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Keeping an Eye on the Future

Local students participate in coral reef monitoring program.

Story & Photos By Karen R. Cangialosi, Ph.D., Professor of Biology, Keene State College

For the past four years, I have had the pleasure of tapping into what I consider the Turks & Caicos Islands’ most precious resource: the enthusiasm and imagination of its youth. Since 2008, my colleague from Keene State College, Dr. Scott Strong, and I have run a coral reef monitoring program on Providenciales. Being able to incorporate students from Clement Howell High School into that program has been a highlight. When we began, we knew that the operation of a successful conservation program means collaborating with the residents that live here—who better than the young people with visions for the future?

Participants in coral reef monitoring program.

When I first arrived on Provo in 2001, it was to teach Introductory Marine Biology to college students from far-away Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire. Together with a colleague who is now retired, we organized an annual class trip to Provo where students engage in SCUBA diving, snorkeling, kayaking and learning about the natural and cultural life of the Turks & Caicos Islands. The more time I spent here, the more I realized the importance of doing conservation work on the island and so we began the reef monitoring program.

We were fortunate early on to make connections with Dr. Carlton Mills, previously the Minister of Education and member of the TCI Government Advisory Council, who provided us with a letter of support. The administrators and teachers of Clement Howell High School were particularly excited about this project and we worked with teachers Ms. Anna Campbell and Ms. Windilina Macion to identify students interested in getting involved.

The support and advice of the Department of Environment and Coastal Resources (DECR) has also been very important for us. DECR Director Wesley Clerveaux also wrote us a letter of support, and it was to our great advantage to work with former DECR Scientific Officer Marlon Hibbert, who gave us advice. We are currently working with Ms. Lormeka Williams, Curator of the Environmental Centre Lormeka Williams and Scientific Officer Dr. Eric Salamanca to help expand our project.

While one of the goals of our program is to collect annual data on the abundance and quality of marine life, another important goal is educating and involving local youth. And so as we began our monitoring efforts, we included 4th and 5th form students from the Clement Howell High School. Working on the most accessible reef in Provo (just a few steps off the beach on Grace Bay in front of the Windsong Resort), we have had students practice snorkeling and learn basics in reef monitoring, fish and invertebrate identification and coral reef ecology. Their tremendous enthusiasm and excitement for the marine environment and quick learning have been especially rewarding and makes us very encouraged about Provo’s future.

We collect our data through the monitoring of a 100 meter transect line across the reef. First, we locate and mark the endpoints of the line. We use GPS coordinates for the endpoints so that the line can be laid down in the exact same position each year. It takes at least four people to properly and safely lay the transect tape. Using standardized protocols from the international organization, Reefcheck, we have surveyed the number and size of certain indicator fish species such as groupers, snappers, parrotfish, butterfly fish, moray eels and grunts. We have also counted the number of lobster, banded coral shrimp, sea urchins, triton (which we have never seen here), flamingo tongue snails and gorgonian corals. Finally, we census the type of substrate at every half meter point, such as sand, rock, coral, sponge, etc. We also take note of any damage, trash, coral disease and bleaching.

The results of our data do not show major changes over the last four years, but there is a considerable lack of larger fish and some important invertebrates, and an overabundance of other species that have lost natural predators. Additionally, the explosion of lionfish is obvious here, as in other parts of Provo and TCI in general. This reef and the adjacent seagrass bed is heavily snorkeled by visiting tourists, who enter from the beach and from boats that drop snorkelers into the water at the deeper end. While snorkeling traffic is heavy, perhaps the greatest impact on the reef has been from sand that has been kicked up into the water from various development projects nearby. Large amounts of suspended sand can cloud the visibility and end up settling over the reef, which is very detrimental to the corals and other marine life there. Since I have been snorkeling on this reef since 2001, my anecdotal observations indicate that there has been a fair degree of decline over the past ten years. The good news is that this reef is still in OK shape, but that we need to continue to work to protect it.

We have been very fortunate to have received discounts and donations from various businesses on Provo including Dive Provo, SNUBA Provo, Comfort Suites and significantly, the Windsong Resort (which has been especially generous to our efforts). We are also grateful to have received a grant from the TCI Reef Fund. Our hope is that others will see the extraordinary value in Provo’s youth and that we can acquire additional funding in order to expand our program to include dive certifications for our students.

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