Green Pages

Hidden Pillars of the Economy

Studying, monitoring, and protecting TCI’s coral reefs.

By Emily Stokes and Heidi Hertler, School for Field Studies Center for Marine Resource Studies
Photos By Heidi Hertler

Coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse and highly productive ecosystems on Earth. Whilst they cover a mere 1% of the Earth’s surface, their contribution to the global economy is estimated at close to $10 billion/year in tourism and recreation, $9 billion/year in coastal protection and $6 billion/year in both fisheries and biodiversity ( Despite the ecological complexity and high biodiversity of coral reefs and the ecosystems associated with them, they are particularly sensitive to impacts from a series of phenomena (climate change, storms, current pattern changes) and anthropogenic activities.

Healthy reef systems support millions of species of marine life.

Healthy reef systems support millions of species of marine life.

In the case of Caribbean reefs, the most significant damage is attributed to coral diseases, hurricanes, mass mortality of the herbivorous long-spine sea urchin (Diadema antillarum), localized human impacts, recent bleaching events, and climate change. These drivers of change have caused dramatic phase shifts to systems dominated by macroalgae and other nuisance species, fields of unstable coral rubble, loss of three-dimensional structure, and increases in abundance of shorter-lived brooding corals such as Agaricia and Porites. In addition, overfishing of exploitable reef species, sedimentation and water pollution from on-shore development and population growth, as well as global climate change combine with natural phenomena to create a situation on a global scale where near shore marine systems are under increasing stress. As a result, coral reefs are at risk of a death by a thousand cuts; therefore it is critical to establish comprehensive coastal management plans to curtail and prevent the destruction of these critical habitats, which are likely irreplaceable.

Located at the southern tail of the Bahamian archipelago, the Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI) are indeed “Beautiful by Nature.” The TCI is comprised of four banks, of which only two are inhabited, with eight main islands and numerous tiny cays. The extensive reef system surrounding the country not only protects adjacent shorelines from wave action and prevents erosion and property damage, but most importantly, supports the TCI economy directly and indirectly, through fisheries—specifically spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) and the queen conch (Strombus gigas), which are the staples of the local fishing industry — and tourism. Recognizing the critical importance of coastal marine systems, the TCI has established an extensive network of 34 protected areas, incorporating critical marine habitats, such as reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds, and sand banks, and the faunal communities they support.

SFS staff member Emily Stokes leads student survey teams.

SFS staff member Emily Stokes leads student survey teams.

On South Caicos, a unique opportunity to study and monitor long-term environmental changes was seized upon by The School for Field Studies’ Center for Marine Resource Studies (SFS CMRS). The School for Field Studies (SFS) is a US-based academic institution that provides multidisciplinary, field-based environmental study abroad opportunities to undergraduate university students. Each SFS program (nine in total) highlights a different region of the world, with its own distinct cultural and ecological characteristics and unique environmental challenges. Faculty and students at the SFS CMRS on South Caicos work in close cooperation with local partners including the TCI’s Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs (DEMA), TCReef Inc. (, and local fishermen and processing plants to protect and enhance the management of the island’s coral reefs and other marine resources. SFS CMRS recognizes the importance of studying climate change impacts on local ecosystems by including related projects in program and research components. Likely, and already observed, impacts of climate change to marine and coastal ecosystems include those linked to temperature change on organism metabolism, water chemistry including carbonate cycle, precipitation change on water balance, and wind and water circulation pattern changes. Long term data collection is a crucial element of observing and understanding such impacts, beneficial to stakeholders and essential to policy makers.

As it is, the effects of climate change increase the burden on already stressed ecosystems. Ocean acidification, a result of carbon dioxide (CO2) being absorbed by the ocean and in turn altering the pH of the water, is slowing hard corals’ ability to grow and leaving them more susceptible to diseases. Sea surface temperatures have been rising steadily over the past century ( placing additional stress on many coral species. When corals become too stressed by the changes to their surrounding environment, they expel an internal photosynthetic alga called zooxanthellae, which deprives them of their normal colors, a phenomenon commonly referred to as coral bleaching. Coral bleaching itself is not fatal, as it is possible for the corals to recover and reabsorb the expelled zooxanthellae, but such reabsorption does not always occur and bleaching leaves corals more vulnerable to contract fatal diseases.

On South Caicos, SFS CMRS faculty and staff lead teams of students to collect baseline data on the health of the local reef system. Sites were permanently marked at three depths in the Admiral Cockburn Land and Sea National Park so they could be revisited. The research team uses several methods to assess the overall condition of the system. The methods include measuring species composition (number of different organisms observed) using the Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment protocol (AGRRA –, documenting and recording fish species abundance (including the invasive lionfish), and photographing and videoing the benthic community for composition analysis using specialized software. An increasingly important part of long term reef studies is the assessment of coral bleaching. SFS CMRS uses a method that is easily transferable to citizen scientists (non-specialists) and could be replicated on other islands. Coral bleaching is documented using the CoralWatch card system (Siebeck et al. 2006), which allows the researchers to record coral bleaching data quantitatively for analysis and documentation.

The data collected as part of this project are promising, as patterns are starting to emerge over time and among sites. The benthic (sub-surface) community approaches 15% live coral cover and is dominated by sea rods (Pseudoplexaura spp.), star corals (Monastraea spp.), and sheet corals (Agaricia spp.). In general, sites with greater amounts of live coral have the greatest fish abundance and sites surveyed closer to the main shipping channel have the lowest live coral cover, suggesting an anthropogenic impact in this area.

This research is producing exciting results and its continuation through the five-year plan should provide even stronger patterns of baseline data. The Center for Marine Resource Studies on South Caicos is the only program currently carrying out research on the reefs in this area; it is imperative to continue collecting data to create a complete picture of regional and global coral health. With such promising results, this research approach could continue beyond the five-year plan to create a long-term reef-monitoring program.

Healthy reefs are crucial pillars of a healthy planet and a healthy economy. Without them, fish stocks will continue to decline, tourism will be negatively impacted, and other ecosystems will be irreparably altered. The incentives for a healthier ocean and a healthier earth are self-evident, and it behooves us to continue studying and protecting the species, such as coral reefs, that support our lives.

To learn more about the SFS program, go to

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South Caicos was once a major exporter of salt harvested from its extensive salinas. Award-winning Master and Craftsman Photographer James Roy of Paradise Photography ( created this vertical composition by assembling a series of six images captured by a high-definition drone which was a half a mile away from his position.

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