A two- day session on Sea Cucumbers, Starfish and Urchins heralded a series of six exciting classroom and field research courses- two in June, two in July and two in August- offered by Friends of the Environment to older high school students.
The Summer courses, which started on June 20, consisted of mornings classroom documentation on the proposed topic and was followed by afternoon field trips, most of them taking place as close to town as Eastern Shores and Great Cistern or as far as Cross Harbour, Long Beach, Casuarina Point and Snake Cay. Mangrove habitats and creeks were the favourite exploration areas.
The course on Sea Cucumbers, Starfish and Urchins was held by a Florida International University presenter, Elizabeth Stone, to a full class of six students, the maximum allowed per class. The information imparted about their anatomy and habits was meant to make the students comprehend the importance of these least understood creatures in maintaining a healthy eco-system.
Bats, Birds and Lizards were presented by Sean Giery, with the Department of Biology at the University of North Carolina, and attracted four students to the course on June 24-26. It was a three-day course that focused on the vertebrate biology and the habitats and behavior of these animals. In the afternoon, students went exploring the south of the island to discover and observe the hidden habitats of the insect-eating and fruit-eating bats. They went through the old abandoned sugar refinery and discovered colonies of bats hanging from the beams. Further South, they, like as Alice in Wonderland, disappeared underground finding themselves in unexpected caves, where a multitude of bats started flying around, alarmed by the visitors. During subsequent trips, they conducted field surveys looking for birds and reptiles.
Stephanie Archer, with North Carolina State University, kept five students fascinated by her presentation on Sponges during the July 8 and 9 classes. She informed them on the different species known in The Bahamas- approximately one hundred- but told them that there were probably many more as little research had been done on sponges here, up to now.
The students discovered amazing things that sponges do, such as releasing chemicals that contribute to the erosion of lime stone, but contradictorily they also found out about their role in reef build-up. Sponges also process nitrogen, thus helping with the growth of sea grass and algae, plants that are important to turtles, conchs and other marine life such as small fish and invertebrates.
One of the outdoors trips included snorkeling in mangrove tidal creeks and on patch reefs in the Snake Cay area to identify sponges and testing their filtering abilities as well as studying their regeneration capability by observing the re-organization of sponge cells in minute pieces gathered during the field trip. The second day field trip was cancelled because of bad weather.
Sea Turtles were a favourite topic for many of the students who participated in more than one course. Green Turtles abound in the Snake Cay Creek, so it was an exciting experience for them to snorkel to, spot them and to dive to place underwater cameras and monitoring equipment in their feeding grounds.
The students also captured a turtle during the first day trip. She was tagged and released, but not before several research photos were taken.
Five students attended that course held during the last two days of July, which was presented by Beth Whitman with Florida International University in Miami. They were taught about the different species of turtles found in the Caribbean and along the Florida coast, as well as their preferred habitat to forage and lay their eggs.
The students learned that certain species of turtles do not become sexually mature until they are at least four or five years old; other species do not reproduce until they are twenty to thirty years old, the Green Turtle being one of the last to reach sexual maturity after decades, thus the importance of protecting the new hatchlings.
How to protect these marine reptiles from their loss of habitat caused by increasing human developments along coastal areas as well as devising means to prevent poaching was a discussion focus during class hours. Ms. Whitman showed videos of people harvesting turtle eggs in Costa Rica. In Fort Lauderdale, lights from a beach front hotel directed towards the beach attracted the new hatchlings in the wrong direction. If they do not find the sea as soon as they are born, their chances of survival are nearly null.
Human interference is also evidenced by the negative impact of the equipment (nets and hooks) used by commercial fishermen and by the pollution of the oceans, among other problems.
In many islands of the Caribbean, it was a custom to catch turtles for consumption. Bans have been placed on the fishing of turtles, but people still find ways of catching turtles for food.
Enforcing regulations against the catching of turtle as well as reporting infractions would be another step towards preventing sea turtles becoming extinct.
Exploring the flats of Abaco for bonefish was an opportunity included in the last Summer Field Course of Friends of the Environment held August 13 to 15.
Offered in partnership with the Cape Eleuthera Institute, it was a very well attended class with six motivated youngsters participating in the first day morning class and afternoon trip to Great Cistern Creek as well as in two subsequent full days of field evaluation to Cross Harbour and Casuarina Point.
Thanks to the combined presentation of Tiffany Gray with Cape Eleuthera Institute, Bahamian researcher Jason Lewis and of Zag Hud, a biologist affiliated with Florida International University and the Bone Fish and Tarpon Trust, the students learned about all the biological particularities of the bone fish.
It was a lively course during which the presenters took turns talking about their findings on the bone fish, Albula Vulpes, the most common of the three species found in The Bahamas. Bonefish start its life as transparent ribbon-like larvae. It becomes a full adult at three years of age, living most of its life on the flats, only leaving this habitat to travel miles to spawn in deeper waters.
After studying the bone fish life cycle in Eleuthera, Grand Bahama and Andros, the researchers wanted to find out if the Abaco bonefish followed the same pattern. Bonefish from the Marls were tagged in 2010 and 2012 and tracked. The findings confirmed their expected pattern of spawning: some of the tagged fish were found congregated in the deeper waters of South Abaco, approximately fifty miles away from the flats.
Thousands of bonefish congregate in that area to spawn twice a year, returning back North after a few days.
Those studies were performed over two years with the collaboration of the locals, explained Mr. Jud, especially with the help of the bonefishing guides who know where to find the fish and are aware of their habits.
During their field trips, the students learned about fly fishing; they were taught how to tag the fish with external tags and were taken to areas where bonefish can be found. They spent time at the house of bonefish guide, Buddy Pinder, perfecting the art of preparing a fishing pole.
The bonefish industry contributes a huge part to the Family Islands’ tourism. People come a long way to Eleuthera, Grand Bahama, Andros and Abaco to practice catch and release bone fishing.
The bonefish is protected and only a few fish for personal consumption are allowed to be caught. Particularly important is to protect the spawning grounds of the fish. If caught in huge numbers when they are spawning, their population would rapidly be decimated.
The boat trip to the Snake Cay Creek was coordinated by Ruth Albury, who captained the small boat during a wonderful afternoon in the research of sea turtles habitats. Clint Kemp with the Black Fly Lodge at Schooner Bay took the group on his boat for a day of exploration around Cross Harbour.
The kids who ranged in age from thirteen to eighteen were absolutely captivated by what they witnessed and learned during all of the field trips courses. Being able to swim was a requirement to attend nearly all the courses.
So successful was the program that officers of Friends of the Environment are planning to develop an intermediate field course program for the Summer 2014 for younger high school children.