The beauty of The Bahamas is its underwater paradise of tropical marine life. The ocean is part of the culture, the heart and the livelihoods of many Bahamians, and part of that rich marine life is the Nassau grouper, a large reef fish with striking dark brown stripes. Once swimming the waters in abundance, the Nassau grouper is under great threat and Bahamian native researcher Krista Sherman has been working alongside well-respected marine biologists to support conservation efforts one scientific step at a time.
Working on a PhD in Biological Sciences at the University of Exeter in England, Krista is researching the health of Nassau grouper. This is part of a collaborative initiative with the Shedd Aquarium, Bahamas National Trust and Perry Institute for Marine Science. She is also involved with population genetics research of the Nassau grouper with support from the university's Molecular Ecology and Evolution Group. The genetics side of her research is funded by the Save Our Seas Foundation and lead supervisor, Professor Charles Tyler.GoGreen Portals interviewed Krista to get an insight into her dedication to an important marine biology cause, saving the Nassau grouper.
What can you reveal about the Nassau grouper's habitat, migratory habits and behavior?
The Bahamas is an interesting case study area for Nassau grouper. We have all of the habitats used by groupers throughout their life history and most of the reported spawning aggregations for the species occur in this country. Unfortunately, most of our spawning sites haven't been studied. We have more questions than answers right now, but are working to systematically address these.
Based on our research we do know that the population is at risk – numbers are declining.In terms of migratory habitats, fish migrate along the shelf edge in groups until they reach their desired spawning site during the winter full moons. Bahamian fish migrate longer distances and for longer periods of time than in other parts of the Caribbean. There is some variability in migratory behavior for the areas we have studied so far and we will be exploring this more over the next year.
Why are they under threat?
The main threat to Nassau grouper is illegal spawning aggregation fishing. There have been drastic reductions in fish abundance in The Bahamas and elsewhere because of this. Fishing at spawning sites has been illegal in The Bahamas for more than a decade for a portion of the spawning season. However, in 2015, the Bahamian government amended the Fisheries Act so that there are fixed dates each year (December 1 – February 28). This timeframe corresponds to the main months when spawning takes place in the country.
What is the Save Our Seas Foundation Grouper Family project you have been involved with?
The goal of the project is to take a science-based approach to guide management for Nassau grouper conservation. One of the first things we need to figure out is effective population size and structure to determine how the fishery should be managed. How many fish do we have? Has overfishing or other human impacts compromised the health of the fish that are left?
The Save Our Seas Foundation is supporting my research, which takes a molecular based approach to answering these questions.I'm using high-resolution markers, DNA microsatellites and single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) which allow us to investigate the genetic diversity and connectivity of Nassau grouper. I've been juggling labwork, fieldwork and writing over the last few months and have made good progress so far. I have some preliminary data analyzed and will have a complete dataset ready for analysis early next year.
The Nassau grouper is regarded as iconic in The Bahamas, why is that?
Even the name 'Nassau grouper' has a strong connection to The Bahamas since Nassau is our capital city. There are quintessential Bahamian dishes that were typically made with Nassau grouper. People also enjoy seeing them on reefs during dive and snorkel trips because they can be quite curious. In some parts of the Caribbean it's rare to see Nassau grouper, but they are still found on many reefs in The Bahamas. But aside from the economic value, there are strong cultural traditions linked to this fish and you see that reflected in art and imagery for example.
What did project managing a Global Environment Facility Marine Protected Area initiative entail and how did this impact sustainable tourism?
The project had multiple components, but the tourism aspect involved the development of the first sustainable tourism model for the country and provided training in sustainable tourism livelihoods for the local communities bordering the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park (ECLSP) – Staniel Cay and Black Point. This entailed creating training materials and conducting a series of workshops and meetings in the Exuma Cays with the support of the Bahamas National Trust, other agencies, colleagues and consultants.
Workshops included the Bahamas Nature Tour Guide Certification, BahamaHost Certification, Reef Check EcoDiver Certification and Strategic Business Planning. Collectively, these programs empowered Bahamians by providing them with opportunities to acquire skills and tools required to start their own business, improve existing businesses or become employed in nature-based activities.
What did you achieve from working alongside the Atlantis Blue Project focused on coral restoration?
I became an AGRRA trainer under this project and since then have co-led several training workshops to expand local capacity for coral reef monitoring and restoration in the country. I also had the opportunity to co-author coral reef report cards that provide suggestions for enhancing the health of Bahamian reefs.
What was your experience with the Global Reef Expedition run by the Living Oceans Foundation?
The Global Reef Expedition was launched in The Bahamas in 2010 and I was one of several Bahamians that had the opportunity to assist with this research. My involvement included completing advanced AGRRA coral surveys, which were compiled with benthic, fish and bathymetry mapping and GIS data to report on the status of the sites we visited.
The Government of The Bahamas received a report outlining research findings along with conservation recommendations to manage key areas and/or species. Additionally, I narrated a documentary that was produced to highlight the research. It was a really cool experience and definitely the most comfortable research cruises I've ever done!
GoGreen Portals has interviewed Sylvia Earle from Mission Blue and Andy Sharpless from Oceana. What influence do you aspire to have and who is an inspiration to you?
Ultimately, I would like my research to positively influence marine policy and management in The Bahamas. That's what I've always wanted and why I decided to tackle this PhD. I'm inspired by the dedication of people that do a lot of the behind-the-scenes or on-the-ground science and conservation research. One of my role models is Dr. Judith Lang, who is one of the founders of the Atlantic Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment program (AGRRA). She has a tremendous amount of experience and her work has been instrumental in helping to improve standards of monitoring for coral reefs. She is still actively engaged in fieldwork and training, which keeps her very busy travelling around the Caribbean.
One of your ambitions is to be involved with conservation management for coral reef ecology. What do you believe are the key components to effectively manage these oceanic ecosystems?
As a scientist, I strongly believe that science should form the basis or foundation of any management decision to ensure that biological and ecological functions are met. This appears to be simple, but is a lot harder to do in practice because of funding deficits, capacity constraints and political considerations. I feel like the key to effectively managing these systems is finding the right balance between these other elements.
What has been one of your most extraordinary underwater moments?
I've spent a lot of time under water for professional and recreational purposes and I love being in the water. Three moments that stand out to me are the first time I went snorkeling, a research dive in ECLSP two years ago where I was surrounded by seven spotted eagle rays and free diving around a buoy in the Tongue of the Ocean and being surrounded by a school of fish.
Do you believe that science holds the key to ocean sustainability?
YES! However, science is only impactful if it can be translated effectively for marine resource managers and policymakers who then have to find ways to apply these recommendations.
There are some legislative changes (related to the closed season, size limits and gear use) that would help to speed along the recovery process for Nassau grouper. Increasing advocacy for these changes both at the public and government level would notably help to support our efforts to promote sustainable management for Nassau grouper.