Dr. Carrie Manfrino – The Caribbean's Coral Reef Crusader
Dr. Carrie Manfrino cuts a diminutive figure, but in the world of coral reef conservation she is a giant. Founder, President and Senior Scientist at Little Cayman’s Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI), she is leading the charge to unlock the secrets of coral reef resilience before time runs out for this most vulnerable and threatened ecosystem.
Words by Juliet Austin. Photos courtesy of the CCMI and Maggie Jackson.
One might wonder, though, just how Manfrino came to be an oceanographer. Growing up in the late 60s in a rough, ethnically charged part of New York City was a far cry from the tropical marine environments that she would later gravitate towards. Yet the city instilled in her a grit that would stand her in good stead for the challenges ahead. Challenged by her father to lead not follow, she grew adept at following her natural curiosity, finding answers to questions through first-hand experiences and observations. However, it was the mass migration of family and friends from the Bronx down to the furthermost point of South Florida that would prove pivotal to Manfrino’s future. “The contrast between the crowded, noisy inner city to life at the edge of the Florida Everglades was surreal,” she reflects.
Nature became her playground. In the crystal-clear waters, the spotted eagle rays and fish that swam under the causeway bedazzled her. Days were spent swimming in freshwater lakes, building rafts, venturing on horseback into the Everglades and swinging Tarzan-like into canals. But it was the ocean that drew her at every turn. “It was fun and games,” Manfrino reflects, “but it prepared me for a life of adventures exploring nature, cautiously, but fearlessly.”
Academically inclined, Manfrino’s algebra teacher placed her in a deeply accelerated mathematics programme and by age twelve, she embarked on college maths, leaving school at sixteen to pursue pre-med at college in West Texas. But it wasn’t to be. “After one term, it was clear that I would never become a medical doctor,” she admits. “I was just too interested in exploring the natural world.”
And explore she did, until a life-changing summer altered her life’s trajectory. Travelling with fellow college students and her botany professor, she crossed the Sonoran Desert into Mexico, camping the entire summer while studying marine biology. “Our professor pointed to areas of the coastline that were once submerged below the ocean and challenged us with new ideas about how the earth and life evolved over hundreds of millions of years.” Enthralled, Manfrino spent the remainder of her college years studying geology in Colorado, where she finally became an oceanographer. “To reconstruct slices of the earth’s history from some 85 million years ago using rock sequences and be able to decipher the ancient oceans from the rock record inspired me to think outside the box.”
She eventually returned to South Florida to pursue a PhD in Marine Geology and Geophysics from the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. Dr. Carrie Manfrino was armed and ready to change the world… starting in Cayman. In 1995, with her doctorate almost complete, a baby and another on the way, she was hired as a professor of geology and oceanography at the university where she developed a summer field course taking research students to Rum Point in Grand Cayman.
Three years on, upon discovering large sections of the reef dead from a catastrophic coral bleaching event, Manfrino knew it was time to do more than collect data. “Serendipitously, one of my students was a venture capitalist who offered to help set up a marine institution when I was ready.”
She was ready. With big ideas but few details, Manfrino established a board with some Princeton University friends and answered the call of her PhD advisor to establish a regional snapshot of the state of Caribbean reefs. Assembling a scientific team to conduct expeditions across the three islands, it was clear that the less developed Little Cayman would make the perfect control site for reef studies. Taking a sabbatical in 2000, Manfrino’s mission to found a marine research station began to take shape. With help from local architect, John Doak, enormous goodwill, seed money from the venture capitalist and eventually a hefty loan, CCMI was established on the north side of the island next to Bloody Bay Marine Park with a mandate to advance the frontiers of coral reef science, conservation and education.
To enable collaborators to conduct research, Manfrino began the daunting task of writing her own grants, hiring scientists, fundraising and finding sponsors – all while raising her daughters and working as a professor in New Jersey. Now, 22 years on, CCMI offers a permanent marine research field station for ten universities; Ocean Literacy programmes for local school students; boasts twelve full-time employees and a Royal Patron, His Royal Highness, the Earl of Wessex. Its grants include awards from the European Union BEST, UKOT Darwin Initiative, AALL Trust, Alexandria Bancorp and the National Scientific Foundation. What’s more, as regional leaders with invaluable long-term coral data dating back to 1999, they contribute to a host of scientific journals and popular magazines from Forbes to National Geographic (Travel).
CCMI’s Vision 2025 plans are to contribute to science-based solutions that will help unlock the secrets of coral resilience. Manfrino’s most recent collaboration with Dr. Amy Apprill of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation for an innovation that aims to transform how scientists quantitatively measure and track the microbial communities that live in concert with corals. They aim to uncover the microbial dynamics behind why some corals become stressed by temperature and why some don’t. The answers should provide clues to which species may be more resilient to the future conditions in the ocean which are predicted to continue to heat up. All this while conducting important research on ocean acidification, the effects of climate change and reef degradation on coastal communities, and extinction risks of modern corals, algae and fish.
In addition, the research centre has a new Ecology and Evolutionary biology program that boasts a state of the art molecular genetics laboratory. Spearheaded by new Director of Research, Dr. Gretchen Goodbody-Gringley along with scientists from the University of Haifa and a grant from the US National Science Foundation, a new research project will compare coral adaptations in the Red Sea and the Cayman Islands to explore solutions to declining coral populations. Then comes the work of transforming knowledge into action and stewardship.
So, can we save coral reefs? According to Manfrino’s article for the United Nations Chronicle, “Increasing the size of protected areas and removing detrimental impacts requires dealing with human issues that lie beyond the borders of protected areas. Conservation relies on strong governance that is often overshadowed by private interests. Changing human behaviour and the conditions that influence behaviour, including poverty and the effects of globalisation, would be a necessary first step in many areas.”
At this critical time in world history, with oceans under assault from pollution, rising temperatures, the effects of overpopulation and development run amok, Dr. Manfrino has dedicated her life to making a positive impact on people and on the earth. She is quick to remind us, however, that we are in a race against time. “My hope is that our organisation inspires people to care more about the natural world, especially the ocean that makes Earth habitable.” A plaque placed by HRH Prince Edward at the Bloody Bay Marine Park sums up Manfrino’s crusade perfectly: “For the children of the world, so they may forever discover the treasures of the sea.”
WHAT CAN WE DO? WHEN IT COMES TO DEVELOPMENT:
- Choose developers/architects who promote sustainable practices.
- Discuss limiting environmental impacts before building.
- Never destroy ecosystems by removing mangroves or seagrass when developing.
- Incorporate sustainable living into all your life choices.
- Employ green energy solutions in new house design.
- Build smaller.
- Buy renewable or recycled materials.
- Ensure sewage treatment does not impact the marine environment.
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