Aljoscha Wothke, CEO of the Environmental Research Institute Charlotteville (ERIC), on marine conservation in Trinidad and Tobago, COVID 19 and more

By Robyn Thomson.

Based in the rural fishing village, Charlotteville, Environmental Research Institute Charlotteville (ERIC) is an organisation dedicated to promoting sustainability for the people and ecosystems around North East Tobago. Their mission is “to value and integrate diverse knowledge and experience to manifest a mutually beneficial relationship between the coastal communities and ecosystems of North East Tobago”.

Growing up idolising explorers and biologists such as Jacques Cousteau and Hans Hass, Aljoscha Wothke, ERIC’s founding director and CEO, has 25 years as a PADI Master scuba diver trainer and over 15 years of experience working in the Caribbean.

As the executive director – what does a typical day look like for you?

As a CEO, 80% of my time is behind a computer and when I’m lucky, I am privileged enough to go for a dive and do what I love. The nice thing about this job is that it is so multi-layered: I can go out and do wildlife monitoring and research and still be able to contribute to and provide expertise for bigger projects that will have a long-term positive impact. Diving in the morning and then larger scale planning in the evening; this is what excites me.

Can you tell us a bit about how ERIC was founded and why you chose Charlotteville to root your project?

ERIC was founded by people who have worked around NE Tobago, particularly Charlotteville, for many years. Our expertise ranged from organic agriculture to capacity building for community-based organisations. Through this work, we realised that NE Tobago is a very special place due to its connectivity and accessibility to a great variety of ecosystems. In 2013, a dive shop in Tobago closed its doors, leaving the space available to be taken over. It was really a window of opportunity for us. We began using my personal funds but were soon able to secure grants and start up the dive business, allowing us to base ERIC on several different revenues. We are a core team of 3 individuals with a wider team of community-based field technicians.

How important do you think it is to integrate local communities into this type of work?

ERIC’s larger goal is bringing conservation together with communities, stewardship and sustainable resource use. NE Tobago has around 12,000 people living in less than 10 communities which, compared to other conservation areas, is relatively densely populated. Small island ecosystems, such as in the Caribbean, have a big impact on – and are very much impacted by – the environment. Without the approval of communities, conservation is not possible. Nothing will be sustainable if the actual resource users do not understand and invest in the concept.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced whilst trying to promote ERIC’s message?

Change is not easy and often tight knit communities are not open to it. There are many reasons local people will be sceptical of outsiders – they have been taken advantage of many times before. You must communicate your beliefs very slowly and you can select local people that are interested in what you do to become a spokesperson to the community, because they are listened to. However, in the past there have been moments where these people are then shunned because they work with us and are bringing messages from ‘white outsiders’ to try and influence change. Change is not very welcome: people are used to making their own rules and authority enforcement is lacking here. You need to convince them that what you are working towards is important and that these changes would benefit them. Another benefit of the community communicators is that when people see somebody that they respect succeeding in something, they are more likely to be interested in it and listen to what we have to say. They must see it in action and not just be told.

“Experience is a more powerful way of communicating than showing or telling”

What do you think are the biggest issues facing the oceans and marine life today, particularly within the Caribbean?

Climate change, of course, and this is the hardest to tackle in a sense as it is out of reach of direct influence. Consequently, you then have coral bleaching, more sargassum weed, more coastal erosion and we also get much heavier storms here. Another major issue is over-exploitation of marine natural resources, especially by coastal zone communities but also by foreign fishing vessels. They fish in the high seas and exploite pelagic fish that we don’t have such access to, so it’s not all down to local people: most of our shark population was wiped out by Asian longliners and not local fisherman. The local issue comes down to fisherman not knowing how to manage their fish stock: they don’t take into consideration the reproductive time or the need to have a no fishing zone. Historically, this area would create plentiful catch for them but although they see that this isn’t the case anymore, they do not connect this with their actions.

Do you think that people’s attitudes to these issues have changed over the time you have worked with ERIC?

It was important to us that people could see what we were doing. We hope that by experiencing the work ERIC does, they would be more open to it. People are now coming to us, bringing injured wildlife or asking if we can explain climate change to them. Others are still sceptical, and I fully empathise with their view: they have seen situations like this many times before, so it is important that we show them that ERIC is long term and for us to be consistent. One important thing we must not forget is that if something dramatic happens, we can leave whereas the local people, they cannot leave.

How has the current COVID-19 pandemic affected ERIC and Tobago?

The direct impact here is a huge increase in poaching of sea turtles and iguanas. Organisations such as NEST (North East Sea Turtles) who patrol two turtle beaches in the area, did not get their funding this year therefore there is nobody on the beaches. We see cars going in at night, presumably taking turtles and our calls to local authorities don’t result in immediate action. ERIC doesn’t interfere too much with laying turtles but we have decided, in light of this situation, to install camera traps on these beaches. Local people have lost their income during the pandemic but they have also had more time: I don’t think that the increase in hunting has been more for leisure than sustenance. Wild meat, especially in the closed season, can make a lot of money so there is an extra incentive. Fishing pressure has also increased and it got to a point where people could not afford to buy it anymore, so fisherman were forced to sell to wholesalers for a much lower price.

The pandemic was relatively well contained here but the economic impact of the lockdown, however, has been tragic. Not only has the economy suffered but there is a social aspect too: children are not going to school and in a place where domestic and sexual abuse of children by relatives is high, this is a dramatic situation.

Moving forward, what are your future targets?

Within the next year, our main target is to get ERIC back up and running. The lockdown has hit us hard financially, but we are in a good place to make it work. A lot of other environmental organisations, however, won’t be able to survive this.
Our next large projects will be our underwater turtle monitoring programme which includes satellite tagging males and juveniles, and to continue our ongoing community outreach work. Long term, we will focus on supporting pilot projects for new sustainable economies. We want to further demonstrate to local communities how to sustainably use resources in a way that is beneficial for them, but simultaneously having a minimal impact on the ecosystem.

Finally, do you have any words of wisdom for people who are trying to get into conservation?

What is very important is to think about your strengths – am I a good researcher? A good writer? Think about what capabilities you can combine with your desire to engage in conservation – this allows for a more satisfying work life. The other thing is that many young people get into marine biology (and conservation) with high expectations. I was lucky that I could come to the Caribbean and work with sharks but there is a lot of paperwork and computer work involved with these jobs and scientists will often have to compromise on these things. Thirdly, if you choose an academic career then it is very important to keep in mind that academics is relatively decoupled from reality: often it is science just for the sake of it. You need to think about what you can do with those results for the bigger picture. Just take it slowly and really think about what you want out of it.

For more info about ERIC, check out their website – www.eric-tobago.org

Youtube: EricTobago
Twitter: @ERICTobago
Instagram: erictobago
Facebook: ERIC – Environmental Research Institute Charlotteville, Tobago

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