#51: Dr. Karlisa Callwood – The Combined Ecology of Parrotfish, Spiny Lobsters, and People in Coral Reef Systems – Nature's Archive
My guest today is Dr. Karlisa Callwood. Dr. Callwood is the director of the community conservation education and action program for the Perry Institute for Marine Science, and an expert on the coral reef fisheries of the Bahamas, and has a PhD in Ecosystem Science and Policy from the University of Miami in Florida.
Today we talk about about the coral reef systems of the Bahamas, how they function, their overall health, and a couple important species that call the reefs home – spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) and parrot fish.
In fact, Dr. Callwood’s research and expertise goes well beyond these animals and their ecology, and into the social and cultural impacts of policy and fishing at the reefs. Dr. Callwood tells us how an emerging Parrotfish fishery adds new pressures to the coral ecosystem. And how the spiny lobster fishery, driven partly by few regulations for Bahamian citizens, has evolved to include new forms of fishing that are more productive for the fishers, but also put fishers in conflict with each other. And these new methods have unknown long term ecological impacts, as Dr. Callwood explains.
As you’ll hear, Dr. Callwood combines ecological knowledge with building trusting relationships with the people on the islands, allowing her to deeply understand the motivations and rationale of the fishers. This understanding allows her to assess and recommend policy responses that strike a balance between reef health and the needs and motivations of the people on the islands.
You can find Dr. Callwood on twitter @Sci_in_Color and instagram @science_in_color.
It’s a fascinating set of topics today – please enjoy!
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Transcripts are automatically created, and are about 95% accurate. Apologies for any errors.
[00:00:00] Michael Hawk: Dr. Callwood. Thank you for joining me today.
[00:00:01] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: Thank you for having me here.
[00:00:04] Michael Hawk: And I want to admit upfront I had a little bit of a rough night last night. My smoke alarms all went off at 1:00 AM and it took me a while to of settle down from that. Sleep was interrupted, but hopefully I’ve had enough caffeine and can be coherent for the discussion today.
[00:00:19] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: that sounds like a lot to deal.
[00:00:23] Michael Hawk: So to, to jump in then can you tell me a little bit about where you grew up and how you got interested in nature in the first place? Because you have a very fascinating area of research that I’m looking forward to talking about today. So
[00:00:36] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: sure. So I am originally from the Virgin islands born in St. Thomas, which is us Virgin islands, but most of my family is from Tortola British Virgin islands. So I spent a lot of my childhood in Tortola growing up right on the beach, our family property was on the beach and my very earliest memories are literally being thrown into the water and swimming and diving before I could even walk.
[00:01:06] So for me being outdoors and being in near and around water has been something that has come naturally. Because it was something that I was immersed in at a very young age and something I did with with all my cousins.
[00:01:21] Michael Hawk: in that environment. So I grew up in the landlocked central part of the United States. and as a result, I think I am lacking in my knowledge of of ocean environments, Marine environments. So I’m wondering as you were growing up I’m guessing that the coral reefs, the economic impacts of the Marine environment that was probably all integrated into education growing up.
[00:01:44] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: no, not necessarily. I mean, We were familiar because the work that our family did was tied to the ocean. My dad like fished mostly recreationally. But that was something that he did multiple times a week. So that understanding of needing a healthy ecosystem and needing healthy coral reefs.
[00:02:06] I didn’t get that piece until I was probably in high school. So a lot of it came from like the interactions that we observed and that we saw based on the things that our family did.
[00:02:19] Michael Hawk: see. Yeah that’s a little surprising to me. So then what was it about coral reefs that that, that made you take the next step and take that on as an academic endeavor.
[00:02:29] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: I think for me, I’ve always found corals to be very interesting. partly because of how they look. They come in all of these really cool, fascinating colors and structures and sizes. But the fact that they’re responsible for helping to create this ecosystem that has tons of variety of other organisms.
[00:02:51] And I think that’s initially what drew me into the field of Marine science is understanding how all of those things interact with each other. And what that meant for
[00:03:02] Michael Hawk: And I realized I, made a little bit of an assumption there. I said coral reefs in particular so why don’t you tell me exactly what your area of study was .
[00:03:09] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: Sure. My undergraduate degree was a double degree between Marine science and biology. So it was pretty comprehensive. And then I went back for a masters in Marine affairs and policy, and originally I was going to study coral reef ecology, and what that meant from a policy perspective.
[00:03:28] But then I switched to fisheries, which is very closely tied to coral reefs because most of the important fisheries that make up the economic, communities of a lot of the islands, the Caribbean islands, where my research takes place are dependent on coral reef. So after my master’s, I continued on into an interdisciplinary program for my PhD, which was focused specifically on ecosystem science and policy.
[00:03:58] And for that I studied particularly the Bahamian spiny lobster fishery.
[00:04:03] Michael Hawk: And that was something that when we met originally and you were telling me about some of your background, really caught my ears. I always have gravitated personally towards multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary approaches. Cause I think that often reveals certain relationships that get missed otherwise.
[00:04:17] So yeah, hopefully we’ll I think we’ll dive a lot into that today.
[00:04:20] And now you’re at the Perry Institute for Marine science. Can you tell me about that Institute and what it is that you’re focusing on?
[00:04:29] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: sure. So the Perry Institute for Marine science is a nonprofit organization that conducts Marine science research to provide solutions to issues facing our oceans and human communities. So the mission of the organization is to provide science based solutions for stewardship of Marine species and ecosystems.
