Most college students spend their winter break taking it easy, or hitting the slopes with friends. Two University of Rhode Island students traveled 3,900 miles to Senegal to study mangrove trees.
Marissa Wolfe and Colleen McCarthy spent nine days in the West African country as part of a J Term program offered by Brice Loose, an oceanographer in URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography and an expert in mangrove tree restoration.
“It was an amazing experience,’’ says Wolfe, of Pennsauken, N.J. “Not only was I able to immerse myself in their culture, but I also learned about the environmental issues the people of Senegal are facing.’’
Mangrove trees are disappearing in West Africa. In Senegal alone about 25 percent of the mangrove forest cover has been lost in the last three decades. A prolonged drought in the 1970s and 1980s, deforestation for fuel and timber and road construction are all to blame.
Mangrove trees are important because they create a healthy ecosystem by nurturing marine life, protecting shorelines and providing a habitat for birds. The trees are also good for the environment, absorbing carbon at a higher rate than other trees. Without mangrove trees, water becomes very salty, making it difficult to grow anything, including rice, a staple in the local diet.
Loose first traveled to Senegal in 2010 to collect data for OCEANIUM, a Senegalese nonprofit that has been working to restore mangrove forests for decades. A geochemist, he was studying the effects of drought and hypersalination on mangrove estuaries throughout West Africa.
When he arrived at GSO four years ago he brought his commitment to mangroves with him. This is the first year he’s offered the J Term course. “I thought it would be a great opportunity for us to learn from each other,’’ he says. “We’re just getting started with climate change, but the Sahel region has been at it for a while. In some sense, they’ve learned how to deal with hardship.’’
Wolfe, who is studying marine affairs, and McCarthy, an environmental science major, worked alongside two students from the Cheikh Anta Diop University (UCAD), also known as the University of Dakar.
The team started in Dakar, the country’s capital, then slowly made their way up Sine-Saloum Delta, looking at fisheries, taking water samples for salt, pH and oxygen content, and observing efforts to recover mangrove habitat through planting and desalination.
The students also learned about a fisheries project funded by the United States Agency for International Development—Collaborative Management for a Sustainable Fisheries Future in Senegal—that is led by the Coastal Resources Center at the GSO.
They visited a project partner that has built an extensive geographic information system database on the nation’s small-scale fishery, toured a project field office and met with local fishing council representatives at landing sites, where project staff and the councils work together to improve fisheries management. They also met with the project’s in-country director in Dakar. Students and staff from the UCAD Institute for Aquaculture and Fisheries, a project partner, accompanied the URI students on the study tour.
Wolfe and McCarthy kept daily logs, which will eventually turn into papers about their experience. They also sampled the local cuisine—rice and, of course, fish—and visited with villagers to learn about daily life.
“It was amazing,’’ says McCarthy, of Ocean Port, N.J. “I had the time of my life. I loved how we traveled to different areas: the river system, the mangroves down south, the bird refuge in Djoudj.’’
For both, it was their first time on the African continent. Do they want to go back? “Absolutely. The culture is fascinating. After a day, I adjusted very quickly to the people. Everyone was friendly. You could tell they’re trying hard to protect their environment, but their resources are limited. They don’t have the databases or the environmental equipment we have.’’
Loose says he plans to offer the course again next year: “I hope it was a huge cultural awakening for the students. They got to see how students from other countries live, their hopes and their commitment to the future of Senegal. The trip was a great way to teach students about science, and expose them to a place like West Africa.’’
Colleen McCarthy, holding a fish, and Marissa Wolfe, on a boat in a bird sanctuary in Djoudj, Senegal.
Media Contact: Elizabeth Rau, 401-874-2116
Photos by Brice Loose.