By Tatum Updegraff
From May 17, 2018
During the span of the USF course, Tropical Marine Ecology and Conservation, students participating in the program have had to show adequate diving skills tailored for scientific research. Underwater surveying has been the largest skill set that’s been taught, and includes benthic point intercept surveys, fish surveys, and photo transects.
Benthic point intercept surveys are performed over three 30m transects that are laid end-to-end at a depth of 15m and require one buddy team to start at transect one. One partner documents the distance from 0m-5m and the other does 5m-10m. At 10cm intervals, whatever is under the transect tape is recorded. The point intercept aspect of the survey helps discourage bias from impinging on the collected data. The procedure is then repeated for the remaining two transects. Post-dive, data analysis is performed, which requires the data to be input to an excel file where the percent coverages are calculated for coral, macroalgae, filamentous cyanobacteria, substrates, dead coral covered in algae, sponges, and crustose coralline algae. This data is later compiled into a pooled average of all the benthic surveys taken throughout the duration of the course and is used to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of marine protected areas and how sedimentation affects reef organisms.
Fish surveys are conducted simultaneously with the point intercept surveys along the same three 30m transects. Two buddy pairs are required to cover the length of the transects. One pair of divers starts at transect one and the other at transect three. Each diver is then responsible for surveying a cylinder with a 5m radius in which the diver records on a slate any fish species that swim through that designated area along with their approximate size. The data is then analyzed to give an idea of which species are more prevalent at certain sites.
As fish surveys and benthic point intercept surveys are being completed, photos are also being taken every other meter as part of a photo transect. Four photos are taken 75cm above the bottom to make up a full meter squared. These photos are later input to a program called Coral Point Count with excel (CPCe) that overlays twenty random points on each picture. The points are then identified as species of coral, organism, macroalgae, or substrate, which then gives an idea of an unbiased percentage of benthic coverage.
Being able to participate in such an enriching program has been an incredible experience that I would highly recommend to anyone that is even remotely interested in marine science or field work. The skills that I’ve been taught on this trip are invaluable and have helped to prepare me for many future projects that pertain to my career path and overall has been a fun time. So, thanks to those of you who read the blog and have kept up with our journey. Until next time, go Bulls.
By Sierra Greene
From May 15, 2018
What is this strange starch white vegetable that keeps showing up on our dinner plates? I was under the impression that its starchy deliciousness was no different than any other potato or yam, but the journey it took to reach our table, as you’ll soon find out, may not be worth it.
Today, we teamed up with The Integration Watershed Coastal Area Management in Small Island Communities (IWECO) to learn about the unsustainable farming practices that are relied on by local farmers and what solutions are being introduced to counteract them. The island has a long history of cash crops, starting with bananas and cocoa, then switching to dasheen (also known as taro) in the early 2000s. This crop is economically ideal for farmers because it is a low input, high reward crop. It only takes about 7 months to grow, and the entire plant can be utilized (the root for similar uses as potatoes and the large leaves for soup). On an environmental level, however, this tuber falls short of excellency. Due to its shallow root system, dasheen does not have the ability to hold soil in place during heavy rains. Its large, elephant ear leaves also require a lot of sunlight, requiring farmers to clear native trees surrounding dasheen fields.
Our journey led us to Fond St. Jacques, a nearby town where roughly 70% of the 3000-person population consists of farmers. Here, a local forest ranger led us on a guided tour of the forests and farmlands. The “farmer’s fields” were patches of dasheen and fruit trees along the roadsides and steep slopes, much different than any fields seen in the USA.
In 2010, tragedy struck St. Lucia in the form of hurricane Tomas. Like many of us when the newsman warns of hurricanes, local St. Lucians did not heed warning or properly evacuate. Due to the combined effect of the loss of root stabilizing trees, the introduction of shallow plants like dasheen, the steep topography of St. Lucia, and the fact that there was a drought prior to Tomas, the heavy rains caused disastrous landslides throughout the island. These landslides were not only devastating to the islanders who lost their homes, but also had a huge effect on the surrounding coral reefs. The sediment that lands in the water makes it murky and coats the corals, not allowing their symbiotic zooxanthellae enough sunlight to keep the corals healthy.
While viewing the site where Hurricane Tomas had caused a massive landslide 8 years ago, a local man by the name of Smith relayed to us his story of enduring the hurricane. At 4am the night Hurricane Tomas struck, Smith remembers having to climb out of the window of his house while the river rose up through his room. He and his family members escaped to a nearby house where they had to hold on throughout the night so they didn’t get washed away. When he went out to evaluate the next morning, Smith found that nearly every house on the main street of Fond St. Jacques, including his own, had been washed out by mudslides, killing 7 in its path. After having to go through that traumatic experience, Smith now believes that “nature has its way of dealing with mankind” and that preserving the natural way is of the upmost importance.
One of the things that astounded me most when looking at the landslide site was that the land now looked the same as it had before the hurricane. The same, unsustainable dasheen farming practices were littering the steep slope.