[00:04:53] And most of our recent efforts have been focused on reversing the decline of Marine ecosystems, particularly coral reefs in The Bahamas and some other islands throughout the Caribbean.
[00:05:05] Michael Hawk: When I think about a couple of the key things we’re gonna talk about today, and that’s the parrot fish and the spy lobsters they do all relate to the coral reefs.
[00:05:12] So to level set a little bit about coral reef environments in The Bahamas and maybe in the Caribbean at large, because I know I am, way too ignorant on that subject. Can you tell me just a little bit about coral life cycles, and you, I think you started to hit on the point that they’re so fundamental to the ecosystem that surrounds the islands.
[00:05:30] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: Yeah. So corals themselves are invertebrate organisms. So meaning they don’t have backbones. And when you look at an individual coral, you’re actually looking at a colony of individuals. So each one each time one of those at those tentacle looking things, it’s actually a polyp and that’s a single individual.
[00:05:52] So a coral colony is made up of multiple individuals of the same polyp. And when you have a coral reef, it’s made up of multiple different species. So you have the polyps, the colonies, the reef, and then the ecosystem to put things into scale. Corals themselves are very interesting because as invertebrate animals they feed in two ways.
[00:06:20] So they can use those polyps to, to essentially snatch food like plankton out of the water. But also in the polyps where they get their color from are from algae based organisms called zooxanthellae , which do photosynthesis. And it’s essentially a symbiotic relationship. So the corals give the zooxanthellae a place to live.
[00:06:43] And the zooxanthellae uses sunlight to create energy, which some of that energy gets passed off to the corals. So they work together in that way. So because of that relationship you’ll typically find corals in shallow water areas. Usually you’re not finding them deeper than 60 to 70 feet because they need that access to sunlight to be able to get enough energy.
[00:07:12] But this is also why you find them a lot in tropical regions, because not only do they have that narrow depth range, they have a very narrow temperature range in which they can live in as well. As well as water clarity, all of these things play a role. But that’s also why we’re seeing a lot of issues with corals in recent years primarily due to global climate change.
[00:07:37] So there has been a lot of shifting in the conditions that they’ve had to deal with. And that’s causing stress on some species, some more than others. So once you have stressors on the corals, you also have stressors on the entire ecosystem and the other organisms that rely on them as well.
[00:07:55] Michael Hawk: That makes sense. And so many questions and I will try to push back on my desire to spend an hour on coral reefs themselves, but so when I think about climate change and the impact on coral reefs, I hear a lot about bleaching and I had always associated bleaching with the pH of the water.
[00:08:14] My, and my rudimentary understanding is that, the more carbon there is in the air the ocean kind of acts like a sink. And it takes in all of this carbon. And then that changes the pH of the ocean that can have this deleterious effect. I, is that roughly accurate or I’m sure there’s a lot more to that.
[00:08:29] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: Yes, that’s accurate and pH can definitely be one factor that contributes to bleaching. And zooxanthellae that I mentioned. So usually when you see bleaching. In a coral, it’s the loss of that zooxanthellae . So there’s something that’s triggering the zooxanthellae to either die or to just full on leave the coral.
[00:08:50] Michael Hawk: see. And , I’m assuming that some of the coral colonies are, more sensitive than others? Like when bleaching occurs, is it the whole reef dies or is it subsets or what tends to happen there?
[00:09:04] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: It depends on what’s causing the bleaching, but there are some species that tend to be more resilient than others. So for instance one of the typical, Caribbean species, which is acropora and there’s two, there’s acropora palmata and acropora cervicornis. So those are the ones that kind of look like deer antlers.
[00:09:25] If you can picture that in your head. So about 20, 30 years ago something just completely wiped those out. And we weren’t, they weren’t seeing the same impact on some of the other coral species. And that resulted in, in almost near extinction of that particular of those two particular species, although they’re now starting to bounce back, which is awesome.
[00:09:50] Michael Hawk: Yeah. Yeah. And you said depending on the cause and the first thing that came to mind when you just said, depending on the, cause it might, it might be some species or the whole reef. I, with climate change too, is ocean current changes. And you’ve talked about sensitivity to temperature, and I could just imagine where if the current changed and suddenly you’re bringing in much cooler water for some reason, that, that could be a death sentence to that ecosystem.
[00:10:12] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: Definitely. Yeah. Water temperature is one of those things that are so critical to coral reefs. You shift the water in either direction warmer or colder, and there could potentially be drastic impacts on reef systems. Uh,
[00:10:26] Michael Hawk: So when I think of The Bahamas, it’s a lot of islands. Are there reefs surrounding all the islands, some of the islands. And how would
[00:10:35] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: yes, The Bahamas is a very large, about 700,000 square kilometers, I believe. And there are coral reefs surrounding most of the islands. I’d say in my opinion, compared to a lot of other places around the Caribbean, The Bahamas has typically had one of the more healthier reef systems.
[00:10:58] Although recently , there has been the presence of a relatively new disease called Stony coral tissue loss disease that appeared in The Bahamas in fall 2019, we think. And this is something it’s not just happening in The Bahamas it’s happening throughout the Caribbean. It was something that was discovered off of the Florida reefs back in 2014.
[00:11:22] Not yet.
[00:11:22] Michael Hawk: Is it understood what is causing that?
