The School for Field Studies (SFS) Marine Resource Studies semester program provides students with the opportunity to conduct field research that helps to provide the local government, community, and tourism developers with recommendations that will help sustain the economic, social, and ecological stability of South Caicos.
My semester at the Center for Marine Resource Studies gave me experiences and training I could not have gotten anywhere else… Now I can pursue a career in marine conservation with enough tools in my belt and enough knowledge in my head to really make a difference, and I will use the lessons learned on South Caicos everywhere I go.
— Cassie Raker, Colby College, Spring ‘12
For the tourists who flock here, the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI)—which lie at the southeastern end of the Bahamian archipelago—are a diving and angling paradise. The clear waters are considered among the world’s top 10 diving destinations, where vibrant coral reefs, a dramatic sea wall, and a deep ocean trench harbor a stunning diversity of sea life, from corals to whales. The charismatic fauna include more than 300 species of fish, many elasmobranchs such as the spotted eagle ray and lemon shark, as well as sea turtles and humpback whales. The colorful and cryptic biota is abundant in the warm waters just steps from our Center. Nearby seagrass beds, mangroves, sandy shoals, and reefs lend a patchwork appearance to the miles of shallow blue waters that surround the Islands. But beneath the turquoise waters, a delicate ecosystem is under assault.
The diverse marine environment supports the TCI economy through fisheries and tourism. The beauty and ecosystem functions of island, coastal, and ocean habitats are critical for maintaining the value of these industries. The country has an extensive network of more than 30 established protected areas to promote the sustainability of natural and historic resources, with four marine parks in close proximity to our field station on the island of South Caicos. However, lack of scientific understanding, insufficient environmental stewardship, and underutilized local ecological knowledge and human capital hinder management of marine resources and the effectiveness of these protected areas. Increasing demand for fisheries resources, unregulated coastal development, and the meteorological and biophysical impacts of climate change put enormous pressures on marine and coastal ecosystems and on island-based livelihoods. Without quantitative and qualitative scientific assessments, better facilitated community management, and collaborative environmental education, the existence of many of these ecosystems and resources is threatened.
SFS plays a critical role in supporting the TCI fishers, island residents, and environmental authorities through collaborative research and knowledge-exchange. Together we are working to implement positive change in the social, cultural, and economic spheres, as well as to support and mitigate impacts on the coastal and marine ecosystems.
With most local residents dependent upon marine resources for their livelihood, along with increasing resource demand by tourists, finding viable options for managing fisheries and conserving marine biodiversity is crucial.
Snorkeling and SCUBA diving in the waters surrounding South Caicos, students learn field research and monitoring techniques to identify and assess the health of a wide range of marine organisms and habitats. Students learn to identify and observe the behavior of marine species, assess coastal and marine habitats, and quantify fisheries resources through hours of training, observation, and study in the water. TCI has an extensive network of 34 protected areas, but little is known about their function and effectiveness. With the Admiral Cockburn Land and Sea National Park and East Harbour Lobster and Conch Reserve at their doorstep, students evaluate the concept and practice of marine protected areas (MPAs) as a resource management tool.
In the community, students grapple with the challenges of assessing the rights and needs of local stakeholders and reconciling those with conservation goals. Fisheries management and market engagement require considered analysis of the costs and benefits of species protection, fishing techniques, and market dynamics, all in the context of global and national markets and policies. Assessing the feasibility and ecological viability of resource management and habitat conservation options, and their associated social and economic implications, brings students face-to-face with the real-life dilemmas for governmental regulators and the residents of South Caicos.
The growing tourism industry in the TCI is increasing the demand for reef fish on restaurant menus. Local fishers on South Caicos recognize this market, and commercial sale of select reef fish species is rapidly increasing. Apart from having established “no-take” marine protected areas and a ban on spear fishing, there are currently few other regulations in place to manage the harvest of reef fish. It is critical for the TCI to establish a comprehensive management plan for reef fish species so they can be harvested in a sustainable manner to avoid population declines.
