to the idea of shifting baselines because the environment is always changing, and with each new generation of fishermen and farmers the baseline will continue to move. Traditional ecological knowledge coupled with scientific surveys will be the only evidence we have of the past trends. Overall it was such a great experience, as they seemed genuinely interested in our work and wanted to run their thoughts and opinions by us.
The authors of this blog are students enrolled in Tropical Marine Ecology and Conservation, field courses run in the Caribbean by the University of South Florida. During these courses, students learn scientific diving techniques over a 10-14 day period and carry out research and monitoring of coral reefs at various sites. Many of these courses are done in partnership with local environmental organizations, like the Union Island Environmental Alliance and the Soufriere Marine Management Association. In this blog, students will document their activities and how they relate to course material.