[00:11:25] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: Yeah. There’s still not sure whether it’s viral or bacterial or a combination of both. It is suspected that it is easily transported via the water. So things like ballast from ships or if you’re diving in an area that has corals impacted with the disease, you could potentially be carrying the disease to other dive spots.
[00:11:51] If you don’t, disinfect your gear properly. So there are some things that we’re starting to figure out. But it’s one of those things. That one it’s new, it spreads very quickly. And once a coral becomes infected with it the entire coral colony could be dead in about two weeks.
[00:12:09] So it’s something that is pretty drastic, that a lot of scientists are working very hard to figure out how to deal with it. In addition to all the other stressors that corals already have.
[00:12:22] Michael Hawk: think as so many, like boats as vectors, there’s so many things that, that we carry invasive species diseases so much it’s such a huge problem. And it’s one of these things where it’s, that genie is not going back in the bottle , so to speak. Yeah. Disappointing for sure. I guess maybe maybe on that down note let’s shift to to some of the positive things that you’re working on.
[00:12:46] And so the rough transition there, but but parrot fish. So parrot are these really beautiful looking fish that live in the coral reefs. And can you tell me a little bit. Their association with the reefs and what they are and how they live and what you’re doing with them in particular.
[00:13:00] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: Yeah. So as you mentioned, parrot fish are, there’s several species of fish that are found living in close association with corals. So many people know parrot fish for being like the bright, colorful species. So if you’re snorkeling or diving, you’ll notice them immediately. And they’re typically found around reefs and nibbling on corals and pooping sand.
[00:13:23] So everyone knows they eat coral and they poop sand. And in reality, what they’re actually eating is. The algae that’s growing on the coral and in nibbling, the coral, the algae they’re actually, they actually are taking off pieces of the coral and that’s, what’s being processed out the other end as sand.
[00:13:42] So if you are on a white Sandy beach in the Caribbean most likely a good percentage of that sand came from parrot fish But essentially what they do is their function in the ecosystem is to provide essentially a lawnmower type of service that helps to keep that algae in check and from overgrowing, the coral.
[00:14:07] And this is a really important function that’s done not only by parrot fish, but some other grazers sea urchins. And other types of fish actually do this grazing function to help reduce the algae that could smother reefs. Yes.
[00:14:22] Michael Hawk: And I was thinking about your description of what the parrot fish look like. The pictures I’ve seen. I’ve, unfortunately have not seen one in real life. They have these like beaks, these really colorful beaks and and they look fairly large too. Like they’re somewhat sizeable about how big are the species of parrotfish that you have.
[00:14:40] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: Depending on the species, they can get pretty large. I’m holding my hands up probably about like my, the length of my shoulders, shoulder to shoulders. I’ve seen parrotfish that size.
[00:14:54] Michael Hawk: Okay. My understanding is that
[00:14:54] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: So they can get pretty big, if nothing’s eating them and they have a good source of food, they’re just gonna keep growing.
[00:14:59] Michael Hawk: you’ve been investigating fishing of parrot fish by the fishing community and what the impact has been on the fish themselves and the broader ecosystem. What questions are you looking to answer in that?
[00:15:13] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: Sure. So I like many people had not realized that parrot fish was a chosen, fish to eat by many people around the Caribbean and in some other places surprisingly not in The Bahamas, people in The Bahamas, if they go fishing or if they go to a fish market, don’t necessarily, Hey, I want parrot fish, but in lots of other Caribbean islands, it has been the fish of choice.
[00:15:40] Which to me was interesting because I see parrot fish and I see them eating corals and I don’t think they would taste delicious from their food choice, but apparently they are very delicious from what I’ve heard. So the reason we wanted to study this is because if you’re removing parrot fish from a reef ecosystem, you’re also removing that ecosystem function that it’s providing as that lawnmower service.
[00:16:09] So one of the things we wanted to do especially here in The Bahamas, because anecdotally we had heard. That there were people catching parrot fish and that they were not only catching parrot fish, but they were creating a market for parrot fish and selling parrot fish. So we really wanted to speak to fishers and understand like what were they doing with regards to parrot fish?
[00:16:33] Were they actually creating a fishery here that had not existed historically in the past? But also what were their perceptions about catching, eating and selling parrot fish? What were the reasons and drivers that they were doing this? And what policies and regulations would they be willing to follow?
[00:16:54] If there were some put in place, particularly around parrot fish and that last piece is really critical because in a place like The Bahamas, where there’s so many islands, it’s very spread out. They have very few fisheries officers. You really need to make sure that the stakeholders, that the people are going to follow the policies that are put in place, and they’re actually gonna regulate themselves because there’s not enough capacity for the government to do it.
[00:17:26] So if you’re gonna put something in place, you need to make sure that it’s gonna be followed or else it doesn’t matter. So a lot of my work really looks at, so what do the people who are going to be impacted by these policies? What are they thinking? How would they see themselves impacted by these systems, but also What would make it something worthwhile for them to be able to follow a particular policy?
[00:17:53] And if in the case of parrot fish, if it is creating a market, we also have to think about the other socioeconomic impacts that might come from creating a quote unquote blanket ban on fishing, parrot fish, Especially if you’re the sole provider for your family and you’re fishing , in order to feed your family and to earn money.
[00:18:17] And one of the things you’re making a lot of money from is parrot fish. What happens when that ban comes across. So we really wanna talk to people and understand where their heads and their perceptions are at. Before we make recommendations of what should be done to address the fishery and potential regulations and policies.