Through field observation, exercises, and research, students will gain the concepts, skills, and data to understand the marine ecosystems and island community dynamics. Central themes and skills in the curriculum include the following:
- Marine habitats and species and community dynamics
- Techniques and level of fishing efforts
- Relationship between environment and tourism
- Drivers and causes of marine habitat destruction
- Island community structure and social relationships
- Diversity of local livelihood strategies
FIELD RESEARCH, LECTURES, AND EXERCISES
- SCUBA diving and snorkeling for fish, coral, seagrass, and mangrove identification exercises
- Studying ecosystem function and anthropogenic impacts
- Examining habitat enhancement and restoration
- Lecture by Department of the Environment and Maritime Affairs (DEMA) on the TCI government fisheries’ regulations and enforcement
- Site tour from a local tourism developer and discussion on plans for constructing residences and a resort
- Visits to local seafood processing plants and discussions with operators
- Excursion to neighboring Middle and North Caicos: tour aquaculture operations and desalination plants; explore the caves and bat colonies of Middle Caicos; discover the tropical dry forests of North Caicos; and absorb local ecological knowledge of bush medicines and foods
- Develop field research skills including: marine species identification and behavioral observations; biodiversity assessment; survey design and interviewing techniques; field research ethics; stakeholder facilitation techniques; data management and analysis; scientific writing and oral presentation; snorkel and SCUBA skills; economic valuation methods; habitat assessment and mapping
SAMPLE DIRECTED RESEARCH
- Population size assessment of potential commercial finfish species around South Caicos
- Ecological and social assessments of the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification
- Rapid assessment of density and distribution of invasive lionfish
- Coral reef ecology, including growth, survival, and recruitment
- Baseline biodiversity surveys in critical habitats Interactions between mangrove and seagrass faunal communities
- Assessments of local livelihood strategies and human capital, including perceptions of tourism and fishing industries and bottom-up ideas for managing the island’s natural environment
- Assessment of conch population structure and regulation compliance
- Youth empowerment through marine-oriented citizen science
- Elasmobranch ecology
The community of South Caicos has hosted SFS students for more than 20 years. During that time, staff and students have integrated into the small community on multiple levels and collaborated extensively with local stakeholders on a variety of projects. We are dedicated to helping the community conserve its natural resources and develop sustainably. Students become involved with the community, learning about the Caribbean culture and island society. Community activities may include:
- Providing swimming and snorkeling lessons for local children
- Friendship Family Program pairs students with local families to better understand new cultures
- Hosting “Sea Day” at the Center to introduce local students to the marine environment
- Reading, tutoring, and volunteer projects at the local library and grade school
- Teaching English to Haitian and Dominican residents
- Collaborating with local youths and NGOs to conduct beach clean-ups to increase environmental awareness
Previously, students that wished to dive were required to complete their open water certifications prior to arrival at SFS, but the Center for Marine Resource Studies is now offering PADI Open Water SCUBA certification to semester students. The certification takes place during the first two weeks of the program. The course, taught by the Center’s Dive Safety Officer and assisted by four PADI Divemasters, will introduce students to diving and the environment where they will be learning and researching for the next several months.
Note: It is not necessary to use SCUBA to participate in our program—many students choose to snorkel only. Divers and snorkelers must bring their own SCUBA and snorkeling equipment. Weights and tanks are provided on-site at no cost. Please contact the SFS Admissions Office if you have any questions.
The SFS Center for Marine Resource Studies, located just steps from a crystal clear ocean laboratory, is adjacent to Cockburn Harbour, a town of about 1,100 residents. Our field station sits on elevated land about 40 feet above the water and looks directly out over the sea. Within a three-mile radius are coral reefs, mangrove islands, sea grass beds, carbonate platform flats, and deep-water diving. The main facility has a dining area, kitchen, classroom, computer room, and a veranda with spectacular ocean views. Students share living quarters in two residence wings. We are fully equipped for marine operations with access to docks, motor boats, a compressor, and plenty of tanks and weights for SCUBA diving.