After earning her bachelor’s, Casidhe Mahuka joins CRAG in American Samoa
In recent years, scientists, world leaders, politicians and environmentalists have been warning us about a dire existential threat, noting that climate change poses a grave risk that needs to be urgently addressed and mitigated. As an invasive species coordinator (ISC) at the Coral Reef Advisory Group (CRAG) in American Samoa, Casidhe Mahuka ’22 is doing her part in monitoring and protecting the waters encircling the small U.S. territory.
Since graduating with a BS in Environmental Sciences, the American Samoa native has used her Chaminade education to make an impact in her community. As the ISC for CRAG, Mahuka collects ocean data and implements bi-monthly phytoplankton monitoring in association with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Phytoplankton Monitoring Network (PMN), which is a community-based network of volunteers who monitor marine phytoplankton and harmful algal blooms (HABs).
Mahuka explains that she has three overarching goals: 1) Integrate community-based methods to restore village-level ecosystems using ridge-to-reef approach in Aua and Fagasa; 2) increase invasive species management policy and activity coordination in and among local and regional organizations; and 3) bolster invasive species management in other priority sites.
“Other priorities include monitoring ballast water, biofouling, reef flats, and testing the water’s salinity, turbidity and overall quality,” Mahuka further describes. “I also work with the US Coast Guard to stay informed on stony coral tissue loss disease, the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA) and other regional biosecurity issues.”
Covering more than 70 percent of our planet, the world’s oceans play a crucial role in regulating climate and supporting diverse ecosystems. However, the alarming rise in ocean temperatures due to climate change is threatening marine life, particularly the delicate balance of coral reefs.
Primarily driven by human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, climate change has led to a significant increase in global temperatures. As a result, the world’s oceans are also experiencing warming trends, the consequences of which are far-reaching and affect marine ecosystems in various ways.
“Our ecosystems are fragile,” Mahuka says. “Although they cover only a small fraction of the ocean floor, coral reefs support about 25 percent of all marine species. The intricate structures of reefs provide habitats and food for a vast array of marine life, including fish, invertebrates and microorganisms.”
Furthermore, coral reefs act as natural barriers that protect coastlines from the impacts of storms, hurricanes and erosion. The complex structures of coral reefs also dissipate wave energy, reducing the intensity of waves that reach the shore.
Mahuka has had a passion for ocean science ever since she visited the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa in the 7th grade. It was the first time that she discovered that she could not only breathe underwater, but she could also breathe underwater for a living.
“That was it; I was totally hooked,” Mahuka says. “I was determined to be an ocean scientist because I have always loved being in the water. And to get paid for it, I was all in.”
As a member of the first cohort of students who majored in Environmental Science at Chaminade, Mahuka mirrors a growing trend among students who are pursuing their degrees in this field, marking a 24 percent increase in degrees awarded since 2016. Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows a steady uptick over five years. In the 2017–2018 academic year—the most recent year for which aggregate data is available—a total of 6,697 students earned bachelor’s degrees in environmental science. That means 1,155 more graduates earned such degrees than did five years earlier.
The trend is illustrated by Chaminade’s School of Natural Science and Mathematics’s introduction of an Environmental Science major four years ago. While a major in Environmental Studies has existed since 2000, the decision to focus on hard sciences was a natural progression for such programs.
While there is an overlap that exists between the two majors, Environmental Science is an interdisciplinary science-based major, which combines biological, ecological, chemical, geological and mathematical principles often used to solve environmental challenges or manage natural resources. Conversely, Environmental Studies is an interdisciplinary social science and humanities-based major. It focuses on the human relationship with the environment, and how environmental challenges intersect with politics, economics, society and culture.
For 10 days in November, Mahuka was aboard the Exploration Vessel Nautilus surveying previously unmapped seafloor in U.S. waters south of the Hawaiian Islands. She was selected as a Seafloor Mapping Intern by Ocean Exploration Trust (OET), an organization that works to explore the ocean, seeking out new discoveries, while pushing the boundaries of STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Math) and technological innovation.
“It was a great experience after I found my sea legs,” Mahuka says. “I definitely chose the right career because marine science allows you to travel around the world, where you get to meet and learn from amazing and intellectual people who have the exact same passion as you do!”