Science and Technology

Can dying coral reefs be saved?

GS students use mapping skills to protect Haitian coral reefs

Coast of La Gonave surrounded by coral reef

SUMMARY: A team of JMU geographic science students and faculty are mapping three areas of coral reef around Haiti to help establish them as marine reserves.

By: Daniel Vieth, Creative Services

Over the past few decades, climate change and environmental degradation have caused catastrophic damage to coral reefs around the world. This has been especially problematic in Haiti, where there is a lack of public awareness about their value and minimal enforcement of policies meant to protect coral reefs. Jean Wiener, a Haitian marine biologist and founder of the Fondation pour la Protection de la Biodiversite Marine, has spent 25 years working to protect coastal and marine ecosystems in Haiti, demonstrating the environmental and economic value of the reefs. Wiener is now being assisted by a team of JMU students and faculty to map three areas of coral reef around Haiti to help establish them as marine reserves.

The collaboration with JMU began when Mary Kimsey, a faculty member for JMU’s Geographic Science Program, contacted Wiener offering assistance in creating maps of the reefs. “I have been working with students on mapping projects in Haiti since 2003, and I knew we had wonderful, talented students here who would love to have this as a project,” said Kimsey. Wiener accepted the assistance, and Kimsey and her colleague Zachary Bortolot applied for a Faculty Senate Grant. After earning these funds, the two put together a team of six students to assist with the project. 

Over the course of the project, the team will be creating detailed maps for three areas around Haiti and La Gonave, an island within the crescent-shaped Gulf of Gonave in Haiti. “Essentially we are visualizing these areas of reefs off the coast of Haiti to provide evidence for their health,” explained Alfredo Gutierrez-Velasquez, a geography student and student project manager. “This in turn will assist the consideration of the Haitian government of turning these coral reefs into [marine] reserves.” These marine reserves are areas of ocean with legal protection against fishing or development. Weiner has successfully persuaded the Haitian government to set aside two marine reserves in the past, and plans to use these additional maps to preserve more areas of reef.

Along with Gutierrez-Velasquez, the student team consists of Daniel Katleman and Jeremy Zahringer who will collect satellite imagery of the areas and use remote sensing analysis to classify the reefs; Benjamin Waranowski and James Knighton who will be using various geographic information system (GIS) and mapping software to create the final maps; and Willem Frederik Brikkenaar van Dijk who will be documenting the project and providing his coral reef diving experience. “This is an opportunity for the students to be a part of a real-world project,” said Kimsey. “They’re the ones putting the product together, applying their knowledge, learning new skills and overcoming challenges.”

Another crucial aspect of this project is the collection of historical information about the sea surrounding Haiti and La Gonave Island; however, much of this information can only be found in century-old documents written in French. To overcome this, International Affairs and French major Marian Phillips joined the team to translate these documents and assist with communication between the JMU and French-speaking Haitians. “There isn’t very much research done on the reef areas around [La Gonave], so I have been charged with translating sections of an encyclopedia written about the island in the 1880s,” Phillips explained. “No one has translated this encyclopedia yet, so I’m kind of a pioneer. It’s a really great opportunity, and a cool challenge to take on!”

The team will be assisted by Dave Fritz, an experienced diver and editor for the Staunton News Leader. “As we make the maps, we need something to ‘ground truth’ them. This means having someone go to the spots on the ground using longitude and latitude coordinates we provide to verify what is actual there, especially the existence of coral reef, mangrove and seagrass,” explained Kimsey. “Dave [Fritz] frequently travels to Haiti, loves to dive and, like me, has fallen in love with the island of La Gonave. When he heard we were doing this project he was excited to help.”

“I believe it is essential for students to engage and collaborate with people outside of JMU,” said Gutierrez-Velasquez. “This is especially true for geography which, at its roots, is focused on studying and analyzing issues not only in our communities but in other parts of the world.” Projects like this are an opportunity for students and faculty to pool together their expertise and apply their skills in a way that engages the global community in a meaningful way. “This really matters,” Kimsey added. “We all know the status of the coral reefs, so projects like this give our students the chance to make the world a better place in this little way.” 

Published: Monday, March 20, 2017

Last Updated: Monday, January 29, 2018

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