Printer Friendly

Undergraduate research at the School for Field Studies' SFS) Center for Marine Resource Studies in the Turks and Caicos Islands.


The School for Field Studies' (SFS) Center for Marine Resource Studies (CMRS) in the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) has contributed to local policymaking for more than 20 years. Each semester and in two summer sessions, groups of U.S.-based undergraduates travel to South Caicos Island to complete interdisciplinary coursework, environmental and policy-based research, and service learning with the local community.

Indeed, through SFS programs that span the globe, more than 500 students enter the field each year for place-based learning. The students who participate in these programs come from a variety of backgrounds and from colleges and universities across the United States. The majority of students are natural science majors, but students from all majors (provided they meet the minimum academic requirements) are encouraged to apply, and a few non-science majors do attend. CMRS welcomes about 30 students in each of the four sessions per year (two 15-week semester programs, and two four-week summer sessions). Students are introduced to the local flora and fauna of the Turks and Caicos Islands, as well as the environmental challenges facing the islands. Students and faculty also work with the TCI Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs (DEMA) and local stakeholders to provide data and insights for the development of management strategies to protect the island's unique biodiversity and to maintain economic opportunities for the local community.



Students undertake a variety of research projects while at the center. These often include monitoring species populations, assessing fishery status, or evaluating management strategies for their efficacy. The students are guided through a four-credit course in directed research that includes instruction on conducting research, as well as actual project implementation (for more information on the SFS model, see Sears and Meitzner Yoder 2014). The instructional portion of the course includes hypothesis creation and testing, basic data-collection methods, statistical analyses, a discussion of ethics in research, and scientific communication. This introduction to research is an integral part of preparing the students to conduct their own research while on the island.

Students work with individual faculty members to conduct rigorous scientific research; faculty members assiduously mentor students to ensure that the research being conducted will contribute to the long-term health and well-being of both the natural resources of the island and the communities that depend on those resources. Projects undertaken by students are often part of long-term research projects at the center and contribute to the center's Strategic Research Plan.

However, students are asked to construct their own hypothesis to test that fits within the overall long-term research goals of the center. Students have between 10 and 15 days to collect data to test their hypothesis and then the research is summarized in the form of an individual scientific article. The results of the projects are shared with local stakeholders at the end of each session through an oral presentation by students, as well as in written reports from faculty and students. Students also are encouraged to work with their mentor on publishing or presenting their work outside of SFS.

One of the long-term research topics addressed by students in topical courses such as Marine Resource Management and through directed research has been the health of the Caribbean queen conch (Strombus gigas) fishery. More than 2,500 students have worked on some part of the conch project over approximately 20 years of research. Our Center for Marine Resource Studies is located on South Caicos Island, where the primary source of income is from small-scale commercial fishing, with the Caribbean queen conch fishery being the second most important in the region, behind only the spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) fishery (Medley and Ninnes 1999; Lockhart et al. 2006). The shallow oolitic limestone platform that makes up the Caicos Banks is an ideal habitat for these organisms. In particular, Conch is a traditional source of protein for island residents, and trade records involving conch exist as early as 1888.

It is estimated that 15 million conch were exported annually until the late 1960s (Rudd 2003). As the demand for salt (the leading industry in the islands until about the early 1960s) decreased and unemployment increased, there was a surge in artisanal commercial fishing and a spike in the conch catch (Rudd 2003). By the 1980s, most conch fishing was conducted by freediving operations from fiberglass boats equipped with outboard engines.

At the same time, the Turks and Caicos Islands became increasingly attractive as a tourist destination. Tourist numbers increased from 25,000 in 1986 to 50,000 in 2001, and as of 2013, stand at over a million tourists a year, partly as a result of the expansion of the cruise-ship industry. The population of island residents also increased from approximately 8,000 in 1986 to 40,000 in 2013, with many newcomers emigrating from other Caribbean countries to work in the tourist and fisheries industries. This rise in both resident population and visitors places increasing pressure on a limited resource: the queen conch.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement among governments aimed at ensuring that trade does not threaten the survival of a species. CITES lists the Caribbean queen conch as not currently threatened, but notes that it may become so without proper management and trade controls (CITES 2015). Therefore, DEMA has made it a priority to monitor and manage the stock by seasonal closures of fishing areas, restrictions on the fishing gear that can be used, minimum size limits on catch, and an export quota system based on the catch limits.

