Darwin projects provide a wealth of opportunities for scientists to gain first hand, applied experience. In the first post of this series we heard from an early career researcher working alongside the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology project team in Cyprus on their citizen science programme.
Our second and final post shares the story of an MSc student from the University of Greenwich and her involvement in tackling the sargassum situation head-on in Turks and Caicos.
A sargassum situation
As an MSc student studying Environmental Conservation at the University of Greenwich, it was always an ambition of mine to contribute my final MSc project to a valuable cause. To take part in genuine research, collaborate with academics and to make a positive change to the environment and livelihoods. I was interested to hear that about the MSc opportunities as part of the Darwin Plus project led by my University. The project, based in the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) is a collaborative effort with the Department of Environmental and Coastal Resource, the School for Field Studies, South Caicos, and the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environment Management Overseas Territory Special Interest Group.
In recent years the TCI along with the wider Caribbean region has been experiencing sudden strandings of large seaweed masses on coastlines. This seaweed is understood to be of the sargassum genus, a brown macroalgae that is found in many different forms. The most common strandings have been made up of Sargassum fluitans and Sargassum natans. The aim of the project I worked on is to explore the impact these recent inundations are having on the island and to investigate the potential to exploit the macro-algae as bio-fuel or compost.
Prior to my trip to TCI and after the completion of an extensive desk study, a picture of the islands began to take shape. From the UK I was inspired by the bird life of the stark pink ancient salt pans, and excited by the infinite blue of sea and sky. On day one of the field trip we were soon exposed to the sargassum blight and the proposition of time spent on sandy beaches was exchanged for a thick mass of seaweed which in some parts was as high as my waist.
During the 16-day trip 100 questionnaires were completed through a combination of face to face interviews and focus groups. These questionnaires aimed to identify impact, management techniques and the frequency of removal of sargassum. These interviews brought together key stakeholders, strengthened relationships and encouraged seaweed monitoring by business owners, fisher-folk and local schools alike. The hope was that through these monitoring efforts we would be able to explore patterns, quantities and seasonal changes. For part of our trip we were hosted by the School for Field Studies, which meant we had access to a lab where we were able to create sorting methods, sample study sites and generate identification guides that are now available on SargNet to enable further data collection.
Moving through the islands not only enabled us to carry out field work but also gave us an opportunity to explore the front-line crisis and observe how communities were adapting to the sargassum influx. Our final challenge was collecting fresh samples before our flight home – thankfully they made it back to the UK safely and the results of the extensive analysis carried out by the Bio-algal Technology Group at the University of Greenwich is due to be issued in 2020.
Having now completed my MSc I feel grateful to have had such a unique opportunity. It enabled me to build new skills and working alongside other professionals and local people within the environment to meet wider global targets.
For more information on project DPLUS100 led by the University of Greenwich working in Turks and Caicos, please click here.