Using research and community engagement to save coral reefs in the Caribbean islands

Kirsty Scott

7 February 2024

This is an article from the CSC Development Theme: Strengthening resilience and response to crises

It was quite interesting and revealing that many of the persons in the adjacent watersheds weren’t aware of the impact their activities might be having on the marine environment. In fact, when we spoke with farmers and other persons, community members, in the area about nutrients entering the water, they were like, ‘Well, I can’t even swim, how am I impacting the marine environment?’

Stephen Nimrod

Coral reefs are some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world and play an important role in supporting life on land and below water. Approximately 25% of the ocean’s fish depend on healthy coral reefs for shelter, food and to reproduce. Coral reefs also provide coastline protection from storms and erosion as well as livelihood opportunities for local communities.

However, coral reefs are dying at alarming rates due to natural and human-made threats. These include disease and the impact of adverse weather, pollution, unsustainable fishing practices, and climate change, which has led to increased ocean temperatures resulting in ocean acidification.

Commonwealth Alumnus Stephen Nimrod is an Assistant Professor at St George’s University in the Department of Biology, Ecology and Conservation. His work is focused on marine and wildlife conservation. Despite working in a small department, Stephen and his colleagues and students work collaboratively with government ministries, agencies and NGOs to address marine and conservation-related issues in Grenada.

Stephen is also a research fellow at the Windward Island Research and Education Foundation in Grenada, which comprises the research arm of St George’s University and the President of the Grenada Coral Reef Foundation (GCRF), an NGO which works to restore and conserve corals.

Working to save coral reefs

Coral reefs are an important source of income for Caribbean islands in the form of tourism, recreation and fishing, whilst providing vital protection against storms and hurricanes. Almost half of the Caribbean’s coral reefs have been destroyed since the 1980s, making Stephen’s work in restoration and conservation critical to Grenada and the wider eastern Caribbean region.

Since 2016, the GCRF has worked with local communities to establish and maintain coral nurseries to promote the conservation and restoration of the marine environment. The Foundation also supports the development of Marine Protected Area management plans and partners with government agencies and NGOs to deliver grant projects.

With Stephen as president, GCRF projects are designed to complement existing projects and work supporting the marine environment, and as such many focus on regeneration and restoration.

One such activity is the Coral Nursery Programme, through which they propagate coral fragments from damaged reefs in nearshore areas, and outplant these on the reefs to replace lost coral. This work is conducted in collaboration with the Global Coral Reef Alliance and using their BiorockTM technology which accelerates coral resettlement, growth, and resistance to environmental stresses, such as increased temperatures, sediment and pollution.

Bleached coral on the ocean floor

Bleached coral on the ocean floor

Whilst the programme seeks to address coral reef degradation from human and natural causes, climate change poses a threat to regenerating the reefs it has contributed to damaging.

Stephen shares a significant set-back in late 2023, when a region wide mass bleaching event caused coral mortality. Coral bleaching occurs when water is too warm, causing corals to expel algae in their living tissues and turn white.

Coral is not dead at this stage and can survive bleaching, but it is under significant stress and subject to mortality.

“It was very heartbreaking to see that we had all of these fragments growing out and getting ready to outplant, and two and a half months of extreme heat just led to prolonged bleaching, which eventually led to mortality.”

For Stephen, this event further highlighted the necessity of his and the GCRFs work and the importance of resilience in tackling climate change.

Developing research to create change

Following his Commonwealth Scholarship to complete a Master’s in Tropical Coastal Management at Newcastle University, Stephen embarked on a major research project to study the impact of discharge on the Beauséjour River on the coral reefs in the Molinière-Beauséjour Marine Protected Area. The study analysed nutrient levels and levels of siltation and sedimentation in the river to understand the impact of nearby farming activities on the reefs.

Stephen explains that one of the biggest challenges to coral reef health is water quality. Coral reefs excel in nutrient-poor water as they have an efficient recycling system to obtain their nutrients. Excess nutrients typically enter water as unnoticed runoff from nearby farming and manufacturing and cottage industries. The impact of these excess nutrients encourages the growth of macroalgae blooming or proliferating.

“Macroalgae blooming or proliferating really impacts our reefs by outcompeting the corals. And when they outcompete the corals, they also shade the corals and eventually smother them. And if it’s prolonged, they tend to succumb and die, because the corals need sunlight for photosynthesis. All of that is linked to the water quality and eutrophication. And we have multiple sources of nutrients entering our waters.”

The research project identified that the Beauséjour River water quality was being compromised by local crop and livestock farming activities as feed, fertiliser and faeces was being washed into the river. These findings enabled Stephen and his team to apply for a larger grant from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) to further their research and implement recommendations.

Through this grant, they developed the Ridge to Reef project which focused on highlighting the link between the land and marine environment and how land activities can impact the marine environment through waterways, such as rivers and streams. As part of the project, they facilitated an exchange visit with the Reef Guardian Programme in Australia which enabled one of Stephen’s students and representatives from the government Fisheries Division to understand how they engage local and adjacent communities to help conserve and protect coastal resources.

Working with local communities to highlight their impact

For Stephen, working with local and adjacent communities was one of the most important and rewarding parts of the project.