In addition, in 2003 the TCI government established the Admiral Cockburn East Caicos Conch and Lobster Reserve to protect juvenile conch. Part of the challenge of monitoring queen conch resources and setting catch limits is the lack of records of domestic consumption of the mollusk. Records of catch are often limited to the number of individuals handled at processing plants located on Providenciales and South Caicos (Lockhart et al. 2006), where the vast majority of conch are destined for export (estimated at 99% in 2003; Lockhart et al. 2006). No direct counts of conch consumed locally are available. Consequently, domestic consumption of conch must be estimated when enumerating the total extraction of conch. The estimates are extremely important in setting catch limits so that the total of extracted conch will not exceed the sustainable harvesting limits. However, it is generally agreed that local consumption is underestimated (Lockhart et al. 2006), leading to an inflated export quota and a higher total extraction of queen conch than is predicted to be sustainable. CMRS has been working with DEMA to try to fill the knowledge gap concerning total conch extraction so that better export quotas can be established, hopefully resulting in the more sustainable use and management of the conch fishery. The longevity of SFS and CMRS on South Caicos and their commitment to the community and scientific research have put the center in a unique position. CMRS' data reporting is seen as unbiased, which allows the students and faculty to work with a variety of stakeholders, such as fishers, processing plants, and policymakers. Our status of working outside of the government and private industry, our rigorous research approach, and our consideration for the local economy and customs have built trust within the community that allows SFS students and staff to collect and present data more easily than other agencies or entities. Indeed, the center has been working to provide reliable Caribbean queen conch fisheries data since the late 1990s.

Our Research

Undocumented informal landings for domestic consumption of the Caribbean queen conch, along with increased export demands, led DEMA to conduct its first national seafood consumption survey of residents in 2004 to assess local consumption (Lockhart et al. 2006), decrease the uncertainty in estimates of local consumption and produce more accurate annual catch limits (Rudd 2003). This initial survey revealed that 72 percent of the respondents ate conch, and the average frequency of consumption was 4.33 times per month at a rate of 0.11 kg/meal, resulting in an estimated 323,342 pounds of conch consumed locally annually (Lockhart et al. 2006; DEMA 2012). The survey also attempted to track the source of the conch consumed and found that 51 percent of all locally consumed conch had not entered the market, making it extremely hard to monitor.


In 2012, CMRS initiated a second study of seafood consumption, with an updated and revised survey, as part of the spring program's field exercise. Under the supervision of faculty and staff, students surveyed residents and tourists in Providenciales about their seafood consumption. Initial results indicated that local consumption of conch may be significant (an estimated average consumption of up to 5.33 times per month, approximately 42 percent of which had not entered the market). Such numbers should not be overlooked when setting catch limits (Gordon 2013). However, since the initial implementation of the survey was quite limited, it was concluded that more research was needed to determine if the trends in conch consumption in Providenciales were representative of the consumption of rest of the residents of the islands.

After further communication with DEMA, it was determined that CMRS students would conduct a national survey of seafood consumption in 2013 to build upon and update the 2004 survey results, and to contribute to the agreement to monitor and regulate conch that DEMA has with CITES. As part of both a field exercise that included all students (which covered Providenciales) and through directed research projects conducted by a subset of students (which included Middle, North and South Caicos and Grand Turk), SFS students surveyed more than 700 residents on the five most populated islands about their seafood consumption. Surveys were conducted orally in English and Spanish with the help of DEMA staff.

Results from this 2013 survey indicated that TCI residents had increased their consumption of conch to over 430,000 pounds annually since the initial survey in 2004 (Gordon 2013, Smalley 2013). However, residents' consumption is only a piece of the total domestic consumption, so total domestic consumption was likely higher than the estimated 430.000 lbs. Disparately, the 2013-14 extraction quota was set at 820,000 pounds: 500,000 pounds for export and only 320.000 pounds for local consumption. This survey indicated that the total domestic consumption was much greater than the local consumption extraction quota. Our survey results were presented to the South Caicos community and to DEMA for its use in future assessments of sustainable fishing quotas.

Students' involvement in assessing queen conch stocks has not been limited to this project. As part of our semester and summer programs, students continue to determine the impact of local marine protected areas on the density and population structure of the queen conch, a project started in the mid-1990s (Tewfik and Bene 1999, 2003). Recently CMRS partnered with DEMA to complete a visual stock assessment of the conch population around South Caicos; the only prior assessment was completed in 2001. Similar to the survey of national seafood consumption, the visual assessment is part of the CITES agreement to monitor and manage conch resources sustainably.

