Flats are shallow marine environments that play important roles in the dynamics of coastal ecosystems. Tropical and subtropical nearshore flats provide habitat for many marine and coastal species. These habitats, including mangrove creeks and seagrass beds, help support biodiversity and maintain important ecological functions, such as nutrient export among marine ecosystems. Many species inhabiting nearshore flats are also economically important and support commercial and recreational fisheries.
Unfortunately, nearshore flats tend to be the focus of coastal development and other human activities resulting in habitat destruction and reductions in species diversity and abundance. Given their ecological and economic importance, strategic conservation initiatives are sorely needed to help protect tropical and subtropical flats. Understanding the ecology and dynamics of flats is crucial for the effective management of coastal environments. In the Bahamian Archipelago, shallow flats are extremely common and help support commercial and recreational fisheries as well as the tourism industry. Despite their importance, nearshore flats are still poorly understood as are the long-term consequences of human disturbances in these environments.
In April 2004, the Cape Eleuthera Institute launched the Flats Ecology and Conservation Program (FECP) to connect primary research with education and outreach to foster a sense of wonder and responsibility for the conservation of tropical and subtropical flats. The goal of the FECP is to use an integrated approach to develop a more complete understanding of nearshore flats and how to use them in a sustainable manner. With this in mind, we are working at multiple scales to identify key linkages in flats ecosystems as well as assess the role of natural and anthropogenic disturbance in structuring inshore habitats.
New research projects (both directly to CEI and via a contract to Carleton University) are being funded by Bonefish & Tarpon Trust via the Flats Fishing Alliance, a formal partnership between BTT and the Fisheries Conservation Foundation. These funds have greatly increased the ability of the FECP to conduct cutting edge research and to educate students at the high school, undergraduate, and graduate school levels.