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Problems Without Passports: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife–the News from Guam

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Each morning, a newspaper is slipped underneath our door. This morning, the front page of the Pacific Daily News read "Fishermen oppose reef bill."

Pictured: Caitlin holds up the May 25, 2011, edition of the Pacific Daily News with the headline “Fishermen oppose reef bill” on the front-page center. Photo by Jim Haw.

The paper is referring to a bill that penalizes individuals for breaking coral. Currently in Guam, few activities that damage coral are monitored, even though several large boats are run aground each year with devastating consequences for marine life; recreational activities often decimate the reefs; and the military is planning their dredging of Apra Harbor at this very moment. The arguments for the bill were heard yesterday, but there was no definitive action taken. The newspaper mentioned that this could be a political move to set legal precedent for criminal action against individuals that destroy reefs, perhaps even the U.S. military. If the military destroys a reef, could they be penalized under this law? Today we dove in Apra Harbor at the site of proposed dredging by the military. I was expecting the worst: we were told yesterday that our dive sites were some of the most pristine in Guam and that Apra Harbor was one of the most impacted sites. 

I dropped down expecting a coral war zone, but I was surprised at the size of the fish, the coverage of the reef and the overall vitality of the site. There was no sand in sight — just coral for as far as we could see. Unlike the reefs yesterday, there were many medium-sized fish and a few large fish. Interestingly, there were significantly fewer invertebrates that we are tracking at this site. Other invertebrates flourished here, but we are just counting spider conks, sea cucumbers, urchins and giant clams. My transect counts and many others’ were matrices of zeros, but the dearth of data didn’t reflect the health of the reef by any means. I surfaced feeling more angry than ever. How can the military propose to destroy this reef? Even if the military only dredges part of it, or a nearby reef, the silt will settle on the coral and choke out sunlight.

Before this trip, I had no idea that there was a hard-fought battle raging between the residents of Guam and the military. In Catalina, we watched Dan Rather report on Guam and he featured many of the places we’ve been able to see on this trip and many of the issues that are at the forefront of Guam politics. Our instructors told us the military buildup that is currently taking place in the country is front-page news in Guam every single day. 

On Monday, page 2: "Expect delays at intersection of Routes 4, 17." 

In the newspaper, there are weekly updates about the pre-build up construction. Road closures and severe traffic are reported as matter-of-fact occurrences as part of the military buildup. Apart from the editorials and flaring opinions, military presence is part of Guam’s daily life and people need to be informed about how it will impact them practically. Reading the weekly report about the pre-buildup construction made me feel like we’re in the thick of it. As much as you can talk about Guam’s problems, it’s totally different to read it in your daily newspaper and then go and sit in the traffic described by the report. "Inadequate infrastructure" is an abstract problem until there is an experience to accompany the academic investigation. After some time sitting on overcrowded highways today, I’ve understood more about the impact of Guam’s inadequate infrastructure.

Left: Caitlin Contag (left) and another USC student swim a transect on Western Shoals reef in Apra Harbor as a butterfly fish watches the action. Photo by Jim Haw.


Another front-page headline from today: "Destitute migrants a burden."

The article describes an additional challenge to Guam’s already struggling infrastructure by immigrants. The articles in the newspaper are markedly negative; the authors describe the immigrants as unfairly consuming Guam’s resources and write with resentment. Not only will there be additional population growth as a result of the military buildup, but Guam’s population is rising rapidly due to immigration. Guam often unequally bears the burden of impoverished immigrants in Micronesia, because it is the most well-developed island in the region. When a politician very mistakenly said that Guam might tip over as a result of the buildup, he was alluding to the problems of population increases on an island. Islands are small and reach their "tipping point" quickly. Even if the military buildup is coupled with an population increase, there will be great burdens put on such a small island with many people. There is only so far you can build on an island before you reach ocean in any direction. It’s very possible that there just won’t be room for the new infrastructure. 

On the front page, each day: "Daily Guam Memorial Hospital Capacity"

Yesterday, Guam’s only hospital was at 95 percent capacity. Today, it is at 98 percent capacity. A day after writing a draft of this post, I had to visit that hospital when I irritated an ear diving. Dan Rather showed a picture of this newspaper text box in his report and at the time, I didn’t think much of it. But now that I’m holding in my hands the newspapers with the hospital bed reports in red on the front page, I realized this is another indication that Guam is already flirting with the tipping point. One serious disease outbreak could very easily push Guam’s hospital from just under capacity to way over capacity and create a huge public health problem on the island. 

I never would have felt so strongly about these problems or understood the serious nature of the military buildup debate were I not in the middle of it all. Everything I experience is interconnected — from the Apra Harbor reefs to the newspaper headlines to our lectures to how we are received on Guam tells the island’s story. For example, yesterday morning the beach was crowded and this morning at the same time it was almost empty. It seems that the seasonal catch of manahak (juvenile rabbit fish) was no longer being caught. This cessation of fishing was an event predicted by the tide tables given to us yesterday by a member of the Department of Agriculture and by the vendors selling the last of the catch at high prices along the side of the road. In order to see these small changes and connect the anecdotes into a cohesive story, we need to be here. It’s like learning a new language: immersion is the best way. 

Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This four-week course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the 24-student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam, Palau and other Micronesian islands.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Environmental Studies Lecturer Dave Ginsburg, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies

About the Author: Caitlin Contag is a senior working toward a bachelor’s degree in public policy, management and planning at USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development. She is recording her experiences on Catalina Island and in Guam and Palau on her blog Avoiding Narcosis

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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