It’s hard not to be enamored with marine life growing up in Turks & Caicos. Hailing from North Caicos, Jatavia’s career in marine biology stems her entire lifespan. Her fond memories of going to the beach in Conch Bar, Middle Caicos with her grandfather and cousins to “jump the reef” while battling the waves exposed her to the majestic creatures below when she’d dip her head underwater. She also credits SpongeBob SquarePants as an influencing factor as well. As president of Raymond Gardiner High School’s science club for 3 years, she knew her career would involve science, so she enrolled at the British West Indies Collegiate (BWIC) for A-Levels and Newcastle University to study Marine Biology & Oceanography.

Performing stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) treatment
Source: Jatavia Howell

How would you describe your job? What are your main responsibilities?
As an Environmental Officer with the TCI Department of Environmental and Coastal Resources (DECR), my job is mainly split between office and fieldwork. Office work usually involves reviewing Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), planning applications, and research applications; drafting policies; creating useful maps using Geographical Information Systems (GIS); or just collating data from fieldwork.

Fieldwork, my favourite bit, usually involves environmental monitoring (e.g. Sargussum influx or beach profile changes); creating or removing beach access, swim zones and boat lanes; and a great deal of diving for coral or fish surveys. I also monitor high-risk affairs that can result in oil spills or any significant damage to the marine environment.

What do you like most about your work? Is there something that surprised you about the role/field when you started?
I enjoy using GIS to create informative maps and any work that involves diving. It’s a peaceful world under the sea.

What surprised me was the massive workload. It’s a good challenge though, and it keeps me on my toes.

What were some of your early roles?
I started off volunteering at the DECR and National Trust while I was at BWIC for A-Levels; this was where I became certain of a career in marine science. While I was in University, I worked for the National Trust during summer holidays, first as a salesclerk/tour guide, then as a receptionist. Those three summers taught me a lot about scientific methods in practice, TCI history, and endemic flora and fauna.

What are you most proud of in your career so far?
There are two main things I’m really proud of right now. The first is treating the stony coral tissue loss disease; we’re using a more direct alternative method instead of antibiotics that corals can become resistant to. The second is the removal of the Mega One Triton Shipwreck on Governor’s Beach. We monitored the removal and conducted the final checks to ensure that no metal pieces remained in the vicinity. There were no lasting environmental impacts during or after the removal, and that is all I could ask for.

Mega One Triton Shipwreck on Governor’s Beach
Source: Turks & Caicos Sotherby’s International Realty

What skills and attributes are essential to be successful in this field?
I think you have to be able to use evidence and the law to make decisions, and be open to changing your perspecitve once new evidence arises. You must be able to consider alternative methods when doing certain projects and be impartial when providing comments on almost any matter. You’d also have to always keep the scientific methods in mind and know how to convey science to non-scientific persons.

What other related fields do you think someone should consider looking into?
We still need more people within the Marine Biology field in TCI. Coastal Engineering, Aquaculture, Marine Spatial Planning, Coral Specialists, Fish Specialists are good fields that need people with relevant knowledge.

What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out in this field?
I wish I was more aware of how much people disregard the environment on the whole. Fishermen are knowingly overfishing, using bleach on the reef, selling undersized merchandise, fishing in the national parks, and fishing illegal fish. We as a community need to find ways of mitigating this behaviour.

What advice would you give someone who is considering this type of job or field?
The environmental community will welcome you with open arms. Always be open to learning something new from unexpecting sources. You cannot change everyone’s views on the environment, but you can do your part in protecting it and spreading knowledge in hopes that others will follow.

What’s next for you and how do you plan to change the TCI in your field?
My current future plans are to get my advanced diving license to dive the Conch Bar caves, get AGRRA certified (coral identification), and gain a boat captain license. I also aim to spread the love and value of the marine environment through giving interactive presentations at the college, high schools, and to the wider communities to try to get more community involvement in marine activities, such as beach cleanups and swimming through campaigns.

My main aim in all of this is to help TCI see the value of its marine environment so that we can preserve it through using the environment sustainably. If we don’t start now, we are threatened by the death of our coral reefs (which provides coastal protection during storms), lowered fish stocks, and Queen Conch extinction.

If you’re interested in getting more involved with TCI DECR, join their Education & Outreach Facebook group to learn more about upcoming activities.

Read more about Coral Reef Management (Marine Biology) and the pathways in different regions.

Posted by:LaVerne Handfield

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