Several researchers from the academic sector have made efforts to understand the complexity of marine ecosystems and have contributed much to our scientific knowledge on the importance of conserving these resources. However, there are pending issues that need to be addressed in order to efficiently manage and conserve our resources. On November 6 and December 4, 2010, we brought together 13 professors that are conducting (or have conducted) research from various universities in western and eastern Puerto Rico (UPR-Mayagüez, UPR-Aguadilla, Interamerican University-San German, UPR-Humacao, UPR-Bayamon, UPR-Medical Science Campus, University of Turabo, and Universidad del Este) to discuss their major concerns in regard to the studies needed to improve management and/or conservation of marine and coastal resources in Puerto Rico.
In general, more research that focused on the conservation, as opposed to solely management, of marine and coastal resources was highly encouraged. Emphasis was also given to collecting basic physical, chemical and biological data that could be used to develop models that help explain and predict coastal processes. Studies on the effects of anthropogenic activities on or near coastal habitats was considered a high-priority. Conducting scenarios of climate change and assessing their impacts on coastal habitats was also highly stressed. The role of microbes in marine ecosystems and their effect on reefs was another area of interest. As with other experts we have assessed, evaluating the effectiveness of management strategies was found to be particularly important. The participants also showed a large concern for long-term environmental and anthropogenic effects on important coastal organisms (i.e., dinoflagellates, crabs). They also emphasized the importance of identifying and assessing potential areas of contamination (e.g., fecal contamination) by human activities and its effect on public safety. Another interest was to determine habitat connectivity of coastal vertebrates and invertebrates (e.g., birds) and the flow of essential nutrients (e.g., carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus) between adjacent areas.
Regarding short- and long-term research needed for resource management included topics such as:
- Declines in aerial coverage of coral reefs should be examined (subaerial and submarine) to determine reefs at risk and those that are influenced by coastal land use.
- Studies that monitor the rates of loss in reef shoreline (coastal erosion), which may be related to changes in land use, and can be used to show trends.
- Recompilation of historical data and compare with prehistoric data from coral growth bands/cores to detect changes or trends, which can be used to make predictions for the future of the reefs and the coast. Evaluate past and current conditions – what measures can be taken to reverse detrimental trends. This information should be complemented with knowledge from coastal resource users.
- Characterizing the biological complexity (macro and micro) of coastal habitats and watersheds and identify anthropogenic impacts, which requires long-term monitoring of these areas.
- Quantifying the impacts that sediments have on coral reefs and other important coastal habitats with the use of physical/transport models as well as consistent measurements (e.g., turbidity, light penetration, stratification, changes in bathymetry/topography, precipitation, runoff). Evaluate and model suspended sediment transport on a short and long term scale in order to determine distribution mechanisms and develop strategies for mitigation.
- Determine the role of microbial ecology in marine ecosystems and how they may be involved in the transmission of coral reef diseases. Evaluate the effect of microbes/pathogens from wastewaters on coastal habitats and what hydrologic processes may influence its distribution.
- Quantifying sediment transport, modeling of suspended and bedload processes that can help explain geomorphologic changes occurring in the coastal zone. Identify specific mechanisms (e.g., grain size, sediment composition, contaminants, dynamics of sediment transport).
- Impacts of climate change, particularly how it will affect storm frequency, sea level, coastal erosion, flooding patterns, global warming, ocean acidification, increasing water temperatures, coral diseases, calcification, reef accretion, and bleaching. Need research that focuses on scenarios of climate change and their effect on coastal habitats (e.g., eutrophication, sedimentation, acidification) by using models.
- Studies on processes associated with rivers, watersheds, soil erosion, wetlands, extent of floods, temperatures, precipitation, and evapo-transportation. Develop models that can best describe the mechanisms associated with these processes and can provide effective information for watershed/coastal management.
- Evaluate effectiveness of habitat mitigation strategies and the public’s perception of such efforts.
- Studies that assess the development and enforcement of policies regarding environmental management and conservation.
- Projects that systematically evaluate the impacts of marine debris, including environmental and socio-cultural aspects. Some information has been collected, but has not been used to change public policy with respect to waste management.
- Species inventory and monitoring of the dinoflagellate population of the bioluminescent bays of Fajardo, Vieques and Parguera. Assess long-term environmental and anthropogenic effects (light contamination, boating, nutrient input, sediment load) on the bioluminescence of these areas.
- Studies related to habitat connectivity; studies on how coastal vertebrates (birds) and invertebrates co-exist and their behavior.
Obstacles that are currently delaying the advancement of academic research included:
- Lack of standardized formats for data gathering and collections.
- Lack of communication between resource users and researchers that could help explain the present environmental and resource conditions, which could help predict future changes.
- Promote more symposiums and networking among experts and resource users.
- Lack of interdisciplinary approach for studying the complexity of marine and coastal processes and ecosystems.
- Lack of efforts to incorporate and empower local communities with coastal resource management.
- Lack of integration and collaboration between federal agencies.
- Lack of agreement between federal and state agencies in regard to regulations and permits.
- Insufficient personnel (faculty), funds, and lack of infrastructure, which is directly related to the lack of time to do full-time research as an academic professor.
- Lack of projects that address information/data that would be useful for local agencies and that should be considered with equal importance/priority for funding (e.g., data collection).
Video – How learning about fossil corals and environmental changes in the past may help us to understand the impacts of more recent climate changes (Dominican Republic Project.org)