While most students were home enjoying their summer vacations and unwinding before the school year kicks into gear, University of Denver senior Jill Hamilton was below the Caribbean Sea, hanging out with fish and seeking solutions to their declining numbers.
The environmental science and strategic communications major was one of 44 undergraduate students to receive a DU grant to spend the summer engaged in research. Hamilton studied the interaction of marine industries and reef management in Nevis, a small island in the Caribbean. She spent the summer doing research dives into the reef surrounding the island, conducting interviews with fishermen and government officials and coming up with solutions to create more sustainable fishing habits on the island.
The main focus of Hamilton’s study was the negative effects of overfishing on the reefs and fish populations surrounding the island. Fishermen, knowingly sidestepping government regulations, have begun fishing in reefs just off the coast of Nevis, where fish populations have been all but decimated. As a result, the ocean is returning fewer—and considerably smaller—fish to the island, as well as destroying the reef, an integral part of the island’s culture and economy.
“I would go down to the docks in the morning and talk to the fishermen as they got off their boats. That was really interesting because they were very candid, real people who have been using resources from the ocean since they were born,” Hamilton says. “Their parents had been using the resources; they had fishermen going back in their family for generations. A lot of people said that their parents, and previous generations, viewed the ocean as this endless resource, and they recognize now that it’s not. The new generation is more educated and realizes that there’s a problem.”
While regulations on fishing locations, size of fish and fishing practices are all in place, the real problem is a government that lacks the resources to enforce the laws, Hamilton says. The issue becomes even more complex as the economic and cultural significance of the reef begins to veil the growing ecological issues in the region.
“A lot of fishermen have been fishing the same spot for years and years, taking the fish straight to the shore, to their stand on the street, and selling them in the same spot for many years, and to the same customers,” Hamilton says. “There are a lot of cultural aspects of changing people’s ways that get really mixed into this problem as well.”
With an ineffective protection system in place and fishermen who are unable to afford vessels to fish in deeper, more fertile waters, other steps must be taken. Hamilton supports introducing a marine park that would investigate breeding habits and where the fish are living. Staffers would determine the most crucial areas for the rejuvenation of fish populations, while also providing alternative fishing locations, a tactic that has had success in other regions.
“If a management plan is created that will incorporate everyone’s needs to the best extent possible, and communicates these needs and educates people on why this would work, then I think there’s a huge possibility of it working,” Hamilton says.
Hamilton’s enthusiasm for the project stems from her interest in resource management, as well as her love of scuba diving, which she developed while learning to dive for a coral reef ecology class trip to Cozumel, Mexico, in her sophomore year. She plans to continue her work in natural resource management after graduating in November, citing the Nevis project as a major motivator.
“I hope to go to grad school for natural resource management, possibly with a marine focus,” Hamilton says. “I would love to have the experience of working on a marine research team. This was my first taste of research. The summer research grants and the [University’s Partners in Scholarship research grants] really provide undergraduate students with the opportunity to have their first taste of independent research.”