Giving Back

Stewards of the Sea

Ten years of environmental advocacy.

By Don Stark, Co-Founder and Chairman, TCRF

On May 10, 2020, the Turks & Caicos Reef Fund (TCRF) began its eleventh year as the only environmental advocacy non-profit in the Turks & Caicos Islands. Founded in 2010 by Don Stark and David Stone, TCRF has worked tirelessly as an advocate for the TCI’s environment. Let’s look back and reflect on what has been accomplished over the past decade.


This green turtle is tucked into a stand of coral at The Bight Reef.

The Turks & Caicos Reef Fund (TCRF) was founded with a mission of helping to preserve and protect the environment of the Turks & Caicos Islands through education, research and advocacy. It started and remains an all-volunteer-run organization with no paid staff. The co-founders agreed at the start that they were not in this to make money, but to put at least 85% of every dollar raised into specific projects. TCRF exceeded that goal every year for the past decade and will continue to minimize overhead and operating costs going forward.

Through March 2020, TCRF has raised a total of over $1.1 million. All of the funds came via donations from residents, visitors, local businesses, grants for specific projects and fundraising events. We receive no funding from the TCI Government.

Coral Gardens snorkel trail
So, what has the Turks & Caicos Reef Fund done with all that money to help the TCI environment? Quite a lot. One of our first big projects was the rehabilitation and improvement of the Coral Gardens (Bight Reef) underwater snorkel trail. We removed, cleaned and re-installed all the trail markers. We replaced the ring of buoys intended to keep snorkelers away from the shallowest parts of the reef so they don’t get hurt and they don’t harm the coral. We also added beach signage. (Unfortunately, it was lost to Hurricane Irma, but will be replaced soon.)

Boat moorings
Dive and snorkel boat moorings are another big project that has been ongoing since 2012. This work, conducted under a Memorandum of Understanding with the TCI Government’s Department of Environment and Coastal Resources (DECR), has resulted in the expansion of dive and snorkel boat moorings around French Cay, West Caicos, North West Point, Grace Bay and Pine Cay. TCRF has also been providing mooring supplies to the dive operators on Grand Turk and Salt Cay to assist them with the maintenance of their moorings.

This is important as it allows dive and snorkel boat operators to take guests to the reefs and not have to drop an anchor—potentially damaging the reef. On average, this has been one of our most costly projects, consuming around $30,000/year of our operating budget.

Coral nursery
Coral reefs around the world are endangered and the reefs around the Turks & Caicos Islands are no exception. Although TCI reefs are in better shape than the reefs around many islands in the Caribbean, they have also seen degradation over the past decade. In 2016, TCRF installed a coral nursery at a site off the coast of North West Point. We are raising two critically endangered corals, Acropora cervicornis (Staghorn coral) and Acropora palmata (Elkhorn coral). These two species were once one of the primary reef-building corals throughout the tropical Atlantic and Caribbean, but they were nearly wiped out in the 1980s by a coral disease. Our goal is to raise these two species in the nursery and then transplant them to reefs where they once were abundant.

Stony Coral Tissue Loss disease
There is a new coral disease that first appeared in the Turks & Caicos Islands in early 2019 which is called Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD). This is a rapidly spreading and highly lethal disease that affects around 20 species of corals found in the TCI, including all the brain corals, pillar corals and star corals that are so common on TCI reefs.
The good news is that the disease is treatable through a labor intensive process where each affected coral head has to be treated individually. The treatment we are using is an antibiotic called amoxicillin. (It is often used to treat ear infections in children.) The antibiotic is incorporated into a ointment base that was specifically developed for this purpose, as it minimizes the release of antibiotic into the sea while increasing penetration into the coral tissue. Although TCRF is just getting started with the treatment effort, positive results are already being seen as the antibiotic appears to be stopping disease progression in treated coral heads.

TCRF volunteer surveys a reef off East Caicos.

East Caicos
East Caicos remains the largest uninhabited island in the Turks & Caicos Islands, and may be the largest uninhabited island left in the region. But with talk of starting development of the island by the TCI Government, it was important to undertake a formal assessment of the health of the reefs off its coast.

With funding from the European Union’s BEST 2.0 programme, between 2017 and 2018 TCRF conducted a survey of all the reefs around East Caicos. The result was the creation of a map of the underwater habitats and a set of recommendations as to what areas should have protected status. Those recommendations were developed based on input from the residents of South Caicos who frequently use the waters around East Caicos for fishing and recreation. The protected area recommendations were submitted to DECR for consideration before any development begins on East Caicos.

Also on South Caicos we worked with interested individuals on ideas for ecotourism businesses. Since the unemployment and poverty rates are so high on that island due to the lack of fishing jobs, it was important to help find alternative employment opportunities for the local residents. Ecotourism businesses are ideal since so many residents know the waters around South and East Caicos well. At the end of the project, TCRF had five residents who were interested in starting ecotourism businesses on South Caicos, and we assisted with drafting of initial marketing plans. The ideas included two home-stay opportunities, a bonefishing kayak business, kayak tours and boat ecotours.

Advocacy has been another major activity for the Turks & Caicos Reef Fund over the years. One of our biggest successes was stopping Dolphin Cove from building a “swim with a captive dolphin” facility on Grand Turk and Providenciales. Another major success was TCRF’s lobbying effort to bring the Environmental Impact Assessment Reports for new developments in the TCI open to public scrutiny.

TCRF has also provided input on many other projects large and small, including input to the UK Government about environmental issues in the Overseas Territories and to the TCI Government on a proposed new Environmental Strategy for the country.

Education has been another important part of TCRF’s work. The organization developed a marine ecology curriculum for elementary school students that was submitted to the TCI Department of Education for incorporation into the curriculum. We have worked with student groups from British West Indies Collegiate, TCI Middle School, Maranatha Academy and Provo Primary on various projects. We have also assisted with various projects for the School for Field Studies located on South Caicos.

Looking to the future
There have been many more projects over the years, far too many to detail in this article. And there are a lot more projects to be done. The Turks & Caicos Reef Fund is proud to have been able to contribute significantly to the protection of the TCI environment over the past decade. We look forward to continuing to serve the TCI for another ten years.

To support the Turks & Caicos Reef Fund, visit

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Master Photographers James Roy and Christine Morden of Paradise Photography ( made the journey to East Caicos to capture this rare drone view of the remote island. They used their artistic creativity to enhance the color after the day turned overcast.

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