Alissa Miller-Gonzalez, 2020, STENAPA – St. Eustatius National Parks, Caribbean Netherlands

Hello there! My name is Alissa and I am a rising senior at Skidmore. I am an Economics major with a minor in Environmental Studies and Sciences. I chose to apply for the marine intern position at the St. Eustatius National Parks (STENAPA) because I wanted to spend my summer doing something not only hands-on, but also something that would impact the environment in a positive way. Combine these two criteria with my love for the oceans and this internship became the perfect fit for me.

Big smiles for another great day in the Caribbean.

STENAPA is located on the small island of St. Eustatius (affectionately called Statia by the locals) in the Netherlands Antilles – an island so small that its name doesn’t even show up on the Map app on my phone. Although a small organization, STENAPA works tirelessly on many projects throughout the year for both the National Marine Park & Reserves and the Quill and Boven National Park. As a marine intern, I worked in the marine park. Having my advanced open water SCUBA certification was a requirement for the job as we can dive up to 5 times every day. Each day in the water it seemed like we were doing something different – coral restoration, lionfish culling, sea turtle surveys, line cleanings, and collection of ghost fish traps are just a few of the jobs we carried out.

Marit Pastor, one of the Marine Park rangers and my boss, getting ready to moor the Blue Runner.

The coral restoration project is arguably one of the most important and time consuming. Known as RESCQ (Restoration of Ecosystem Services and Coral Reef Quality), this project works in collaboration with several other Caribbean islands to raise new coral colonies in coral nurseries. Ultimately, the goal is to repopulate reefs with both robust and fast-growing staghorn and elkhorn corals – both of which are endangered species. After hurricane Maria wiped out STENAPA’s coral trees in 2017, the marine team has been working towards their goal of building and installing 20 trees. Coral trees are rope ladders that are anchored on a sandy bottom and are held up by an underwater buoy. After coral fragments are taken from larger healthy corals in the reserve, they are hung on the ladders with fishing line where they are able to grow in a protected area. During my time at STENAPA I was able to help build 2 more trees to add to the 8 that were already in use. The trees required weekly cleanings to remove algae and krill using a toothbrush and a cleaning pad similar to ones used to clean dishes. Once corals are deemed healthy and large enough to be placed on a reef, they are carefully removed from the trees and taken to one of two nurseries at different dive sites. These fragmented corals are quickly placed on the rock using zip-ties and marine grade epoxy where they will live out the remainder of their lives. Just like the coral trees, both nurseries require weekly cleanings with toothbrushes. Cleanings are also a great time to monitor the corals for stress and disease.

An out-planted endangered elkhorn coral at one of the coral nurseries ready to be cleaned free of algae.

 

Lionfish culling and sea turtle surveys were also an important part of my job. Lionfish are invasive to the Caribbean Sea – they do not have any natural predators and females can produce up to 2 million eggs per year. They wreak havoc on the reefs, eating large amounts of juvenile fish and contributing to the decline of more than 50 fish populations as a result. To slow the effects these invaders have on Statian reefs, the marine team goes on lionfish hunts using a spear to kill the fish. To avoid being stung by the lionfish’s venomous spines, the fish is then placed in the “bazooka”, a PVC container. Once we were back on land, we dissected the lionlish and collected data about their stomach contents.

We caught 12 lionfish at a single dive site! A new record for the summer.

Every 4 years, STENAPA also conducts a sea turtle survey to determine which species of sea turtles and their abundances are in the waters surrounding Statia. Thirty-five random locations were chosen for the surveys and 3 divers were deployed during each one while one or more people stayed on the boat to conduct a surface survey. Swimming in a straight line 10m apart for 40 min., divers would keep their eyes open for a sea turtle and would record information such as species, size, and if it was tagged on an underwater slate.

Jessica Olsen, another marine intern from the University of Utah, with a sea turtle during a survey.

 

I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to work for STENAPA this summer and I couldn’t have done it without the Summer Experience Fund. This internship has taught me a lot about what it is like to work in a national park and has opened my eyes to the incredible work that is being done to preserve and protect our coral reefs. For other students that are interested in finding their own internship or applying for the Summer Experience Fund, I recommend that they do their research and pick one that challenges them to step outside their comfort zone, so they can learn new skills and new things about themselves.

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