A Global Initiative at Charlotteville Tobago
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My experience of research stations include Carmabi in Curaçao and Heron Island research station in the Great Barrier Reef, as well as those I’ve visited in Belize, Bermuda and Hawaii. These stations are usually set up in remote tropical locations, focused on facilitating and supporting academics doing research on an ecosystem or organism in a natural environment; away from people. In many cases, any discoveries made by the scientists are often taken with them when they leave; local communities may not know that the study took place. Today, more tropical research stations have begun to include community engagement and outreach programmes linking the local population to the science so that information can be passed on and applied locally; even though the primary focus may still be the science. ERIC – Environmental Research Institute of Charlotteville – is a modern research institute in which the community is intrinsic to the scientific process.
ERIC has a focus on the communities in north-east Tobago and their connection with the natural environment – both marine and terrestrial. The community is integrated into the process of environmental monitoring and management of their ecosystem. Through capacity building programmes, residents of Charlotteville, Speyside and other villages in the area learn basic skills such as snorkelling and diving. They are involved in planning and designing underwater surveys and trained to work with specialised underwater equipment. All of these interactions also automatically enhance personal skills in communication and teamwork. Local and international scientists then have the opportunity to collaborate with the community-based field technicians and resident scientists of ERIC to set up research projects. ERIC acts as a connector of science and conservation with society and culture on the ground. Eventually, the institute – including local and international members - may be seen as a trusted advisor to the community on matters of the environment and effects on their well being.
“I hope that ERIC would provide substantial facilitation in the co-management of natural resources in north-east Tobago by building and sustaining a long-term working relationship with the local community.”
|Aljoscha Wothke, Director of ERIC|
This is what Aljoscha Wothke (pronounced Al-yo-sha), head of ERIC, hopes can be achieved in the next five years. Aljoscha feels very much at home living in a small community like Charlotteville. Growing up in a rural town of Germany in the 1960s, he was connected to the idea of tropical paradise and the marine world through weekly television documentaries - The Under Sea world of Jacques Cousteau or exploring the Caribbean Reefs with Hans Hass, an Austrian diver and underwater filmmaker. However, he quickly made it part of his life by studying zoology in high school and at university. During his undergraduate degree, he learned to dive in Germany, then became a dive instructor and led marine biology excursions to the Red Sea. He spent six months in the Maldives working as a dive instructor. He was pursuing his master’s degree (MPhil) in biology and longing for another adventure in the tropics when he learned about the island nation, Trinidad and Tobago.
Aljoscha’s first trip to Trinidad and Tobago was for his Master’s thesis. This turned into the first of a series of visits, when he started coordinating diving excursions for foreign students to Tobago, and the start of his PhD. Twenty-three years later, he has made Trinidad and Tobago his home, building a family here. Over the years, he has worked on a variety of eco-based projects and built his skills in applied science, sustainable tourism and project management, working as consultant for his own company - Eco Project Ltd – undertaking projects based in Trinidad and Tobago, as well as further up the island chain.
In 2014, Aljoscha returned to live in Charlotteville, Tobago with his family. He took over a dive shop (Charlotteville Adventure Dive Centre) and co-founded ERIC – Environmental Research Institute of Charlotteville - together with local and international sustainability experts. All his skills could now be put to good use on this project. By coincidence, the UN Global Environmental Facility was investing in protecting areas of global significance. For Trinidad and Tobago to qualify, a restructuring of the current protected areas in Trinidad and Tobago needed to be done. Aljoscha was hired to assess the possibility of a marine protected area in north-east Tobago, including both Speyside and Charlotteville. He would assess the biological conditions and viability of surrounding marine areas, as well as the community’s connection and reliance on these areas, economically and inherently. In current environmental surveys, the community’s opinion and understanding of their surroundings must be considered. After all, they are the most familiar with the history of the area and must take on the roles of guardians of the protected area.
|ERIC Marine Biologist, Lanya Fanovich, discussing the biology of the invasive lionfish at the University of Trinidad & Tobago Marine Science Showcase. Photo provided by ERIC.|
Aljoscha’s aim is to connect the community to their environment, and allow them to take on the responsibility for monitoring and maintaining healthy practices. Current marine monitoring projects include long-term monitoring of coral reef health using the standardised Reef Check method: data collected feeds into the larger database where reef health can be assessed locally and compared to regional and global findings. Other marine collaborative projects include the Global FinPrint project, an initiative aimed at assessing the population of shark and rays worldwide. For this project, sharks are lured to baited remote underwater cameras; as they come close, it is possible to identify the species and to estimate size. Apart from the marine monitoring, ERIC sustains itself economically through the dive centre, where recreational divers have the opportunity to take part in eco-dives and to be actively involved in the science and data collecting.
ERIC’s founding group includes scientists from Trinidad and Tobago, Germany and Canada anchored by members of the community of Charlotteville and north-east Tobago. The diversity and expertise of the group, together with the local knowledge, work well towards well-balanced views of any situation.
“ERIC is still young and has a lot to prove. It will be challenging, but at the same time has been very fulfilling, since everyone at ERIC – local or international members – shares an appreciation for the land and marine environment and the communities of north-east Tobago,” says Aljoscha.
For more information about ERIC, please go to: www.eric-tobago.org. You can also connect with them on facebook and twitter: @ERICTobagoWI