Latin America, Caribbean
FAU is building and strengthening ties with universities, research and education partners across the globe.
By John Tibbetts
When Megan Davis, Ph.D., first encountered queen conch (Strombus gigas) as a teen in the 1970s, she realized that the Caribbean food staple would need protection.
A large marine snail, queen conch is particularly vulnerable to overfishing. It grows slowly, matures late and spawns in shallow waters in the sandy areas near coral reefs or seagrass beds in summer when fishing pressure is most intense.
During her family’s sailing visits to the Bahamas, local harvesters showed her how to catch, clean, prepare and eat queen conch. “Conch is so delicious, and it was easy to find and harvest at that time,” said Davis, professor and aquaculture researcher at Florida Atlantic University Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. “I thought, ‘This species can’t possibly continue to thrive.’ But I had a vision. I wanted to learn how to grow conch, because I thought there’d be need for it. That set my career path.”
Commercial queen conch fisheries expanded in the 1970s and 1980s with rapid tourism development in the Caribbean and rising international demand for the meat. Dishes such as conch fritters, chowder and salad are common menu specialties. But harvesting pressures drove many conch fisheries to collapse, and they have not recovered despite strict regulations.
Last summer, Davis and her FAU graduate student and Bahamian collaborators built an enclosed breeding site or “egg farm” stocked with sexually mature conch in a marine protected area (MPA) in Exuma, Bahamas. These adults were relocated from fishing sites to this historic breeding ground within the MPA. The concept of an egg farm is to increase the number of egg masses laid and the newly hatched larvae will float in the currents and settle three weeks later in juvenile seagrass beds, and mature and spawn in the wild haven, augmenting natural populations.
Today, Davis and her colleague are developing a pilot conch hatchery in Puerto Rico to help restore local wild populations while diversifying incomes for local fishers who will learn to operate the facility and develop conch farming skills.
“We will train fishers in aquaculture and involve them in restoration and protecting populations,” she said. “But they will help us too, because they know the sea very well, they know where the conch can be found, and they know what the conch are doing in the field. I’m very excited about that. Fishers have already told us about other sites where we can place hatchery-reared juvenile conch to grow out.”
She plans to create partnerships and collaborations with students, researchers and resource managers throughout the Caribbean, with a long-term goal of developing some form of conch egg farm or hatchery in every nation and restoring wild populations.
Davis has tenaciously followed her youthful Bahamian vision over the past four decades. As an undergraduate at the Florida Institute of Technology, she studied aquaculture and wrote her first business plan for cultivating queen conch. For a decade after graduation, she co-founded and co-operated the first commercial conch farm in the Caribbean, becoming chief scientist. “I was always collaborating with local people and communities, and that’s been a thread throughout my career,” she said.
Although the Turks and Caicos commercial operation shut down several years ago, Davis and her colleagues made significant strides in developing technical expertise in queen conch farming.
“With any new species in aquaculture, it takes 10 to 20 years to get it to a sustainable commercial level,” she said. “We have to understand the life cycle of the species and culture that life cycle in an artificial setting.”
Davis continued her conch research while completing an M.S. and Ph.D. at the Florida Institute of Technology. She arrived at Harbor Branch in 1996. “My graduate student and I worked on how to breed conch in captivity, developing the right artificial lights and tanks in an aquaculture setting that would simulate a similar experience in nature. We studied different foods for conch, different grow out and spawning densities—anything that would boost their survival.”
Now Davis is drawing on her decades of aquaculture experience, working with colleagues to complete the first stage of a two-year grant project for the Puerto Rican conch operation. “By the summer of 2020, we’ll be raising conch in the facility,” she said.
One of her primary goals now is to train others to grow conch and spread expertise across the region. “In this phase of my career, I want to make sure that my knowledge isn’t lost,” she said. “I’m trying to do as much outreach and development as possible, so I’ve passed on the conch technology to leave my legacy for others to use throughout the Caribbean.”
Maria Grace Fadiman, Ph.D., collaborates with remote villagers to understand how they use wild plants sustainably for food, shelter, medicine and to earn income in their daily lives. She has researched plant knowledge and use in the Ecuadorian Amazon, the Yucatan, New Zealand, Tibet and other places throughout the globe.
She embeds for weeks at a time in rural places, listening and learning. “Although every place and its people are different, there is a thread of similarity among them — of people closely connected to plants and the landscape,” said Fadiman, an ethnobotanist and associate professor in FAU’s College of Science. Ethnobotany is the study of the relationship between plants and people. .
“Elders have the most information about plants and their own landscape, but when they die, that information can die with them,” she said. “I work with the older generation in recording their knowledge, partly just so there’s a record, but also to validate their own information for themselves. I focus on understanding connections between people and plants to strengthen and reinforce those relationships, highlighting ways that people use plants sustainably. When people know how to use a plant, they more likely to value it and save the ecosystem in which it’s living.” .
For instance, she created an ethnobotanical booklet in collaboration with elders and youth of the Ha tribe in Tanzania Africa. “When we focus on what the elders know, the kids start paying attention and they become excited, saying, ‘Oh, maybe what we know about plants is valuable too.’ They then become eager to talk about the forest plants that they know, such as for food and medicine.” .
But she is careful to avoid crossing boundaries. “I'm not coming in and saying, ‘Let me tell you what I think is good for you.’ Instead, I tap into their knowledge and then help them see the ways that they could become more self-reliant and also protect the ecosystem.” .
Growing up in California, Fadiman learned Spanish so she could communicate with people around her. With her language skills, she wanted to travel the world and help conserve wild places. To be effective in her kind of conservation she believed a grounding in science would help — and that seemed a major roadblock. “I wanted to participate in conservation, yet I was initially afraid of science,” she said. .
During two stints as a naturalist guide in Costa Rica’s Marenco Biological Station, she learned how rainforest dwellers use wild plants. “I realized, my gosh, this is science, and I can do it,” she said. “I can learn about people and their relationships with plants — and that’s been my focus ever since.” .
After receiving her Ph.D. in geography at the University of Texas at Austin in 2003, she arrived the following year as a visiting assistant professor at Florida Atlantic University. In 2006, she was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. .
In her research, she often asks how villagers use a “cultural keystone species” sustainably to protect the larger environment. Rainforests are fragmenting and disappearing as a result of the timber industry exporting hardwoods, and in some instances commercial palm oil plantations are transforming biodiverse palm rainforests into single-species enterprises. Some local palm harvesting can be detrimental, but when palms grow in the forest or are left standing in cleared fields, it can be sustainable. For example, in northwestern Ecuador, the palm I. deltoidei grows abundantly and has a crucial ecological function in the rainforest. Local people use the palm fronds to thatch their roofs and the stems to build their houses. Locals collecting palm parts conscientiously can provide for their daily needs and provide an income for their villages, while still keeping the forest intact. .
Another palm that provides direct economic gain in the Ecuadorian rain forest is A. standleyanum. “The palm provides fruit that the locals make into rings that can sell for $1 a piece at the market,” Fadiman said. “That is the same price that the loggers pay villagers to cut down an entire hardwood tree. We work on recording ways that local people can earn an income by harvesting parts of the palm that re-grow, such as only a portion of the fruit or fronds, waiting until the next fruiting or leafing cycle to harvest more. Thus, the palm continues to reproduce, and future generations can harvest from that same individual.” .
She emphasizes that you don’t need to live in a remote environment to appreciate the plants in your life. “Whether it’s the spices we use in cooking or the flowering bush in our yards, we are all connected to plants.”