December 21, 2016

First Reef Check Training Conducted on Principe Island

By Reef Check EcoDiver Course Director Rita Bento and Reef Check EcoDiver An Bollen

Reef Check just conducted its first-ever training on the beautiful island of Príncipe, on the western equatorial coast of Africa. São Tomé and Príncipe is a small country, in the Gulf of Guinea, composed of two main islands: São Tomé, where the capital is located, and Príncipe, where the Reef Check training was conducted. Príncipe Island is a hidden treasure, with dense green virgin forests broken by dark imposing mountains and surrounded by intense blue waters. It is impossible to feel like anything more than a mere visitor to these purely natural 142 square kilometers, and as good guests we have to respect mother nature's local rules.

With this in mind and with the aim to both conserve local biodiversity and support local livelihoods, the Fundação Príncipe Trust (FPT) was created over a year ago. This non-profit organization works on both marine and terrestrial conservation, agro-ecology, and sustainable forestry practices, as well as education and small-scale community development projects. In addition, the FPT also works in close collaboration with the Biosphere Management Unit to protect both the natural and cultural heritage of the island. The entire island of Príncipe was nominated as a UNESCO Biosphere in 2012. As for marine conservation, the Trust focuses on sea turtle conservation, working closely with community fishermen on promoting sustainable artisanal fishing practices, while also mapping the marine and coastal habitats and documenting their biodiversity. Raising awareness through environmental education campaigns is another aspect of their work, crucial to long-term changes in mentalities and bad practices.

As the marine world is not yet very well known, the Trust decided to use Reef Check surveys to obtain insight into the biodiversity of Príncipe's reefs, assess human impacts, and monitor both metrics across seasons, years and sites. This will then enable us to better target marine conservation actions.

From November 28 to December 3 eight people from FPT, including six marine guards, received Reef Check training in Portuguese by our long term United Arab Emirates trainer from Portugal, Rita Bento. For the first time these local staff, fishermen and freedivers were taught how to identify and distinguish the different organisms that they are accustomed to routinely seeing. Although already very familiar with all the different fish species, being able to look carefully at and identify each substrate and invertebrate, and to understand their roles in the marine environment, opened the trainees' eyes to a different magical world. It was gratifying to see their eyes shining when they could describe each organism. Their passion for the protection of the marine environment grew even stronger, and their commitment to the project will guarantee the continuous collection of important local and regional data.

The underwater world of Príncipe Island is still mostly pristine. The coast around the island is characterized by rocky patchy reefs and the hard corals Montastraea and Tubastrea, surrounded by mats of zoanthids and many coralline algae. Uniquely characteristic to some of the sites are the vast beds of coralline red algae called rhodoliths, providing habitat for numerous associated species, such as different algae, invertebrates and burrowing fish, as well as providing important nursery grounds for diverse species. Different schools of fish joined in our dives, and parrotfish and grouper were a constant presence, although the latter were mostly smaller than 30 cm. There are some indirect signs of overfishing of demersal fish, as large fish species are either rare or very timid due to lots of spearfishing on several reefs. Although almost no bleaching or diseases were visible during the training, some direct human impacts could be seen, such as anchor damage and abandoned fish gear. Other concerns are the periodic harvest of sea cucumbers by São Tomé fishermen for international trade and the historical use of dynamite fishing, which has left its mark on several sites.

The reefs of Príncipe Island are home for most of the important food fish and shellfish for all local families, with local fish consumption per capita being one of the highest in the world. On such a small island, it is mandatory that these reefs are kept pristine, and that local fishermen are informed about best sustainable artisanal fishing practices. Reef Check together with FPT is working on achieving that. Seja lovadu Príncipe! (bless you Príncipe).