Submitted by Environmental Research Institute Charlotteville (ERIC)
When the Environmental Research Institute Charlotteville (ERIC) began operations in 2014 in the small fishing village of Charlotteville, Tobago, there was no telling where it would be five years later. The alignment of several opportunities, including the prospect of operating a dive shop, the establishment of a base of operations and the proposal for a marine protected area (MPA) in north east Tobago, provided a solid ground for the organization.
There was a simple vision - "sustainability for the people and ecosystems of northeast Tobago". To begin achieving this, a small contingent of representatives from various community-based organizations were trained in marine ecology and various monitoring programs, one of which is the Reef Check method, with training from Nikole Heath of Force-E and Reef Check Florida. The individuals have since become important stalwarts in ERIC as Community-based Field Technicians. They play a vital role by assisting with data collection and advocacy activities. Their participation make them important communicators within their various communities, sharing their experiences and observations in order to highlight the need for management of their natural resources and by extension, conservation of the critical ecosystems bordering their villages. With their aid, 12 Reef Check sites around northeast Tobago were established and annually monitored. There is hope to set up at least two more in the coming months.
Shortly thereafter, ERIC has been rapidly propelled into several other projects and programs centered around citizen-science-based research and monitoring, capacity building, policy development, and sustainable tourism. Some of the programs include working with Global FinPrint, an international collaboration of scientists, research and civil groups, seeking to assess the status of sharks and rays globally. The data looks promising for Tobago, despite the heavy fishing pressures on its shark populations. Combined with significant interest from the governing fisheries department in the Tobago House of Assembly, there is some promise in the future towards regulating shark captures in Tobago's waters.
Significantly diminished staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) populations in northeast Tobago spurred an initiative to establish coral nurseries. Despite a number of trials and setbacks, it was a proud moment for ERIC when the first batch of staghorns were outplanted in 2018, happily coinciding with International Year of the Reef.
Even though ERIC is primarily comprised of marine and aquatic biologists, a bold move was taken to step out of the water, a comfort zone, to venture into the terrestrial environment. With a few prominent tour guides of Tobago's Main Ridge Forest Reserve (MRFR), a simple monitoring checklist was devised of behavioural cues of indicator plants and animals, which can be observed and documented with clients during their tour. Over time, the data will detect shifts in behavioural patterns which can hopefully trigger an early response towards forest management.
For the past two years, ERIC took up another challenge of producing maps of environmental threats and natural resource usage within the marine nearshore environment, villages and roads in northeast Tobago. This visual aid will provide a comprehensive spatial overview of how the threats and usages interact with the borders of the MRFR and the proposed MPA.
On a stronger advocacy front, Northeast Tobago Climate Change Champions Network was created, comprising of a number of community representatives driving the climate change conversation among peers and fellow villagers. Very soon the group will get their hands dirty with a coastal tree planting exercise, to increase coastline stability.
As a result of all of this hands-on work, ERIC uses its experiences from research and monitoring, and community engagement to actively participate in various national policy consultations, representing civil society. One of its major undertakings on this front is the push to apply for UNESCO Man and the Biosphere designation for northeast Tobago.
Fortuitously, all this work has not gone unrewarded. ERIC has been a recipient of the prestigious National Energy Globe Award for two successive years for the Forest Check and Climate Change Champions programs. Other various awards and recognition for NGO excellence and tourism were also bestowed
Like many non-profit NGOs, the biggest challenge is obtaining funding to maintain operations. Many of the projects would not have been possible without different funders. To supplement, ERIC has been fortunate to attract the attention of diverse divers, students, colleges and universities interested in science-tourism and ecological expeditions. Indeed, over time, the organization witnessed a rapid growth in its personnel capacity and expertise, work and respect as a voice in northeast Tobago. The journey to where ERIC is today definitely did not come easily, but it will always be remembered that its success began with Reef Check five years ago.