[00:18:39] Michael Hawk: When we talk about fisheries, when I hear that word, I assume it’s usually a regulated market. Like what, in your view, what is the definition of a fishery? Can it be informal? Is it always regulated?
[00:18:49] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: So I define fishery as a system where you take or remove fish. As simple as that, it doesn’t have to be regulated. It could be very informal,
[00:18:59] and when we think about fisheries, it’s three parts. So it’s the people who are doing the fishing, as well as the eating and selling but it’s also the fish and it’s the habitat where they live. So you need all three to actually have a quote fishery.
[00:19:16] Michael Hawk: got it. That’s really helpful because I think I was assuming more regulatory overhead in, when I hear the word fishery, which kind of changes. Perspective. So in, in this case, here you’re seeing a fishery emerge where people sometimes just to provide for their families. And maybe in other cases, it’s more than that
[00:19:35] and you talked about the policy decisions and I apologize if I missed part of your response, but you mentioned as, as much as a total ban on parrot fish fishing.
[00:19:48] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: Yes.
[00:19:48] Michael Hawk: So is that based on what has been found in terms of the impacts to the ecosystem? Is that on the table or are you still considering other less extreme?
[00:19:59] Measures from a policy standpoint and who’s making those decisions. outta curiosity. I see.
[00:20:04] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: I’m not making those decisions. So the government, the Bahamian government makes those decisions. And I think a total ban is definitely something that is on the table. We’ve seen in recent years that some other islands where parrot fish is more of a popular seafood choice, that they have made that decision to do complete bands.
[00:20:28] And they’ve done that because they’ve seen the rapid decline of their coral reef. systems and determine that a part of that was coming from the taking of parrot fish. So they’ve made those decisions to do complete bands. . Yeah.
[00:20:45] Michael Hawk: Approach of really understanding the motivations of the people. That are participating in this market. Do you see solutions that, provide a balance for people?
[00:20:54] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: a big part of it depends . on education, honestly. So , one of the things that I did during my research was ask people, what do you know about parrot fish and what they provide to, the ecosystem. And also, what do you think would happen if more parrot fish were removed from the system?
[00:21:14] And from that? I think it was almost 200 fishers that we spoke to. We saw that most of them have a very general understanding of what parrot fish do so they can identify, oh, it’s eating something, it’s eating, it’s biting corals. So some think it’s eating the coral. Some know it’s eating algae, it poop, sand.
[00:21:39] Almost everybody knows that. But they don’t recognize that it has a higher level function like that, that there’s a reason why it’s biting the coral and eating the algae. So I think once you make that connection for people and also make the connection that if you leave parrot fish alone, like this is not only better for the reef, but it’s better for the actual fisheries that are economically viable and culturally viable for the country.
[00:22:11] So there’s a way , to think about how you link those things so that they can see the benefits of not continuing to fish the species, because it’s gonna help these other species that we have large fisheries for.
[00:22:27] Michael Hawk: It, is it pretty easy for the fishers to shift their focus to a different species?
[00:22:33] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: I think it could be especially as most fishers are not targeting parrot fish specifically. There are small handful currently that are, and even those fishers have said that the reason they’re targeting parrot fish is because someone has requested it. So they’re not going out every day and saying, I gotta catch parrotfish today.
[00:22:57] If they’re intentionally targeting parrotfish it’s because someone has asked them to so many times they’re actually harvesting parrot fish as bycatch, and if they catch it on their line, they can decide whether they keep it or toss it back and some people will keep it and they’ll just use it amongst their family.
[00:23:18] Or there have been some fishers who have outright said that once they file it, they’ll sell it as grouper, which is a very high value fish.
[00:23:27] Michael Hawk: So they’re misrepresenting the fish, which I know is very common in, in the world of fish. Yeah.
[00:23:34] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: Yes. Once it’s sliced up unless you’re very good at telling your fish tastes apart, it might be difficult for you to know what you’re eating.
[00:23:42] Michael Hawk: So it sounds like to. To get that sort of feedback from the fishers that you must have really developed good trusting relationships with them.
[00:23:49] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: Yeah. And I think that is a big part of the work. And it wasn’t just me. We definitely worked in partnership with key collaborators on all of the different islands who helped connect us with fishers and other stakeholders to talk to, and to share the survey with. But I think, for me, a big part of my work is ensuring that communities are heard, that they feel heard, they feel seen and that they are given ways to contribute to the various processes that have an impact on their life.
[00:24:27] And oftentimes, depending on the systems and de depending on who’s making the policies and what the policies are many people don’t have a say and they don’t even know what these policies are until they’re enacted. And then all of a sudden this thing that I used to do all the time is now illegal.
[00:24:47] And there was no connector in between to process and understand why the shift was made.
[00:24:54] Michael Hawk: Yeah, nobody likes surprises. And then when that surprise directly affects your livelihood, I can only imagine. So that makes a lot of sense. It’s you don’t just flip a switch on policy decisions like that. What’s the outlook then? What do you see happening? What are your next steps? Are there additional questions that you’re seeking to answer right now with respect to this ecosystem relationship?
[00:25:14] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: Yeah. One of the things we’re looking at at my organization is now that we know that, there were the hints of this fishery now that we know that it, there is a fishery, even if it is small, that exists, we wanna take a better look at what the potential ecological impacts are on coral reef. So really identifying some of the islands where there are some smaller islands where more parrot fish fishing is happening as opposed to other places in The Bahamas.
