Alumni Spotlight: Tori Barker

Tori Barker
Marine Technician
National Park of American Samoa (NPSA)

Where are you working and how are you using your master’s degree in oceanography?
NPSA is the only National Park south of the equator and is unique in that the land is leased from local villages rather than belonging to the U.S. government. As such, we work closely with locals to try to mitigate some of the issues facing the marine environment. As a marine technician, every day is different. I designed and regularly conduct education outreach programs on the importance of coral reefs, I manage crown-of-thorns starfish populations with eradication dives, survey giant clam populations, and write grants, reports, and scientific articles. My time is spent 50 percent in the office and 50 percent in the field, usually conducting some sort of dive surveys.

What are some important aspects of your work?
American Samoa is a series of five islands and two atolls in the south central Pacific Ocean and is a territory of the United States. In many ways, the environmental issues facing American Samoa are indicative of the clash between traditional village life and Western influence. Where once village chiefs (called matais) were in charge of determining the fish harvest and rotating the fishing grounds in a form of community based conservation, now large purse seiners ply the waters of the South Pacific for giant schools of tuna. Where once food was easily disposed of through decomposition (think coconuts, bananas, papayas, etc.), now plastic litter fills the streets and washes onto the reef. Major environmental issues include both overfishing and marine debris, but coral reefs are also at risk from crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks, bleaching events, and of course, climate change.

The issues facing American Samoa reefs are both widespread and uniquely local. Like corals around the world, the reefs here are highly impacted by rising sea surface temperatures. These extreme temperatures cause bleaching and potentially coral death. On a local scale, marine debris, polluted run-off (most often in the form of animal waste), and overfishing continue to be big problems. At the National Park, we realize that these are issues that can only be combated with a large amount of local participation and support. We hire primarily Samoans, who act as our ambassadors to the community. We work with villages to reduce pollution and combat overfishing, as well as to establish nurseries for aquaculture. Every environmental project we have includes extensive work with the community to inform locals of why we’re doing what we’re doing and how they can get involved to ensure its success.

What’s your favorite aspect of your job?
One of the best aspects of my job is the tangible results of my hard work. With each clean-up, I can physically see how many tons of trash were removed from the ocean. With each educational outreach program, I meet new children who want to grow up to be “like Ranger Tori.” In many ways, my work is limited in scale to the islands of American Samoa, but on the flip side of that, it means that I can also have a very real and long-lasting impact on the health of these coral reefs and the people who rely on them.

How do you feel your time at LSU prepared you for this venture? 
I think the most important thing I learned at LSU was the ability to design my own research projects. During my master’s, I devised my sampling protocol by listening to former students’ experiences. After taking what I learned from them, I designed and modified my own sampling methodology as the project progressed. In my current position, I was placed in a role where I could more or less choose the direction I wanted to pursue. Did I want to be in charge of gear maintenance? Of soliciting grant money? Of designing my own research project? I decided to take on the role of data manager/analyst and education outreach coordinator for the marine division. Had I not had the previous experience with designing my own large-scale research project, I’m not sure I would have known all of the responsibilities associated with these tasks.