Building Local Coral Reef Management Capacity One Summer at a Time

By: Janice Castro, CNMI CRCP and CZM Management Liaison, NOAA Office for Coastal Management

Takeaway: For over two decades, the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program has supported the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) Coral Reef Initiative’s annual summer internship program for local post-secondary students to be introduced to various aspects of coral reef management and gain hands-on experience. This investment in building the jurisdiction’s local capacity has proven invaluable as the CNMI has seen an astonishing return on its investment, with former interns completing their studies abroad and coming back to fill full-time positions in the CNMI’s natural resource management agencies and non-governmental organizations.

A group of people stand in front of a building, smiling for the camera.
Former interns currently holding full-time positions with local natural resource agencies/organizations.

The CNMI Coral Reef Initiative (CRI) is a cross-agency collaboration between the Division of Environmental Quality, Division of Coastal Resources Management, and Division of Fish and Wildlife to protect and responsibly manage the Commonwealth’s coral reef ecosystems through biological monitoring, watershed management, habitat restoration, and education and outreach programs.

Recognizing the limited pool of local talent knowledgeable or trained in areas of natural resource management, the CNMI CRI developed an annual internship program targeted at college-bound students. The goal is to introduce the interns to various aspects of coral reef management and provide them with opportunities to gain real world, hands-on experience. More importantly, the internship is meant to act as a type of succession plan – aimed to inspire and encourage the next generation of environmental stewards to pursue their post-secondary studies in environmental conservation with the hope that they return and gain full-time employment within the CNMI CRI or any of its partners.

Left, a person sitting on a boat holds a sea turtle up by its shell. Right, a scuba diver tends to coral fragments hanging from an underwater nursery tree structure.
Jordan Suel during his summer internship in 2010 under the Department of Lands and Natural Resources' Sea Turtle Program (left), and his current full-time position as a Restoration Technician under the Division of Coastal Resources Management where he helps maintain CNMI's in-water coral nurseries (right).

Since its inception in 2002, the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program has provided the CNMI CRI with financial assistance to support 10 interns each summer. Each intern is placed with an experienced mentor at a participating agency or partner organization for a 10-week period where they carry out a specific conservation-related project. Over the years, interns have developed outreach materials, monitored water quality, monitored sea turtle nesting sites, mapped shoreline accretion and erosion, and the all-time fan favorite, collected long-term benthic monitoring data. In addition to their assigned projects, each cohort participates in group activities, such as reef flat monitoring and watershed field trips. Each intern is also required to complete an article on their summer project that is published in a local newspaper, and to present their project and its outcomes in a final presentation prior to the close of the internship.

Due to its continued success, the internship program was expanded in 2019 to include an additional five interns each year with funding from NOAA’s Coastal Zone Management Program. Rebranded as the annual DCRM Summer Internship Program, projects were able to cover more areas of coastal management, such as marine spatial planning and regulatory compliance. Today, the program continues to produce cycles of high caliber professionals that return to the CNMI to fill much needed capacity gaps. Approximately 25% of DCRM is staffed by former interns, with several more currently holding full-time positions at partner agencies and organizations. Past interns include the current CRI Lead Biologist, CRI Coral Restoration Coordinator, DEQ Director, and DCRM Geographic Information System Specialist, to name a few.

A group of young people in matching t-shirts stand together smiling at the camera. Many of them display the shaka symbol with their hands.
The internship cohort from summer 2023.

As the call for applications for the 2024 cohort will be announced early in 2024, we look forward to another summer of hands-on conservation projects with our talented interns. Check the DCRM Internship Program page for the upcoming announcement.

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