TIDE's Community Researcher program helps young conservationists pursue their dreams
Written by: Amanda Munro
In the depths of the sea surrounded by shimmering fish darting in and out of bright coral formations, a group of Belizean divers are on a hunt for the flashy and invasive lionfish. In black wetsuits, fins and masks, they glide effortlessly through the water on a mission to protect the Port of Honduras Marine Reserve. For Allana Barillas and the other TIDE community researchers, this is just another day’s work.
“Some of us had spears and some of us had bags. Whenever we see a lionfish, we strike it and put in the bags,” Barillas said. “Those trips are fun and you are saving the environment at the same time.”
TIDE’s community researchers are young people from the Toledo district age 18-25 who have a love for the sea and an interest in protecting it. They monitor all different aspects of ocean life, including water quality and sea grass distribution. They also perform underwater surveys on conch, lobster, and sea cucumber, taking measurements of each animal they encounter and calculating population density.
A few years ago, Barillas couldn’t imagine herself doing this kind of work.
Barillas said. “My first time with the tank was great. In the sea, you’re in a whole different world.”
The community researchers don’t spend all their time underwater. They also do beach profiling and turtle nest monitoring. When they stumble upon a nest, researchers calculate when the eggs will hatch and whether the beach will erode away before that time. If so, they move the nest out of harm’s way and return again when the turtles are due to scramble out of the sand and embark on their journey to the sea. “That night we’ll take the hatchlings back to where their nest was and release them all together,” TIDE’s Science Director James Foley said.
The community researcher program is an integral part of TIDE’s success. These budding conservationists gather data that Foley and marine biologist Tanya Barona use to make decisions concerning the natural environment and the community.
For example, the team collects data on fish populations in the different management zones of the Port Honduras Marine Reserve. Foley, Barona, and TIDE science interns analyze that data and measure the rate of species regeneration.
“We were able to show with the results of our surveys [that] when we had good compliance with our No Take Zones we had really good regeneration of stock in the General Use Zone. By the time season opened again, there [was] plenty,” Foley said. “Unless you can actually show [fishermen] this is happening in their own area with their own fish, they’re not going to believe you.”
In this way, community researchers provide a vital link between TIDE and the communities in the Toledo district. “One of the goals here at TIDE is to involve the community, and one of the ways to get them involved is this data collection,” Barona said. “If they know what is happening in PHMR, they can better see why we want to manage it. It is making a difference.”
TIDE community researchers also provide an example for their peers and their communities, inspiring others to get involved and preserve the local environment.
“Toledo is a place that lacks development. All the smart, ambitious people are moving away to where there are opportunities, but if this place is to develop we need those clever and passionate people to stay here,” Foley said. “[This program] gives them the opportunity to make a difference to their own communities, to the environment in their own backyard while pursuing their passions.”
Through the Community Researcher program, young people from Toledo receive expert training. They also forge close relationships with each other and with nature, and learn countless new skills that will help them succeed in the future.
“I enjoy interacting with different people, learning new things, and experiencing the underwater world,” Barillas said. “I’ve learned to do different testing in the lab, I’ve learned to scuba dive, I’ve learned to do beach profiling, I’ve learned to interact with my co-workers well. What haven’t I learned?”
“Now I can identify more fish, corals, mangroves, birds. I learned how important the ecosystem is,” community researcher Willie Caal said. “I have more commitment to practicing the right things that will benefit the environment.”
TIDE provides their community researchers with excellent training at TIDE headquarters, but they also send them to add-on training sessions like Emergency First Response in Punta Gorda, bird monitoring in Guatemala, and coral reef monitoring in Gallow’s Point.
Because the team works together consistently for a long period of time, they have highly developed identification, research and monitoring skills, gaining valuable hands-on experience for their future work in conservation. TIDE’s program is a stepping stone for researchers to climb to greater heights in the pursuit of their calling.
“This is a program that creates opportunities for young people to pursue a career in conservation,” Foley said. “TIDE is dedicated to investing in these people, not just to get our work done but also because we understand how important it is to remain connected with the community.”
“I want to be a marine biologist,” Barillas said. “Every time we go on a monitoring trip or a research trip, it makes me build my passion for it and helps me realize I can definitely achieve it.”
Caal attests that the Community Researcher program is a great experience and encourages anyone who is considering it to apply.
“It is very interesting. You can gain a lot of knowledge. You are able to meet new people from around the world and have a lot of fun,” he said. Foley couldn’t agree more.
“Quite simply, it’s going to change your life,” Foley said. “People might think that we only care about research and numbers, but there’s a lot of passion in the TIDE research department. We really care about getting people involved and empowering them to be all they can be so they can make a difference."