As part of the spring 2015 directed research projects, four students under the supervision of faculty and staff surveyed 40 sites between South Caicos and Ambergris Key, an area over 200 kilometers squared. This was part of the more than 300 sites randomly identified by DEMA throughout the islands as in need of assessment. Conch at each site were counted, measured, and weighed; then a sub-sample of these were selected to be "knocked" (removed from the shell) to collect organismal weight.

Based on preliminary findings, the TCI government proposed closing the conch fishery, which would have severe economic effects on South Caicos. Local stakeholders recognize the conch fishery is under pressure, and data analysis must be completed before decisions can be made. With data demonstrating the deteriorating status of the fishery, however, local stakeholders may be more likely to respect the policy of temporarily closing the fishery to allow stocks to rebound.

Challenges to Implementation

Naturally, projects such as these draw attention to shortcomings in data associated with management decisions, and working with industries dependent on natural resources often results in conflict. However, with increasing pressure from the international community to place greater restrictions on this economically valuable resource, the queen conch, including a petition by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to list this organism as "endangered" or "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, accurate and meaningful data becomes increasingly important. CMRS is ideally situated to collect this type of data and work with local communities to understand the meaning of this information. In fact, through our community outreach and engagement we attempt to develop greater stewardship among the younger members of the community, hopefully increasing the success of future management strategies. However, time and effort must be put into research design and quality control of the data collected in order to ensure that it is gathered in an unbiased and meticulous manner.

Similar to other SFS centers, CMRS research falls under an overarching directive and research question developed with local stakeholders. That collaboration on designing the strategic research plan of the center and continuing open communication with those dependent on the queen conch allow faculty and students at CMRS to conduct research that is valuable to the local community and to the sustainability of the natural resources of South Caicos. We endeavor to continue to inform the community about the status of the queen conch, a resource they rely on, and to communicate the importance of the policies our data inform. In this way, we try to mitigate some of the conflict that comes with the management of natural resources.



The unique position of CMRS in the TCI has allowed the faculty and students to do pioneering work in Caribbean queen conch fisheries assessment to inform local policy. However, similar relationships can be built anywhere. SFS has a history of working with communities and natural-resource management agencies over long periods of time all over the world. SFS student and faculty research in bioacoustics have informed Costa Rican National Park management on the effect of roads on bird populations and activities. Researchers at the SFS center in north Queensland, Australia, have been working alongside community conservation groups to determine the habitat needs of locally threatened mammalian species, such as the Lumholtz's tree-kangaroo, to update forest conservation and management plans.

In end-of-semester evaluations, which assess the students' perceptions of their time in the program, including everything from student life to individual instructors, students often report that the experience was transformative and gave them research and scientific-thinking skills and knowledge they will use in a variety of future careers, from graduate studies in marine science to medical school. Said one recent student: "My SFS experience has been transforming, inspiring, and enlightening. I have learned so much more than I ever expected about the environmental sciences. Prior to coming to CMRS, I had very little experience in conducting research or even studying the sciences, and now I feel very confident. In my future, I'd like to continue working to protect and learn about the environment." A handful of students each year go on to present or publish their research or use it in their thesis work for their undergraduate degree.

The framework that allows SFS faculty and students to work seamlessly with governmental agencies, community members, and other local stakeholders is the long-term commitment to both the community and sustainable use of resources in the areas we work. The research is driven by local socio-environmental issues, is conducted using careful methodology, and is shared regularly with local stakeholders. Community outreach

and engagement are critical. CMRS works closely with local schools to teach about the status of the marine resources of the TCI, developing early stewardship within the residents of South Caicos. At the end of each semester, research findings are shared with the community, and community members are invited to contribute their thoughts on the progress of the work being completed by SFS faculty and students.

This open communication allows the community to feel included in the research process and produces better long-term research, since local knowledge and needs are continuously being incorporated into the direction of the research. As a result, the research also can more accurately inform natural resource management strategies by incorporating local knowledge and needs. However, developing the trust and community buy-in necessary to create such an open forum is often not possible at short-term research locations. Thus, in our model of student research, we endeavor to create long-lasting local connections and strategic research plans that incorporate the knowledge and needs of our local stakeholders. CS


We would like to sincerely thank three anonymous reviewers and the editors for their helpful review of and comments on our manuscript. The authors would also like to thank the faculty, staff, and students of The School for Field Studies' Center for Marine Resource Studies for their continuing enthusiastic support. Special thanks to Dr. Edward Hind and Kathy Lockhart for their immeasurable contributions to the center's conch research.


CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). 2015. Queen Conch. Accessed November 6, 2015.