[00:25:47] So maybe using that as a way to study, and make some correlations between the amount of parrot fish that are removed from the system and the health of the coral reefs and being able to link those together more specifically
[00:26:03] Michael Hawk: Yeah. When I read a little bit about this relationship, my first thought was parallels to trophic cascades. There’s lots of trophic cascades that happen in Marine environments, some famous ones. I’ve mentioned that on this podcast in the past.
[00:26:16] So it sounds like there’s more to discover here with this like how far the cascading impact of the parrot fish go down into the ecosystem.
[00:26:24] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: Exactly. Exactly. And and when we look at like health indicators of coral reef ecosystems, that grazing piece is a key indicator. Like the amount of grazing that’s happening locally, as well as the amount of grazers and the types of grazers too. So definitely plays a role in that cascading effect.
[00:26:46] Michael Hawk: So when we first met, I remember it was at a conference and we talked a bit about spiny lobsters and I’m not sure if the spiny lobsters connect to your parrot fish endeavors, or if this was just a shift in focus. So is there a relationship between your spiny lobster research and the parrotfish research, which I’d like to transition into that spiny lobster discussion?
[00:27:10] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: So the relationship is that both of these projects are interdisciplinary and that a big piece of my spiny lobster project was also looking at perceptions, motivations, and attitudes within the fishery to help guide management decisions down the line. So those things definitely.
[00:27:33] Michael Hawk: see. So let’s just step back a little bit then, and talk about the spiny lobster and what is it? And what’s its role in the ecosystem.
[00:27:41] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: Yeah. So spiny lobster are also invertebrates. many people will probably recognize a spiny lobster. If you’ve seen a lobster that does not have claws . So they have like really long antenna, no claw. When I was a kid, I didn’t even realize that lobsters had claws. The only time I ever saw lobsters with claws was on cartoons.
[00:28:04] So I thought it was like a fictional thing until like I moved to the states and I was like, oh, like this actually exists. So . I think spin lobsters are very cool, they’re like other lobsters, they live on the reefs. They like really dark spaces. They like to hang out with other lobsters.
[00:28:24] And their function on a reef is the cleanup crew, they eat just about anything and everything that they can get their non-law on. So to speak
[00:28:35] Michael Hawk: Yeah, so just like parrotfish are many different species of parrotfish. And my understanding is spiny lobsters. There are lots of species of spiny lobsters. And in particular, is is there one, or is there a diversity of spiny lobsters in the Caribbean? I.
[00:28:47] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: in the Caribbean. . I think there’s only one that they might have some, there might be some subspecies, but there are some closely related lobster species like slipper lobsters and other ones like that. That also don’t have claws, but in the Caribbean it’s particularly Panulirus argus you’ll find that sometimes their range extends far up the Eastern coast.
[00:29:13] Definitely in Florida, I wanna say maybe to Georgia and South Carolina, but also all the way down to Brazil. So they have a very wide range. Yeah. Throughout the Caribbean.
[00:29:25] Michael Hawk: led you to looking at the spiny lobster?
[00:29:28] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: What really drove my interest about spining lobsters was, the shift in harvesting method by fishers in The Bahamas specifically. So they usually, when you spiny lobsters, you can do it by, you dive, you look under a ledge on a reef to find those dark spots and like, they’ll use a tickle stick to get it out and you can just snatch one up, or you can spear fish, spiny lobster, or you use a lobster traps.
[00:30:00] So those have typically been the main methods used to harvest them. But now there’s a relatively new method. That’s called condo. In some places they’re referred to as casitas, and easiest way to describe them they are lobster traps that are not enclosed on all sides.
[00:30:17] So there’s no door, there’s no bottom on them. Lobster and other things can go in and out as they please, as opposed to a trap when something goes in, it’s stuck in there until the Fisher comes to collect it. There had been a lot of talk about how many condos were out across the banks of The Bahamas.
[00:30:37] But also that because of the condo use, it had resulted in a rise of conflicts amongst lobster fishers. Particularly in terms of like people literally fighting over lobster catch. So we take this fishery, which had been a relatively quote, unquote, easy and safe occupation and shifting to something where, when fishers come across the same spot, now they’re openly fighting each other to essentially get a catch.
[00:31:12] I was really interested in understanding what was happening there why the shift to the condos but also why the use of condos was leading to these conflicts.
[00:31:25] Michael Hawk: Talking about the condos for a minute and then maybe into the, maybe it’s a natural lead into the conflict. So it’s surprising to me to hear that there would be a method for catching fish that allows, or in this case, lobsters that allow them to come and go freely. How does it work if it’s open on the sides and beneath.
[00:31:43] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: it’s open, not all the way on the side. So it’ll be like, imagine like it has a no front door, but it has a walls and the back, and there’s no bottom on it. And I’ll get into that later because that relates to the conflicts, but how it works is it’s essentially an artificial aggregation device that takes advantage of the things that spiny lobsters love and what do they love.
[00:32:09] They love dark spaces and they love to be with lots of other spiny lobster. So once you get one lobster in there, a lot of other lobster are gonna follow. And depending on the size of the condo, you could have anywhere from 100 to 200 individual lobsters. Is underneath. And that makes harvesting of them much easier because before you actually had to go out to the reef and find them, but now if you have a condo down or you know, where a condo location is, you can take your boat out to that condo.
