Microbial and chemical players – from land to coral reefs
In short, my PhD project investigates the biological and chemical changes in coral reef ecosystems to understand how land-derived and waterborne substances affect coral reefs in the Dutch Caribbean.
Supervisors: Prof. Dr. Corina Brussaard and Dr. Andi Haas
Coral reefs provide economic, social, and cultural benefits
Coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse and productive ecosystems on earth, providing us humans with various opportunities in tourism, recreation, employment, fisheries production, shoreline protection, as well as cultural heritage. Up to 36% of the total gross domestic product across the six islands of the Dutch Caribbean is directly connected to coral reefs. However, Caribbean communities are in risk of losing the benefits coral reefs provide, due to declining coral reef health, induced by local and global stressors (especially pollution, fertilizer, run-off, coastal development, overfishing, and global change).
Coral reefs and human activities
Coral reefs are heavily affected by human activities. In the Caribbean, coastal development, urbanization, and daily life cause unnaturally high fluxes of pollutants and potential pollutants into the sea. These inputs include pharmaceuticals, oil, metals, plastics, trash, sediments, nutrients (fertilizers), pesticides, and microbes (including human pathogens). Terrestrial geology, hydrology, groundwater transport, water run-off, and vegetation affect the initial arrival of these inputs. Furthermore, ocean physics, hydrodynamics, ocean chemistry, and biological activity influence the flows, forms, and residence times of land inputs. These processes affect coral reef ecosystem functioning and health, and influence their growth and decline.
Chemical and microbial agents through the watershed.
Water quality is often cited as a key driver of coral reef health, yet this topic is rarely studied (in detail) in the Dutch Caribbean. In coastal waters, the origin, abundance, and distribution of pollutants and other compounds can positively or negatively affect the survival of coral reef communities. These substances are mainly introduced to the ocean from a terrestrial source (e.g., groundwater and surface discharge and coastal development).
My PhD project focuses specifically on the composition of chemical and microbial agent that flow through the watershed. Using state-of-the-art techniques, she aims to (i) identify the key differences in microbial and chemical players between reef systems, (ii) characterize the microbial community and trace ecologically-relevant substances from land to ocean, (iii) identify the occurrence of antibiotic resistance bacteria in the coastal water, and (iv) examine the effects of substances on organisms and communities on the reef.
SEALINK - Linking terrestrial pollutants and inputs to nearshore coral reef growth to identify novel conservation options for the Dutch Caribbean
My PhD project is part of the interdisciplinary SEALINK project that aims to elucidate how natural processes and human influences along the land-sea continuum impact coral reef communities. The SEALINK program will establish an integrative, transdisciplinary research program merging geology, hydrology, ecology, and sociology. SEALINK brings together a diverse consortium of scientists to create a new tradition of integrative, transdisciplinary science in the Dutch and wider Caribbean. The program will leverage the remarkable scientific value that exists across the six islands of the Dutch Caribbean due to their existing differences in geology, coastal morphology, freshwater abundance, erosion, coastal development, and sewage infrastructure. By bridging multiple fields of research, SEALINK will reveal how natural processes and human influences along the land-sea continuum interactively shape the future of coral reef communities, and how this in turn affects the ability of coral reef systems to provide valuable benefits back to the human communities that live, work, and play just steps away.