DEMA (Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs). 2012. Turks and Caicos Islands National Report on the Queen Conch Fishery 2012/2013. Accessed November 6, 2015. Queen%20Conch%20Meeti g%20(23%20October)/Turks%20&%20Caicos/ Turks%20and%20Caicos%20Islands%20National%20Report%20on%20 the%20Queen%20Conch%20Fishery%202012-2013.pdf.

Gordon, Claire. 2013. "Seafood Consumption Across Different Demographics in South Caicos." Directed Research under Edward Hind, Ph.D.

Lockhart, Kathy, Gisele Magnusson, and Wesley Clerveaux. 2006. "Consumption on Local Conch by Residents of the TCI." In 57th Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute, 791-801.

Medley, Paul A.H., and Christopher H. Ninnes. 1999. "A Stock Assessment for the Conch (Strombus gigas L.) Fishery in the Turks and Caicos Islands." Bulletin of Marine Science 64(3): 399-406.

Rudd, Murray A. 2003. "Fisheries Landing and Trade of the Turks and Caicos Islands." Fisheries Centre Research Report 11(6): 149-161.

Sears, Robin R., and Laura S. Meitzner Yoder. 2014. "Fostering Students' Commitment to Service Through International Field Research." CUR Quarterly 35(2): 20-27.

Smalley, Yasmeen. 2013. "Seafood Consumption in the Turks and Caicos Islands and Its Implications for Management and Conservation." Directed Research under Edward Hind, Ph.D.

Tewfik, Alexander and Christophe Bene. 1999. "Densities and Age Structure of Fished Versus Protected Populations of Queen Conch (Strombus gigas L.) in the Turks and Caicos Islands." Proceedings of the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute. 51.

Tewfik, Alexander and Christophe Bene. 2003. "Effects of Natural Barriers on the Spillover of a Marine Mollusk: Implications for Fisheries Reserves." Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 13: 473-488. doi: 10.1002/aqc.562. Meghan Graham MacLean, Heidi Hertler, Mark Seifert,

The School for Field Studies Meghan Graham MacLean,

The School for Field Studies,

Meghan Graham MacLean joined the Office of Academic Affairs at The School for Field Studies in the fall of 2014. Previously she was an assistant professor at Babson College where she taught undergraduate courses in environmental science and sustainability to business majors. She also taught flight science at the Johns Hopkins' Center for Talented Youth, sustainable energy practices to middle-school technology classes, and classes in remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS) to undergraduates and graduate students. MacLean's research in biogeography explores urbanization and land cover change, impacts of exotic species, and how to monitor changes in the global environment. Her research informs land owners, planners, and conservation agencies about sustainable development and the effects of changes in biodiversity.

Mark Seifert joined the School for Field Studies' Office of Academic Affairs in fall 2010 and is currently dean of academic programs. He spends time both at the school's headquarters in Beverly, Massachusetts, and at the school's various centers throughout the world, promoting teacher training and curriculum development, managing course requirements, evaluating learning outcomes, and driving the school's review process for academic programs. He previously worked with several government agencies, including the Department of Defense and the United States Army, as a cultural and behavioral intelligence specialist. Seifert's doctoral work in rural Panama involved micro-economic modeling of human provisioning systems and the market forces that influence decision making in indigenous peoples' quest for food. Seifert's first exposure to SFS occurred in 1988 when he became a student in a summer program in Costa Rica called Tropical Ecology: The Dynamics of Deforestation.

Heidi Hertler joined the School for Field Studies' Turks and Caicos Island field station as Center Director in 2011. Her research interests include relationships between land use and coastal marine systems including, mangroves, seagrasses and coral reefs, and the integration of science and research into environmental strategies and policies for the conservation of biodiversity and coastal resources. In her classes she incorporates field and laboratory experiences, oral presentations, and service learning and uses water chemistry, plant biology, and invertebrate physiology to answer basic and applied questions. Through community outreach, she is able to increase local understanding of near-shore environments and collect data that can be utilized by community members and others to encourage environmental stewardship of the marine environment through awareness of human impacts on marine systems. Hertler is also an alumni of SFS's US Vigin Islands program in the fall of 1987.

doi: 10.18833/curq/36/3/3
COPYRIGHT 2016 Council on Undergraduate Research
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2016 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Focus
Author:MacLean, Meghan Graham; Hertler, Heidi; Seifert, Mark
Publication:Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:7TURK
Date:Mar 22, 2016
Previous Article:Interdisciplinary community-connected capstone courses: a model for engaging undergraduates with public policy.
Next Article:Mucking about in the mess: research-based education at Quest University Canada.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |