Green Pages

Hidden in Plain Sight

Taking a closer look at the Islands’ trove of natural treasures.

Story & Photos By Carmen Hoyt, Waterfront Assistant, The School for Field Studies, Center for Marine Resource Studies, South Caicos

What if I told you I knew where to find treasure? After all, the history of the Turks & Caicos Islands is rich with pirate lore . . . you just have to know where to look.

Moxy Bush off South Caicos is a floating island of mangrove forest.

The ages of exploration and piracy
Let’s take a trip back in time. The years spanning 1650 to 1720 were branded the Golden Age of Piracy, but the story begins before that with its predecessor: the Age of Exploration. It was during this time that the infamous Christopher Columbus, an explorer and pirate in some respect, set sail and made landfall in the Americas.

While the exact location of his arrival is up for debate, our very own Grand Turk is a contender, along with San Salvador and Samana Cay in the Bahamas. The resulting “Columbian Exchange” between Europe and the New World saw the transmission of peoples, goods and diseases with detrimental effects on native populations.

As colonies matured, European empires grew powerfully greedy and trade became a commercial venture. Spain, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and France all established trade routes to the Americas (North, Central and South) and back from the Caribbean, bringing any necessary supplies and taking with them salt, sugar, tobacco and precious metals. If only it were that simple.

Now enter the Golden Age of Piracy. The transportation of gold, silver and other items of high value during this time didn’t come without some difficulties, namely pirates. The various small cays (pronounced “keys”) of the Turks & Caicos Islands harbored disgruntled ex-sailors and rebellious treasure-seekers alike looking to intercept vessels destined for Europe, their dreams of revenge and a lavish lifestyle ignited by the loot they captured.

Amongst the more notable pirates rumored to have roamed the Caribbean Sea during this time are Anne Bonny and Captain William Kidd. We can thank Anne Bonny, one of just a handful of fierce female pirates, and her preferred island of residence for Parrot Cay’s original name: Pirate Cay. As for Captain William Kidd, rumor has it his treasure lies somewhere in the Turks & Caicos yet to be discovered.

No doubt the Turks & Caicos Islands as we know them today only vaguely resemble their colonial counterparts. As the economy shifted from salt production to tourism, investors and developers prepared the Islands to deliver the quintessential Caribbean escape to American and European visitors alike. The high class allure of Grace Bay, Providenciales was matched by the establishment of a cruise ship port on Grand Turk in 2006, demonstrating a new level of accessibility for foreign travelers aside from the wealthy. Anne Bonny would certainly be surprised to learn that a Google search of Parrot Cay populates links for a luxury resort, yet she may be a bit annoyed to learn she missed Wifi and air conditioning by just a few hundred years.

As for Captain William Kidd and his infamous treasure, sorry—I’ve got nothing for you; I had a different treasure in mind. Here in the Turks & Caicos, we don’t need maps to find the treasure that is present all around us. We have vibrant and bustling coral reefs, pristine meadows of seagrass and floating islands of mangrove forests all hidden in plain sight.

The treasure of healthy habitats
Ecosystems like these are worth much more than silver and gold. They protect our shorelines from erosion, serve as important habitats for commercially significant species of fish and form the foundation of the tourism industry. Remember that quintessential Caribbean escape? The pristine white sand beaches, kayak trips to secluded islands and world-class SCUBA diving? It’s all made possible by healthy coastal habitats. Such ecosystems are most important in building a natural resistance to storm events and boosting island resiliency in the aftermath, and you can’t put a price on peace of mind.

Unfortunately, a new age of piracy is among us. These ecosystem treasures are under siege from pirates in the form of invasive species and excessive seaweed inundations. Perhaps we shall refer to this new age of 21st century plundering as “Biological Piracy.”

The lionfish is a ruthless pirate in the underwater realm.

The poster child of Biological Piracy is none other than the invasive lionfish (Pterois sp.). Lionfish are venomous fish native to the Indo-Pacific, and they are easily identified by their red to black and white stripes and banner-like fins that protrude on all sides, brandishing up to 18 sharp, venomous defense spines. Their showy appearance has made them highly desirable in the aquarium trade: the very origin of their invasive nature.

Since their introduction to the Western hemisphere, populations of invasive red lionfish (P. volitans) and the common lionfish (P. miles) have sailed the Gulf Stream north from Florida, reaching as far as New York and Bermuda before exploding through the Caribbean and as far south as Brazil. These two species in particular are difficult to tell apart and may even breed to form hybrids.

Lionfish are ruthless pirates without a shed of mercy for their captives. They exhibit a wide range of prey from small fish to invertebrates, eating and competing with native fish. Lionfish have been shown to consume as many as 42 different species, including commercially important species of grouper as well as species of herbivores, like parrotfish, responsible for keeping reefs healthy and free of excess algae. Their stomachs can expand up to 30 times normal volume, and with no natural predators in their invasive range, lionfish can reproduce without limitations.

Joining the ranks of the lionfish is the lesser-known Sargassum, a plant-like macroalgae commonly referred to as a seaweed. Instead of growing in the ground, it grows small gas bladders to help it float along at the ocean’s surface where it can monopolize sunlight for photosynthesis. Individuals stick together like Velcro to form large aggregations, or mats. While these mats can grow wide spatially and cover a significant surface area, they can also be very dense, capturing other floating trash, organisms and debris in their path.

SFS has started long-term Sargassum collection on a bay in South Caicos.

Under normal circumstances, these aggregations are considered extremely important habitats, rich in biodiversity and necessary to support fisheries. However, Sargassum influxes started increasing in 2011, with 2018 being the most extreme year on record. Surface coverage was triple the average of the previous seven years. Blooms negatively impacted coastal regions from the Caribbean to the west coast of Africa, wreaking havoc by smothering both seagrass beds and coastal tourism.

If seagrasses are robbed of essential sunlight, they can’t photosynthesize, and their ability to support the islands through sediment stabilization, carbon sequestration and protection for juvenile fish is compromised. Eight of the ten most abundantly caught fish species on South Caicos were found to use seagrass beds at some point during their lifecycle, providing an invaluable service to the fishing industry. As for tourism, the sight and stench alone of washed-up Sargassum is enough to drive paying customers away from any beachfront establishment. In such large quantities, it makes the water uncomfortable for recreational use but also expensive to continually be removed.

While it is still not certain whether or not we will be able to accurately predict raids of Sargassum blooms, it is likely that they will continue to rise with consistent artificial nutrient input. Upwellings provide a natural influx of nutrients, but human-induced deforestation and fertilizer use in agriculture allow nutrients in the soil to run off with rain and enter ocean ecosystems stocked with Sargassum seeds.

The School for Field Studies’ Center for Marine Resource Studies provides university students with the opportunity to participate in the research and monitoring of both lionfish and Sargassum on South Caicos. Teams of students, faculty, and staff participate in an “Invasive Species Field Excursion” in which they search for and remove lionfish while SCUBA diving or snorkeling.

Additionally, students have surveyed the seagrass beds surrounding the island as a preliminary analysis of ecosystem health as well as conducted controlled experiments examining the effects of limited light, excess nutrients and combined stresses on seagrasses as a result of Sargassum influxes. We have started long-term Sargassum collection at a nearby bay to help track these inundations and assist researchers in exploring trash-to-treasure solutions for the Caribbean communities that are most affected.

While the Age of Biological Piracy may not share the same embellished tales of guts and glory as the Golden Age of Piracy, one thing is for sure: we must protect our treasure. Lucky for us, lionfish can be served as a tasty meal. (May I recommend ceviche?) As for Sargassum, companies in Mexico have experimented in making paper, cosmetics, bricks and fertilizer. There is even work being done to investigate developing an alternative source of fuel from the seaweed.
So, the next time you’re asked to go on a treasure hunt, don’t forget to stop and look around. What you’re searching for could be hidden in plain sight.

For more information, contact SFS Center Director Heidi Hertler, PhD at hhertler@fieldstudies.org.



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Photographer/videographer Gary James, owner/director of Provo Pictures (provopictures.com), originally shot this image for Wymara Resorts and Villas. It perfectly captures the natural “social distancing” available on the Turks & Caicos Islands’ beautiful—and uncrowded—beaches.

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