This is what IWECO is trying to fix. The initiative that they are currently introducing allows farmers to integrate other plants, such as citrus, mango, and cocoa trees, in with the dasheen to help stabilize the soil and partially restore the land to its natural state. Although this seems ideal for all, as it would give farmers an extra cash crop to grow and reduce the risk of mudslides, it is slow at gaining acceptance because these hardwoods often take years to yield a profit, rather than half a year like dasheen. Often times, farmers will cut down native trees that the rangers have planted in order to farm dasheen. It is a long process, but those trying to implement changes are hopeful of the future.
By Nonna Stutzman
From May 16, 2018
Today, we went to Soufriere Comprehensive Secondary School to give a short presentation about marine pollutants and how they affect marine life. We tried to focus our presentation on the Saint Lucia community to relate what we were talking about to their everyday lives. We took a short walk from where we are staying to the school with Nadia, the director of a local non-profit CSEA (Caribbean Student Environmental Alliance). When we arrived, we were quickly greeted with smiles as we met the vice principal. Quickly, we ran through our PowerPoint in the biology lab before 20 eager students came in and took a seat. We introduced ourselves with our major and the year of schooling we were in, as well as the type of data we were collecting while in Soufriere. The students were very engaged, and it was very helpful of Nadia to chime in, relating the topic to situations presented to the students in their lives. An example of this includes how students can vote against the installation of an Astroturf field in Soufriere, which is made from plastics that will end up in their watershed. When our presentation was finished, the students had a lot of questions about going to a university in America, such as the requirements to get in, scholarships available, and the types of degrees they can attain. At the end of all the questions, one student came up to the front of the class and thanked us all for coming in to teach us today. The teacher came up and thanked us for being there as well, saying that our presentation went along with his lesson plan. Before we left, we, of course, had to take a group picture with the students. Later in the evening, while walking to the SMMA, we saw a couple girls from the class we taught, and they were excited to see us. I believe we helped teach young minds about the importance of marine pollutants and how easy it is to make a change in one’s life to reduce waste in our oceans.
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.
By Katie Dames
From May 15, 2018
Today the students of the USF Tropical Marine Ecology and Conservation course took their classroom from the water to the kids. Students used the knowledge they learned throughout the course so far and presented it to the children of Soufriere’s primary school. Three classes of 5th graders got the chance to learn about the wonders of their island’s watershed and how the hydrosphere interacts with the geosphere.
The presentation went over the journey of water and how it travels through the watershed of St. Lucia. Beginning with what a watershed is, the students were given a chance to express their understanding of the importance of a watershed and how it affects them every day. Sedimentation, coral reef structure, and the affects of erosion were also covered in the presentation allowing the young students to really get a feel for what their surroundings consist of.
After the presentation, we facilitated an activity which was quite fun for all who participated! There were two activities, one portrayed the harmful affects of pollution and microplastics in the oceans, while the other demonstrated how the watershed functions on the steep volcanic island that is St. Lucia. Using a large bowl filled with water to represent the ocean for the first activity, students were given the task to fill the “ocean” with large pieces of litter, rocks, and dirt. Once added they were then told to remove as much as they could, even the small grains of sediment and plastic. As for the second activity, the students created their own version of the island using sand, rocks, and bottles filled with water to represent the rain in their own littler watershed.
It was so much fun being able to interact with the young, bright minds of Soufriere! They were so excited to learn and we were even more excited to teach them. It is a great honor to pass on such vital, interesting information to the next generation.
By Harry Jack
From May 12, 2018
My name is Harry, I’m one of the students in this year’s tropical marine ecosystems and conservation course on the beautiful island of St. Lucia. Recently, we had the incredible opportunity to sail north from Soufriere to the small fishing village of Canaries to teach three resident divers how to conduct coral reef surveys! These divers work with an organization called Ridge to Reef (follow them on Facebook!), a non-profit organization that focuses on bolstering the resiliency of every ecosystem in the watershed, from the mountains to the ocean. Once these divers become proficient at surveying coral reefs, Ridge to Reef aims to establish a coral nursery in Canaries bay.
After sailing an hour North to Canaries, we met up on shore with the local divers and gave them a briefing of what goes into a coral reef survey, in this case a point intersect survey. In this survey, three 30 meter transect tapes are laid on the reef and then divers record what is touching the tape at 10 centimeter intervals for the first 10 meters. After the briefing, we gathered up the divers’ gear and headed back out to the sailboat to gear up and begin the survey dive.
We conducted one dive on a shallow fringing reef no deeper than 5 meters, with a bottom time just short of 1 hour. During the point intersect surveys, we tried to “quiz” the divers as often as possible on coral identification at or near the transect tape. Once the three transects were done, we continued swimming along the reef and identified some species of fish, teaching the divers the various underwater hand signs for each fish.
With patience and practice, soon the Ridge to Reef divers will be proficient at reef surveys and they will be able to collect valuable data to conduct their own research. As for me, the opportunity to combine my love for diving, science, and teaching made this experience unforgettable, and I’m so glad the opportunity was given to us on this trip! For science!
