The palm trees along the Tres Palmas Marine Reserve form one of the most iconic scenes of Rincon, photographed by people from all over the world. Driving by at sunset creates an undeniably special feeling. But it’s what’s under the water that makes this little corner of earth truly unique. This month we talked with marine biologist couple Chelsea and Evan Tuohy of Isla Mar Research Expeditions to learn what’s so special about this reserve, what endangers it, and what they’re doing to help protect it.
What's something that makes our local reefs unique?
“Our coral reefs in Rincon are some of the most unique in all of Puerto Rico. The Tres Palmas Marine Reserve is so diverse and alive. We have all seven endangered coral species in the reserve! And, this reef is one of the healthiest in all of Puerto Rico, with an average of 30% live coral cover. For reference, the Florida Keys has less than 5% live coral cover. Tres Palmas is a diamond in the rough; it's a place that deserves extra special attention and protection. We must keep this reef alive or it will be one of our greatest failures as an island community.”
What is one of the biggest threats to this coral reef right now?
“The Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease is making its way around our island and taking out healthy reefs in the process. It is the marine equivalent of COVID - it affects a large number of coral species and spreads rapidly, killing coral colonies in a matter of days to weeks. "
What's one thing people living here can do to reduce their impact on our local marine life?
“Take your trash with you when you leave the beach, and don't throw your trash into trash bags or cans that are overflowing or not properly contained even if they are located at the beach. This is the simplest, easiest act that you can do to help protect marine life. Just don't let your garbage end up in the ocean. Also, please educate yourself on the local regulations before entering the ocean. For example, make sure that anchoring or fishing is allowed before you do those things wherever you are.”
What did you study for your Ph.D.s?
Chelsea: “I earned my Ph.D. in Biological Oceanography from UPRM in 2016. My dissertation was on the feeding ecology and management of the invasive lionfish. My research focuses on fish biology/ecology, marine protected area effectiveness, using molecular tools (such as DNA extraction) to answer fisheries and food web questions, and coral reef restoration. “
Evan: “I will earn my Ph.D. in Biological Oceanography from UPRM this year in 2022. My dissertation focused on the movements of commercially important fish in relation to spawning (when they meet to reproduce and contribute to their next generation, a very critical life history stage for fish). My research focuses on fish biology/ecology, fisheries management, mesophotic coral reef systems (corals that grow deeper than 140 ft), and coral reef restoration.”
What are some of your favorite local marine animals?
Chelsea: “I love the rainbow parrotfish because of their incredible colors and their ecological role on the reef. The rainbow parrotfish is one of the largest parrotfish we have and it's responsible for helping keep the algae in check on the reefs.
I am also fascinated by squid. I love finding them in Tres Palmas because they like to swim in groups, and I always notice that they line up in order from largest to smallest (usually). There was a squid hanging around my mask during a dive, looking at its own reflection, while I was working underwater. It was so distracting that I think I spent at least 15 minutes just staring at it too and forgot what I was doing.”
Tell us about your reef-planting project. What is it that you add to corals to promote growth?
“Our coral reef restoration project with our colleagues HJR Reefscaping and support from Medalla Light is an initiative to try and reduce our glass waste problem on the island by incorporating crushed glass beer bottles (which turns into sand) into our cement mixture that we use to cement coral fragments to the reef bottom.
Cementing corals to the reef substrate is a common restoration practice, but our introduction of the glass sand is a unique, innovative way to give the corals a little mineral boost (the sand is primarily silica, a mineral that marine animals use to create their skeletons). The corals will soon overgrow the cement, and then start to grow vertically, creating a much-needed three dimensional living structure called a reef.”
How can people support projects like yours?
“Help spread the message! Take the time to watch one of our videos, read our blog posts about a project update, and pay close attention to our social media where we share important topics like local fishing regulations.
Additionally, we do also occasionally need citizen scientists to help on our projects!"
For more on those citzien scientist projects, stay tuned, as I am participating in the founding group. We've learned to monitor coral growth and will go out with our teams 3-4 times in the next year to record our findings. Thank you Chelsea and Evan for making science and preservation fun to learn about! - Megan