Aerial roots of mangrove trees

How to Study: Coastal Ecosystems and Conservation

In this blog series for National Marine Week, Geography PhD Student Anna Guasco describes the many ways Cambridge postgraduate researchers study life in the ocean. Here she interviews:

Frédérique Fardin: Mangroves, Fisheries, and Conservation

Frédérique is a PhD student with the Department of Geography and the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre. She is an affiliated researcher with the Nippon Foundation Nereus Program and a National Geographic Explorer, and co-founder of the NGO Roots of the Sea. She is from Martinique.

“I am studying mangroves because they are so important for local coastal communities that live around them, providing a range of benefits … to people and the environment.”

What do you study (and why)?
Mangrove forest trees with stilt roots
Mangrove forest in Martinique The roots are ‘stilt roots’ of the Red mangrove tree (Rhizophora mangle). Credit: Frédérique Fardin.

I am looking at mangrove forests, the forests that are found along tropical (and sub-tropical) coastlines, at the interface between the land and the sea. I am studying mangroves because they are so important for local coastal communities that live around them, providing a range of benefits (ecosystem services) to people and the environment. For example, coastal communities rely on mangroves for fisheries, as mangroves act as shelters and nurseries for thousands of marine species. On another hand, they are also protecting the coastline, acting as a barrier against storm surges and hurricanes – to a certain extent. However, mangroves are threatened by natural causes, such as hurricanes, or tsunami, but also more long-term climate change impacts like sea-level rise and erosion. They are also directly impacted by human activities, with the deforestation and conversion for aquaculture, agriculture or coastal development (including for tourism – for example, the building of hotels). I am interested in the impact of climate change on fisheries and in the change in fishing in general (e.g., gears, location, type of activity).

Aerial roots of mangrove trees
These are aerial roots of mangrove trees in Thailand. The roots are called ‘pneumatophores’ and the species is Sonneratia alba. In the middle is a fisher, looking for shells. Credit: Frédérique Fardin.
How did you get started studying this?

I became fascinated in mangroves while in undergrad, in a summer placement back home in Martinique. As soon as I arrived in these strange forests, I found them special, different, half stuck in the mud, half trying to get my way around the roots. There was also that particular smell, that somehow, I liked. Seeing that more than a quarter of mangroves have disappeared over the past 50 years, I took the pledge of saving them. But I have also been interested in fisheries because I’m from a fisherfolk village in Martinique, and seeing fishing coming back from sea has been part of my life.

Researchers on a fishing boat in southern Thailand
Frédérique with Natthida Thammakirati, research collaborator from Prince of Songkla University, observing a couple of fishers on their way to place their traps for blue swimming crabs in southern Thailand. Credit: Frédérique Fardin.
How do you study what you study?

To study mangroves, I look at how they are impacted by environmental/climate change on a physical level but also at how people are impacted by the related changes (destruction of mangrove, reduction of fish stocks, etc.). I am using a mixed-method of biophysical/ecological and socioeconomic data and analysis. This means I’m using a wide range of data that depends on each site. When I was in the field in Thailand, I used to organise my day depending on the tide, as the access to the mangrove is more difficult when the water level is high so I would go to the mangrove at low tide to extract cores of sediments. Then at high tide, I would use my time to get to fisherfolks and conduct interviews, or group meetings to get to understand their perception of climate change and how it affects their life and livelihoods.

Sampling cores between mangrove trees
Frédérique sampling cores, between the roots of red mangrove trees, at low tide in Southern Thailand. Credit: Natthida Thammakirati.
Mangrove forest in Martinique
Mangrove forest in Martinique. Credit: Frédérique Fardin.

Alerick Pacay Barahona: Coastal Conservation and Leadership

Alerick is undertaking an MPhil in Conservation Leadership (Department of Geography, in collaboration with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative). He is from Guatemala.

“All the knowledge and skills that I am getting from the [MPhil in Conservation Leadership] are being transferred to our education, science, and community action programmes at the Guatemalan coasts”

What do you study/work on (and why)?

“I am currently studying an MPhil in Conservation Leadership at the University of Cambridge.  The reason I decided to study this program is that, through my professional career, I have been able to realise that saving the planet does not necessarily mean working to manage nature. Conserving nature is all about humans and how we (conservationists) can influence humankind to change their unsustainable behaviours into more sustainable ones.

In this sense, the MPhil helps you foster a set of interpersonal skills that are needed to create a higher and long-term positive impact in societies. It prepares you so that you can address complex environmental issues in innovative ways while being aware of the broader picture that surrounds the world of conservation.

 My studies are helping me save the oceans through my non-profit organisation (Semillas del Océano) in Guatemala. All the knowledge and skills that I am getting from the program are being transferred to our education, science, and community action programmes at the Guatemalan coasts. This, through my active participation in the Board of Trustees (a group of people that helps give direction to the organisations) and the development of new projects and ideas, to implement in the communities we (Semillas del Océano) work at.”

Semillas del Oceano logo
The logo of Alerick’s non-profit organisation, Semillas del Océano. Credit:
How did you get started studying/working on this?

“I started working in ocean conservation because of my undergrad program (Aquaculture and Marine Sciences in Centro de Estudios del Mar y Acuicultura at Universidad San Carlos de Guatemala).  My passion for the oceans has always been there! I remember watching documentaries about the expeditions in the coral reefs or the bottom of the ocean, and also how exciting it was for me to see animated movies related to the oceans (like Finding Nemo).

But to be honest, when I truly knew that I wanted to work with ocean conservation and people at the coasts, it was when I did my final undergrad internship at the local communities of the Guatemalan Caribbean. There is something very special about being surrounded by fishers, their children and the whole communities that depend on the ocean and know so much about it.

It changed the way I see conservation!

I thought conservation was more ‘conservative’. As in, ‘no one should use the natural resources’. However, the more you understand the dynamic of the local communities, the more you realise that those people need the resources to live (eat, have income, pay for their children’s education and health, etc), and that conservation of the marine resources is more about finding the right balance between an educated and aware population, that have their basic needs covered, and who are willing to help to co-manage the future of their resources in a sustainable and equitable way. So, to me… that involves creating new leaders!”

Semillas del Oceano staff
Semillas del Océano’s staff and volunteers at an environmental education presentation about the marine and coastal resources in Guatemala City. Photo courtesy of Alerick Pacay.
How do you study what you study?

“I study conservation leadership through the application of different lenses that allow me to see leadership at different levels (individual, organisation, and system leadership). So far, due to the impacts of COVID, almost all my learning has been online. You need to be very disciplined, read a lot and question yourself about who is saying what, and more importantly, why are they saying what they’re saying (in terms of the biases that all of us have).

Right now, I am using my program and its leadership focus, to generate preliminary recommendations for the application of a market-based approach for Small-Scale Fisheries (SSF) in a Latin American country. The idea of this project is to analyse how an international NGO can apply their leadership assets to make positive changes for ocean conservation.”

Semillas del Oceano community action
Semillas del Océano organises community action campaigns (such as beach cleanups) to raise people’s awareness about the impacts of pollution and other threats to the coastal and marine environments. Photo courtesy of Alerick Pacay.

Please note: These interviews have been edited for clarity and/or length.

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