[00:32:45] You can dive down with your bag, lift up the condo and just collect the 200 lobster that are there. And that’s gonna take you 20 minutes as opposed to the hour. It would’ve taken you hunting on a reef.
[00:32:58] Michael Hawk: there any theory as to why, like you mentioned the lobsters, like these dark places and they like hanging out with other lobster. The condos to me, like I, maybe my, what I have in my mind is not very accurate, but I’m thinking like almost a smoothed edged, like porcelain or , I don’t know what they’re made of, but something that, that, like why is the lobster finding that more attractive than the reef?
[00:33:20] Why would they even leave the reef?
[00:33:21] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: That is something yet to be discovered. We still don’t understand the full ecological impacts of the condos. But one thing that is suspected is that the placement of the condos, they don’t place them on the reefs. They actually place them in between sea grass, habitats, and reefs. So when you look at coastal ecosystems, it goes from mangroves to sea, grass to reef, and you usually have like patches of sand in between.
[00:33:52] So they’re putting them in those patches of sand between the sea grass and the reefs and biologically juvenile lobster live in sea grass. And when they transition to adults, they make the walk out to a reef. So they’re thinking that because of the placement of the condos, that they’re actually catching these lobster on their journey out from the sea grass as they transition.
[00:34:20] Michael Hawk: That’s interesting. It sounds like a lot of fertile ground for research and discovery still as
[00:34:25] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: Yes.
[00:34:26] Michael Hawk: I, it’s funny. I say, I find myself saying that like almost every episode I do, when I’m interviewing my guests is like, just so much out there to learn still. You alluded to the fact that some of this conflict, and I think I can see where you’re going with this based on the description you gave, but the fact that there’s no bottom to the condos and the placement.
[00:34:42] So tell me a bit more about what is leading to the conflict among the fishers.
[00:34:46] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: Yeah. And I’ll set a I’ll set a little bit of additional background. So in The Bahamas, if you are a Bahamian citizen, you have access to all resources. So if you are a citizen, whether or not you like fish for livelihood, if you wanted to fish, you have that right. As a Bahamian citizen you just have to follow whatever regulations are in place for that particular species.
[00:35:12] And there aren’t many. So for things like lobster, there’s a season for when you can fish for lobster. And there’s also a size limit. And you can’t take any that are bearing eggs and that those are all the limitations on the spiny lobster fishery for Bahamians, if you are someone who’s a tourist and you’re coming in to do recreational fishing there’s a bag limit of, I believe, six lobsters per person, but as a Bahamian, these are your resources. It is open to you. And they will refer to both terrestrial and aquatic land as they call it quote unquote crown land because they’re one of the overseas territories of the UK, and I’m probably saying this completely wrong but it’s land for the citizens held in trust by the.
[00:36:06] So they refer to it as the crown land. So because these condos are not enclosed many fishers. Take that to mean that when the lobster are inside the condos, they are still sitting on crown land. And that means that I, as a Bahamian, have every right to that lobster, regardless of whether or not I built that condo or set out that condo. Whereas when we contrast this to a lobster trap, those actually have to be licensed. So you have to pay for each of those traps, they have your name on them, and it is illegal for anyone to mess with the lobsters inside of that trap. So essentially the trap has created private property. Whereas the condos are seen as quote unquote, open access to anyone who comes across them.
[00:37:03] Now , where the conflict comes in is that fishers who have a lot of resources and have the ability to spend lots of money on building hundreds and thousands of condos every season. And also the ability to spend money on fuel and big boats to be able to set these condos out across The Bahamas. They feel I’ve just invested a couple thousand dollars in this, these belong to me, whereas the other fishers are gonna use the crown land argument.
[00:37:38] And they also argue that many times these fishers with more resources are actually placing their condos near island. That have better coral reef habitat I E better lobster habitat, right? Because their islands don’t have a lot of lobster. So it doesn’t make sense for them to put the condos near their islands. So the fishers with less resources, they can’t travel as far. Some of them can’t even afford fuel for a boat, so they still have to dive out on reefs, or if they have a boat they’re only going out a very short distance for a couple of hours and then coming back in, whereas the fishers with more resources can not only invest in all of these condos, but they can stay out at sea for sometimes six weeks or more before they have to go back in with their harvest.
[00:38:37] Michael Hawk: Very complicated, lots of moving parts and different incentive structures for people. So backing up to the trap versus condo. The, I don’t have as good a visual in my mind of what a trap looks like.
[00:38:53] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: Yeah. So the trap is gonna be enclosed on all sides and they usually have an opening near the top or side that allows something to crawl in. And then once it’s in, they can’t come back out.
[00:39:05] Michael Hawk: Okay. And then they’re baited
[00:39:07] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: Yeah, most traps and condos are actually baited.
[00:39:10] Michael Hawk: Okay. So what prevents someone with a condo from putting a bottom on it does, is it then classified as a trap and they’d have to, they’d be regulated in the structure that you described for traps
[00:39:20] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: I think for it to be a trap, it has to, one be made of a particular material usually would so that it can decompose naturally over time. And it, it has to actually trap the lobster. So they have to not be able to come in and come out. So if you have that, then you can license it as a trap. and I should have mentioned they can, condos are made out of any and everything. So some people will actually construct actual wood structures that have sides and a top on them. Sometimes there’s a metal galvanizer type top.
[00:39:58] Some people are using car hoods. Some people are using old washing machines. Some people are using hollowed out tree trunks. So it’s dealer’s choice with these condos.
[00:40:11] Michael Hawk: yeah, that puts another perspective on it too, because it’s a lot of reuse of things that are on hand, which are essentially free. I suppose at that point,
[00:40:20] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: yes. So if you can’t, yeah, if you can’t build them, you can find something to make one or turn into one.
[00:40:27] Michael Hawk: So this investigation that you’ve taken into the dynamic between the different fishers using the condos where has that led you to the environmental, economic, socioeconomic overlaps?
[00:40:40] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: What I found was that there are lots of varying interpretations of what’s happening in the fishery. And those interpretations depend on, resources, as I mentioned but also on status, some fishers or some islands have a higher status than other fishers dependent on money, race, and other factors.
[00:41:06] But also that, from my talks with fishers, I estimated that they’re somewhere between one to 2 million condo. Spread across The Bahamas and we don’t have a good idea of what that actual number is. And we also don’t know, as I mentioned before, what the impact is ecologically of having this high number of structures that are out there.
[00:41:34] And that’s not even to mention what happens when a strong storm or a hurricane comes through and displaces all of these, because they don’t get collected afterwards. They’re just lost. So then they become a ghost trap, or a ghost condo, and who knows what impacts those are having, because they’re still there and the fishers are putting out more to replace the ones they’ve lost. So there’s still a lot of unknowns . But I think the key thing. if we want to say that the fishery is sustainable, which was one of the other things I looked at with this research is that definition of sustainability. How can we say that if we don’t actually know what the level of effort is with regards to the method and how they’re being collected
[00:42:26] Michael Hawk: There’s a lot of variables that would go into defining sustainability. So a major outcome of, this research then is you need more research to really understand this.
[00:42:36] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: yes. You need a lot of research, but I think too what was also clear is that we really need to talk to the fishers more than we do. I think in The Bahamas, as well as probably many other places throughout the Caribbean or places where they have a cultural. History of fishing. These are people who have been fishing in their families for generations, or some of these fishers are long lived.
[00:43:03] Like I’ve spoken to fishers who are in their seventies, eighties, and nineties. And they are seeing firsthand the changes that are happening in the ecosystem. And no one’s talking to them. We’re making all these guesses about what’s happening and what we think is happening. And we have firsthand observations from people who have been there that have seen the changes and can describe the changes.
[00:43:27] And there it’s just a wealth of untapped information that I think we need to do a better job of accessing
[00:43:34] Michael Hawk: also really interesting to me. I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of shifting baseline syndrome. And have you heard of that term in the context of yeah. I assumed it’s fairly well known but I only first came to learn about it last year. And for anyone listening, who’s not familiar with it the way I describe it and please improve my definition.
[00:43:55] If you see room for improvement, people tend to baseline the. Of an environment or ecosystem based on what they observed in their formative years. And that means that with each successive generation, the baseline has changed. And I would then go on to say it’s very likely that the baseline has degraded because someone my age, perhaps wouldn’t have seen the health of the ecosystem that existed for my parents or grandparents generation.
[00:44:21] Does that sound about right?
[00:44:22] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: yeah, no, that was a great . That was a great, a way
[00:44:27] Michael Hawk: great. So these older fishers, they could skip a couple generations and really just tell you directly this is how it’s changed and in short circuit that, so what are they telling you?
[00:44:36] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: That they definitely have seen a lot of changes, particularly with the spiny lobster population. And I think one of the things that has been observed more recently, especially with the use of condos becoming more common or more condos being placed out in the waters is that those fishers who are diving reefs pretty regularly are seeing less lobster on the reefs.
[00:45:07] And as I mentioned, they have a very particular function in helping to keep, that ecosystem clean. They’re eating up all the leftover bits of everything. That’s why they taste so delicious and as I mentioned also, There has not been a lot of ecological work done to understand what the impacts are of placing these condos in that direct path, and essentially removing the lobster off of the reef from doing their quote unquote job.
[00:45:36] Michael Hawk: Are there any population studies or you, do you see this on a path to becoming a solved problem or is it still like in need of funding and effort?
[00:45:46] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: I definitely think there, it there’s a lot of effort that has to be done here. Particularly around the ecological and biological impacts of the condos. Like my work focus. More specifically on the social and cultural impacts and a little bit on the biological based on how the larva move and all of that.
[00:46:09] But there’s still a lot to be seen with regards to, if condos continue to be a prevalent method of harvest, then we really need to understand like what they’re doing and what the levels of the numbers that we suspect are out there are doing to the ecosystem.
[00:46:29] Michael Hawk: So this has answered a lot of questions for me, but it’s generated a lot more so I’m gonna have to digest a lot of what we talked about but being cognizant of time and your generosity, it’s probably time to start to wrap things up. So a questions I always like to hear from people like yourself that are so deep into working on environmental causes is what has nature taught you about living.
[00:46:53] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: yeah, that’s a great question. I think for me, the biggest thing is that survival doesn’t just happen. Like we see things in nature, surviving, lots of different threats, lots of circumstances, but they have developed like very cool adaptations to be able to do that. And I think.
