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Tuesday 16 July 2019
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Every day is Earth Day

Coral Gardening
Coral Gardening

This is the final piece in our Earth Day series. This piece by ERIC – the Environmental Research Institute Charlotteville – reminds us all that Earth Day is indeed every day.

ALL over the world Earth Day commemorations are celebrating the environment while advocating for protection of our biodiversity and against pollution at the end of April each year. It was also in April 2014 that the Environmental Research Institute Charlotteville (ERIC) first opened its doors in the fishing village of Charlotteville, Tobago. Since then ERIC has come a very long way as a young organisation, celebrating several successes, encountering just as many challenges and learnt many lessons from both the people of north-east Tobago and the environment.

As ERIC celebrates its fifth anniversary, we would like to share a few of our experiences over the years. Central to our successful projects, is the inclusion of community members – our community-based field technicians as we call them, in monitoring and advocacy activities. This is an important pillar at ERIC, since we believe that the involvement of residents in monitoring programmes makes them efficient communicators of the environment’s state. Being a trusted member of their community, they can share their experiences and observations, thereby advocating the importance and urgency of being more mindful towards the environment.

Reef Check is our principal monitoring programme, with 12 established coral reef survey stations around north-east Tobago, including stations at St Giles, Little Tobago and Goat Island. We implemented this programme with funding from the UNDP Small Grant Programme (UNDP GEF SGP) and the British High Commission, which enables us monitor reef health using indicator species such as corals, fish and shellfish that are affected by overfishing or pollution. We also monitor for presence and spread of certain coral diseases and coral bleaching. All our data is submitted to the Reef Check Headquarters, to be entered into their global database.

The Reef Check programme is the UN official coral reef monitoring programme, with the findings being used to inform world leaders of the current and projected state of the coral reef ecosystem. Over the last five years, we’ve observed that our coral reefs in north-east Tobago are still thriving and have managed to escape much of the impacts of coral bleaching that we see affecting other reefs in Florida and in the Pacific region. Despite this, much of our larger reef fish species such as groupers, snappers and sharks are significantly depleted. Where once schools of these fishes were observed, now only shy, solitary individuals are observed, if lucky. These predators play a vital role in maintaining the populations of smaller reef fishes, thereby maintaining a balance in the food web.

The Caribbean has been repeatedly devastated by coral bleaching events and disease over the last four decades. Branching corals commonly called staghorns and elkhorns (Acropora species) were once the most abundant species in our reefs and were important refuges for many reef species due to their interlocking branches. However, their populations declined dramatically due to disease in the 1970s and today are considered to be critically endangered, with their heavily encrusted skeletons providing a glimpse of a once vibrant reef. These two species are especially fast-growing under ideal conditions and can establish new colonies from small fragments. Using these two factors, we’ve been able to establish coral nurseries, consisting of underwater trees made of PVC, to which small pieces of the corals are tied to. With occasional maintenance to prevent overgrowth of algae, we’ve successfully grown and out-planted dozens of new colonies, which we will continue to monitor. This project would have not been possible without funding from the NLCB and NH International.

ERIC developed a relationship with the Global FinPrint initiative, which consists of international researchers and collaborators conducting a global assessment of sharks and rays in coral reefs. To do this, we deploy baited cameras which provide footage of any nearby sharks and other reef life. Since 2016, we’ve set well over 200 of these cameras, capturing exciting footage of eight species of sharks, including hammerheads, tiger and silky sharks, and two species of rays. The presence of such a diversity of sharks, has identified Tobago as a “bright spot” by Global FinPrint, that is, despite fishing pressures, there is “an unexpected abundance of sharks and/ or rays”. This means that it is not yet too late for us to design and implement protective measures to preserve these populations. Our reefs were also identified as a potential “refuge” for some of our most threatened species of sharks such as the great hammerhead shark. With assistance of the Shark Conservation Fund supported by the Leonardo Di Caprio Foundation, ERIC is currently collaborating with the Department of Fisheries and Marine resources (THA) to develop a sustainable shark and ray fisheries management plan for north-east Tobago in 2019.

While most of our projects are marine-based, we have made strides to expand our attention towards our terrestrial environment. With funding from the UNDP GEF SGP, we developed a simple monitoring programme with five of Tobago’s prominent tour guides, that can be easily conducted during their tours. We call this programme Forest Check, where the guides and their clients record specific behaviours from certain plants and animals along the hiking trails of the Main Ridge Forest Reserve. For example, they record observations of fruiting or flowering of plants such as the bois canot and forest flame or look for nesting behaviours of the crested oropendola and the rufous-breasted hermit. The guides also make note of garbage along the trail. Over time, these observations will provide cues of any changes in behavioural patterns within our forests. This is crucial for forest management decisions, especially with anticipated changes and impacts by climate change, which we are potentially experiencing already. In 2017 we trained representatives from various community-based organisations in different communities in north-east Tobago to form the Northeast Tobago Climate Change Champions Network. These champions are advocates informing their communities about climate change, its impacts and the urgency of climate change action. The network was created as part of our practical adaptation project for the “Climate ACTT: Action by Civil society in TT to build resilience to climate change” project which was facilitated by CANARI and Conservation International. Since then, the network has continued its outreach with funding from BHP Billiton, with the hope of expanding its activities later this year.

As part of our ongoing UNDP GEF SGP project, ERIC is producing a map of environmental threats and natural resource usage particularly from the marine nearshore and the human environment (villages and roads), sandwiched between the two proposed protected areas in north-east Tobago. We hope to determine how these threats and usages will impact particularly the borders of the Main Ridge Forest Reserve and the proposed north-east Tobago Marine Protected Area.

All our work has not gone unrewarded. In 2017 and 2018, ERIC won the National Energy Globe Award for TT for the Northeast Tobago Climate Change Champions Network and Forest Check programmes, respectively. The Energy Globe is a prestigious environmental award that recognises the work of organisations tackling environmental issues within their country, using sustainable best practices. We’ve also received a Special Recognition Award for NGO Excellence in TT from the JB Fernandes Award in 2017 and an International Travel and Hospitality Award for Eco-Friendly Tour Company in TT in 2018.

It has indeed been a busy, hectic five years for our small organisation. Our success story would not be possible without the patronage of our funders, the enduring work of our community-based field technicians and staff, the interest and embrace of the communities and the support of our families and close friends. This year’s Earth Day is more than a celebration of our environment for ERIC. It is also a celebration of what we have been able to achieve for the environment and for our communities in north-east Tobago.

For more info visit: www.eric-tobago.org

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