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‘Limited understanding’

Ocean Sciences, Bahamas partner on climate change impact in tropics

Teaching and Learning

By Kelly Foss

Memorial University is partnering with a Bahamian school to create a tropical marine ecophysiology laboratory to study the environmental impacts of climate change on local marine species.

The collaboration is being led by Dr. Kurt Gamperl, University Research Professor, Department of Ocean Sciences in the Faculty of Science, and Dr. Nick Higgs, director of research and innovation at the Cape Eluethera Institute (CEI), which is part of the Island School in the Bahamas.

“Climate change is a global phenomenon having significant negative impacts on various marine species, populations and ecosystems and is threatening the health and productivity of marine environments and the livelihoods of those who depend on harvesting fish and invertebrates from the sea,” said Dr. Gamperl.

A small, low building almost hidden by palm trees with orange and grey clouds above with blue sky. There is sandy in the foreground.
Sunset over the Island School.
Photo: Submitted

“However, we only have a limited understanding of its impacts on tropical marine systems and animals, including species endemic to the Bahamas, as compared to those from temperate and polar regions, and how to protect and ensure the sustainability of these ecosystems.”

The tropical marine ecophysiology laboratory, or TMEP-Lab, at CEI will perform long-term measurements of water conditions, such as temperature, oxygen, salinity, current velocity and pH, in various marine habitats.

These include patch reefs, mangrove creeks, sand flats and “blue holes” on Eleuthera with the help of students from the Island School’s research classes and the local Deep Creek Middle School.

Three students stand in water up to their knees.
Students deploy MiniDot Environmental Loggers at Kemps Creek.
Photo: Submitted

The lab will also conduct experiments on various fish, such as Nassau grouper, snappers, mojarra and pilchard, as well as invertebrate species, including lobster, crabs, conch and corals.

The data drawn from the experiments will help the researchers to understand how climate change-related alterations in environmental parameters, such as increases in global ocean temperatures, hypoxia, heat waves, “cold shocks” and acidification, may affect their physiology in terms of stress, metabolism, swimming ability, immunology, upper and lower tolerances, growth and performance, Dr. Gamperl says.

A large fish in a clear tube in a lab.
A grouper in a swim tunnel with a blood flow probe.
Photo: Submitted

“We will also work collaboratively with local fishers and communities to understand the impacts of climate change to better protect these valuable resources.”

Important resources

The development of the laboratory and its infrastructure began in October 2022 and will largely be completed this spring.

Large white plastic tanks with blue liners sit in a warehouse style building.
Tank systems at the CEI.
Photo: Submitted

It will use facilities that are currently available at CEI, including research vaults and a tank facility. However, the equipment is being re-developed and furnished with state-of the-art research equipment.

The improvements will provide researchers with the capacity to control environmental conditions, including temperature and water oxygen levels, to match those in the natural environment in holding tanks and in experimental systems.

“These facilities are an important addition to the research and teaching resources available to CEI staff and students, but will also be used to train the marine biologists of the future,” said Dr. Gamperl.

A group of eight students standing in front of a large tree.
Ocean Sciences graduate student Emma Porter (at centre) with local high school students who took part in a fish physiology class at CEI.
Photo: Submitted

Ongoing discussions

The Ocean Sciences department hopes to teach an undergraduate senior level class in tropical marine biology annually or semi-annually beginning in 2024.

There are ongoing discussions with regard to offering a four-week course or workshop for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows that will involve experts from around the globe.

“It is hoped that such infrastructure and research capacity will encourage other scientists to come to CEI to conduct research of benefit to Cape Eleuthera and the Bahamas and create a revenue stream for reinvestment in the TMEP-Lab,” said Dr. Gamperl.

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