“It was quite interesting and revealing that many of the persons in the adjacent watersheds weren’t aware of the impact their activities might be having on the marine environment. In fact, when we spoke with farmers and other persons, community members, in the area about nutrients entering the water, they were like, ‘Well, I can’t even swim, how am I impacting the marine environment?’”

These discussions highlighted the importance of education and effective communication in implementing changes at the community level to reduce the impact of their land activities on the marine environment. Stephen and the team had to devise creative and impactful ways to communicate with different groups to provide specific information on how they could help reduce and even reverse the negative impact of their activities.

One such activity included taking community members on a glass-bottom boat to show them what macroalgae proliferation or bloom looks like and how it was outcompeting the corals.

“Showing them the river, really highlighting that direct link between the river and their activities, which they thought they were somewhat isolated from the marine environment, in doing that, it really sent the point home, and at that point, they were really happy to work with us to try to improve the situation.”

Following discussions and other educational activities, Stephen and the team worked with livestock farmers, in particular pig farmers, to change their practice of using river water to clean pig pens and discharge the wastewater back into the river. This part of the project included working with colleagues from the Caribbean Aqua-Terrestrial Solutions (CATS) programme in Saint Lucia to develop a programme showing how the wastewater could be diverted and used for biogas.

For crop farmers, there were a few different practices that Stephen and the team needed to address. This included farming close to the river and the use of fertiliser. Many farmers choose to grow crops close to the river so they can use pumps to access water in dry seasons. To do this, they clear an important vegetation buffer zone which is needed to help filter sediment from rainfall and general run-off which enables nutrients to enter the river. Spraying fertiliser on these crops also poses a threat to the marine environment, as without the vegetation buffer, fertiliser can easily enter the river as well. Stephen stresses that the fertiliser has the same impact on algae as it does for crops, encouraging growth and speeding up the rate at which it can destroy corals.

Stephen is pleased to share that the farmers were receptive to the changes, introducing vegetation buffer zones and more topical and concentrated use of fertiliser. Working with Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) , they were also able to provide composting training to help dissuade farmers from over-reliance and use of chemical fertilisers and introduce organic farming practices and knowledge.

The farmers involved in the project are now Reef Guardian Farmers, who ensure that their practices benefit the marine environment and promote the importance of this awareness.

“It really helped to raise awareness, but, also, effect change in terms of attitudes, perceptions and the overall outlook as to how we impact our environment, marine environment.”

Using real-life experience to develop research further

Stephen is a passionate educator and conservationist. Ensuring his students have real-life and fieldwork experience to accompany their studies is an important part of his teaching, as well as ensuring the availability of local marine conservation experts.

“A number of years ago, we had a scenario where if we needed to conduct any sort of major research in the marine environment, we had to probably rely on external experts coming in to assist us. Since we’ve developed this programme and over the years, together with my contributions and so, we’ve actually managed to turn that scenario around, where we have been producing enough talent that we can actually export talent now.”

Through concentrated efforts to improve in-country knowledge on the marine environment, Stephen shares that the majority of the staff within the Fisheries Division and Ministry of Environment are graduates of the Department of Biology, Ecology and Conservation at St George’s University. He also notes many have filled positions in other ministries and NGO’s, as well as working on the Ridge to Reef project, meaning awareness of the importance of conserving and protecting the marine environment is well represented at the policy and decision-making level.

“We cannot underestimate or understate the contribution that the scholarship has really given us to help us get that platform where we can then further develop our programme, but, more important, tweak it to suit the sort of needs we have locally and regionally.”

Sharing knowledge across the islands

Stephen’s motivation to work in coastal management and the marine environment stems from his upbringing in a coastal village and an early attachment to the sea. He grew up meeting representatives from the Fisheries Department, learning about their work and supporting projects.

Over these years, Stephen witnessed the degradation of corals and marine life, as well as challenges bringing in experts to address these, or implement their recommendations. This became a driving force for Stephen undertaking his Master’s study.

“We would have these long wish-lists in terms of what we want done, but we had challenges in getting the capacity to do it. That is pretty much the background to me really applying for a Commonwealth Scholarship, hoping that with the new skillset, I will be able to contribute to helping to address some of these challenges.”

One of the key takeaways of his Master’s was in understanding both what needs to be done and who you need in your team to achieve this. This formed an important part of his management development and why during the Ridge to Reef project he sought out collaborations with colleagues in Saint Lucia to access skills and knowledge not available in Grenada.

This has further led to Stephen contributing to regional training of trainers programmes to share knowledge across the islands and encourage the development of practices and project delivery.

Reflecting on his Commonwealth Scholarship and the work he has achieved over the last few years, Stephen is grateful for the opportunity to obtain his Master’s which subsequently enabled him to complete a PhD in Marine Science at the University of the West Indies.

“I’m quite grateful to the Commonwealth Scholarship because that also laid the foundation or created the next step for me. If I can sum it up, it has helped me focus on three areas: Marine Protected Areas development, education and training, and ecosystem restoration.


“It’s just so gratifying to see that we’ve been able to build so much local capacity that we’ve moved from a scenario where we were quite dependent on external expertise to help us, but now we have managed to train enough persons that we have surplus that we can even export in terms of the talent. And that is a really, really, really gratifying feeling.”

Stephen Nimrod is a 2006 Commonwealth Scholar from Grenada. He completed an MSc in Tropical Coastal Management at Newcastle University.