By Sam Cavallaro
From May 14, 2018
This Monday morning, one group of USF students tagged along with the visiting personnel from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to deploy their NEXENS CBg-C Buoy near the Rachette Pointe dive site, just outside the SMMA (Soufriere Marine Management Association). Because the buoy is so heavy and too large to fit in the SMMA Marine Ranger boats, it had to be towed behind the boat. Once we reached Rachette Pointe, the buoy team divers (NOAA scientists and local rangers) and USF students descended to precisely 37 feet down where a metal bar had previously been installed to the ocean floor to secure the buoy. The buoy was carefully tied down to the bar using rope that had been spliced (weaving strands of rope together for reinforcement), just like what we had been taught by Ronald a few days earlier.
Not only was this a valuable learning experience for the USF students involved, but the information gathered by this buoy and others across the Caribbean is vital for measuring changes or patterns in climate and weather. Every 10 minutes, the buoy will send data on wind, precipitation, barometric pressure, and more to its data processing center in Miami, FL. All of this information sent by the buoy is readily available to the public. To access this information at any time or to learn more about additional NOAA projects taking place all over the world, visit the following link: http://www.coral.noaa.gov/data.html
By Sam McLuckie
From May 14, 2018
Today in Tropical Marine Ecology and Conservation we traveled to the fishing village of Canaries, St. Lucia to help local farmers plant vetiver grass and several species of trees along the Canaries River. Using a pickaxe and machete to dig small holes in the slopes of land near the river, we first planted small groups of grass to hold the land in place. The grasses have very fast-growing, long roots, making them highly efficient at securing land to prevent erosion into the river. Additionally, we planted hardwood trees such as teak and mahogany at various spots along the river for the same reason. We also planted several fruit-bearing trees such as nutmeg, but farther inland because the hardwood trees have better roots, and are therefore better utilized when closer to the river.
The roots of the grasses and trees serve to keep the land secure, working to prevent erosion, landslide, and sedimentation into the water. When more sediment enters the river, more sediment enters the sea, which could have adverse effects on corals.
By Alex Arebalo
From May 11, 2018
One of our tasks this week has been preparing for the opportunity to present educational outreach material on the effects of plastic and watershed pollution at local schools here in Soufrière and the nearby town of Canaries. This Saturday we will be in Canaries lecturing on the dynamics of the local watersheds in Saint Lucia. Issues such as garbage/sewage pollution, runoff from agriculture, erosion from construction and developmental practices, and tourism will be discussed and related to the consequences associated with a polluted watershed. Because all runoffs eventually dump into the same place, the OCEAN, we will be focusing on the effects pollution has on the marine environment and relating it to the research we are currently conducting. Unsustainable development practices when building resorts and roads may cause erosion that increases sedimentation rates on the coral reefs here, which is one factor contributing to the decline of coral. Additionally, some runoff pollution increases the growth of damaging algae as well as making coral more vulnerable to disease. Loss of coral reefs here creates a reduction in fish populations that disrupts the fishing industry which is heavily relied on by local communities.
Additionally, we will be visiting a few different schools next week to talk about the effects of plastic pollution and possible conservation options. We are working with Nadia Cazaubon, the director of a local nonprofit, Caribbean SEA (Caribbean Student Environmental Alliance), who has been actively involved in conservation efforts in Saint Lucia since 1995. With her direction and guidance, we have prepared lectures and hands-on activities to engage students. There are considerable amounts of plastic pollution here and there are no recycling centers available to the locals at this time. Plastics build up in sewage drains and runoffs clogging the sewage systems and causing flooding. Many plastics also end up in the ocean from the island. In the pictures above you can see the build-up of plastics on the coastline as well as some plastics that were found in our core extractions. Tons of plastic enters the ocean world-wide every day; it can travel thousands of miles via currents. When microplastics are mistaken for food by marine life, it devastates organisms internally and can decrease growth and reproduction rates within a population, which has cascading effects on food webs throughout the ocean including coral reefs. Microplastics are impossible to remove from the ocean so we will focus on ways to reduce plastic use, proper disposal of plastics, and beach and reef clean-ups as conservation efforts. We are ecstatic about interacting with local students and discussing these global issues and how the community here is affected and what can be done.
By Cody Coates
From May 10, 2018
Today our group met with Ronald who works with the SMMA in Soufrière. Our groups task was to learn how to splice rope for the SMMA and the NOAA scientists to use. NOAA and the SMAA work closely together to support the marine protected area. The SMMA does not receive government funding but does generate some revenue from renting out mooring buoys for dive boats and yachts. It is difficult for them to get the man power to splice large amounts of ropes for the mooring lines that the buoys need. Moorings help keep boats from anchoring on the reef and damaging it. Our groups were trained by Ronald on how to splice the rope and we were left to splice both ends of our rope. Splicing rope is important for retaining the integrity of the rope. Splicing is better than tying a knot because it helps the rope maintain up to 80% of its strength. All three of our groups will be working on splicing rope for the SMAA and NOAA to be used for mooring pickup lines and weather buoys.
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. In 2019 and 2021, the course went to the Carmabi research station in Curaçao and dived around the island over a 10-day period, for training and to carry out research projects. In 2018, the group went to Soufriere, Saint Lucia, and took part in various projects in partnership with the Soufriere Marine Management Association. In this blog, students will document their activities and how they relate to course material.