[00:47:15] Applying that to life, you have to be able to adapt and pivot and find the conditions that work best for you to ensure that you keep
[00:47:24] Michael Hawk: Good advice. And I really Al I like this question a lot. So if you could magically impart one ecological concept and maybe that was it that you just said there to help the public, see the world as you see it, what would it be? Yeah,
[00:47:36] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: Yeah. It’s definitely adaptation. I’m always fascinated by the concept of adaptations. And I know we’ve been talking about Marine species today, but I think plants are so cool. And , one of the reasons I find plants to be so cool is because they have all these strange and great adaptations that allow them to survive in the craziest situations everywhere on the planet.
[00:48:03] And that includes in the water. So I always think about. Like how do plants do this? It’s just so wild and crazy. But with that, like change in nature is constant and it’s really the responses to the changes that matter.
[00:48:18] Michael Hawk: and I just, I feel obligated to shout out the podcast in defensive plants and Matt, the host of. Podcast his whole mission is to help people get over their plant blindness. Like we take plants for granted for some reason.
[00:48:32] Probably because they are everywhere. They have adapted to so many conditions, but definitely worth checking out. And why have you found to be effective in helping people move up a rung in terms of environmental awareness or their care for the environment?
[00:48:45] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: it’s a couple of things. I think what’s most effective in connecting folks with environmental awareness is one not preaching at them. And not talking down to them. I find that we as scientists, like we’re smart, we know everything. So we’re gonna tell you what to do, and that does not work. It does not work with most communities.
[00:49:08] And I think what’s equally as important is like finding ways to make it relevant to them and their lives. Because if they don’t see the relevance in it, if they don’t understand why it’s beneficial to them, like not to us in general, but to them specifically, they’re not going to care about it. And we really need to work on, I do this a lot in the work with my organization is thinking about when we craft communications.
[00:49:40] When we say we want to like put out a social media post about X, Y, Z, or create a flyer or poster, really thinking about who the audience. And adapting for that audience because they all have different needs and like creating the same thing for everyone is just not gonna cut it.
[00:49:59] Michael Hawk: I, I have to chuckle as you say that, because I’ve had to learn and relearn and remind myself of that lesson. So many times in my life.
[00:50:06] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: Yeah. It’s like interpretation 1 0 1, right? No know your audience
[00:50:11] Michael Hawk: It’s no your audience. And it maybe even goes a little bit beyond that because if you’re working in a field deeply, so many things just become second nature, thoughts to you that may not resonate, or may actually be in conflict with your audience.
[00:50:24] So it’s not just know the audience but recognize those implicit statements and subroutines and things that, that we all adopt as we gain more familiarity with
[00:50:33] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: Yeah. Check your expert blind spots as I always
[00:50:37] Michael Hawk: That’s the word I was looking for? The expert blind spots. This has really been a lot of fun and I hope you’ve enjoyed it. If people wanna follow your work, where can they go?
[00:50:48] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: I’m kind of on social media. I’m still working on being better at it. But they can find me on Instagram at science underscore in underscore color and also on Twitter at SI in underscore color.
[00:51:06] Michael Hawk: That’s great.
[00:51:06] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: There’s not gonna be a ton there, but there’s stuff
[00:51:10] Michael Hawk: I’ll link to it, nonetheless. And yeah, I I of course like so many people have a love, hate relationship with social media. There are the bright spots, but there are also the downsides so what’s up next for you?
[00:51:20] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: So for me, what I’m working on next, I’m still doing a lot of work related to fisheries. And I was actually recently selected as a national geographic Explorer and provided funding to investigate the effects of COVID 19 on local subsistence fishing habits. So really looking at, the impacts of the pandemic.
[00:51:46] So people losing jobs, having to go into lockdown, potentially not having enough money to feed their families and having to turn to social assistance programs, things like that. Looking at how those things potentially drove. People that live in The Bahamas on some of the islands to return to fishing because one of the things that we noticed, anecdotally, that there were lots of people fishing, not just folks who fished for a living, but you could drive down the side of the road or go to a local beach.
[00:52:21] And there were, there would be families fishing during the pandemic. So what, one of the things I wanna look at is what were the drivers of that, but also is there, or was there potentially an ecological impact that we can note during those that year and a half, two years of shutdown period,
[00:52:44] Michael Hawk: think it’s pretty clear. We keep getting warning shots that there are gonna be more infectious disease outbreaks, more pandemics in the future. So that sounds like really beneficial work that unfortunately we’re probably gonna have to deal with again in the future.
[00:52:58] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: Yeah. Yeah. It’s very concerning. And one of the things culturally that we tend to hear here in The Bahamas is that the ocean will always be there. The sea will always be there, so if I need something I can turn to the resources that I get from the sea. And that is a belief that many people still have to this day.
[00:53:20] And we wanna know, is that something that can be sustainable in the face of, continued natural disasters? One of the things that has also impacted The Bahamas locally, hurricane Dorian about two, three years ago, and then that was immediately followed by the pandemic. So . Is the sea something that can sustain livelihoods over time as we continue to battle these catastrophes back to back.
[00:53:52] That’s definitely something that we need to get a better sense of.
[00:53:55] Michael Hawk: Yeah, absolutely. And I’m happy, there are people like you that are helping to wrap our heads around this and doing the hard work and working with the people on the front lines with that. Thank you again. I really appreciate you. And the time that you spent today and I hope we have opportunities to chat in the future.
[00:54:13] Dr. Karlisa Callwood: Yeah. Thank you so much, Michael, for inviting me to do your podcast. I had a great time and definitely look forward to chatting more.