Omar Zayas Cruz, a marine biologist dedicated to expanding on our knowledge and conservation of octopuses, shares with us his inspirations, research, and aspirations for the future. Scroll down to read the interview (English) or watch the full interview (Spanish).
What is your name, where are you from, and how did you develop a connection to the ocean?
My name is Omar Zayas Cruz and I am from Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Since my childhood, my life has revolved around the ocean and natural resources. My earliest experiences with the ocean and its species were on fishing trips with my father and uncle off the coast of my hometown, and during elementary school, I was able to identify some species of fish such as mackerel and mahi mahi. In 2011, I immersed myself in my first snorkeling experiences in Cayo Caracoles along with my family, and we observed fish, urchins, corals, marine algae, star fish, and sea cucumbers up close. With every visit to the ocean, my desire to explore has increased. In 2016, I visited Isla Magüeyes for the first time as a university student. During that trip, I recalled all of the instances in muy childhood that were spent in the ocean and among marine life. Ever since that moment, I have known that the ocean and my life are synonymous.
What is your specific field of marine science and what inspired you to work in this area?
When I began my studies in the Department of Marine Science at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, I decided to study the octopus because it is the third highest invertebrate that is most fished for in Puerto Rico. This invertebrate is also of great gastronomic importance, as it used in many typical Puerto Rican foods. Despite its importance, few studies have been done on octopuses in Puerto Rico. I currently work in a biodiversity and marine genomics laboratory extracting DNA from octopuses to evaluate the genetic connection across the populations that surround the archipelago.
Why is your project important and why should we, as a community, take interest?
Studying the genetic connection between octopuses in Puerto Rico will allow us to have a better understanding of the ranges of dispersion across the species, the genetic differences across populations, and the environmental factors or historical events which are responsible for creating these genetic variances. The information obtained from this research will help us make better decisions concerning the management and conservation of a species that is of high importance to the fishery.
What has been the most difficult aspect of your project and how did you overcome it?
One of the biggest challenges that I have faced in my project is acquiring funds for my research. After three years of sending proposals to different organizations, I obtained the necessary amount to cover the costs. Another challenge that I overcame was to bring together octopus samples from all over the archipelago during the pandemic. Furthermore, the season for fishing octopus changes depending on the region and I had to plan my sampling efforts around climate and the availability of the fishermen. As a consequence, it took me one year to collect sixty samples. Without a doubt, the voluntary help I received and the experience of the fishermen with octopus made collecting those sixty samples for my thesis possible.
How do you envision the relationship between communities and marine ecosystems in Puerto Rico in the future?
As an islander and student of Biological Oceanography, I understand that in the future, our communities will have a greater interest in our marine ecosystems, especially those of us that live in coastal areas. Today, many initiatives are emerging in distinct towns that are involving their communities in the preservation and conservation of these ecosystems. To mention a few, Isla Mar and Protectores de Cuencas have organized projects in the southern and western parts of Puerto Rico where they offer educational workshops to the communities, and, on the east side is La Sociedad Ambiente Marino. Each of these organizations want the same thing--to educate the community on marine ecosystems and coastal ecosystems through workshops on corals, fish, water quality, erosion and sedimentation, just to name a few.
"As an islander and student of Biological Oceanography, I understand that in the future, our communities will have a greater interest in our marine ecosystems, especially those of us that live in costal areas."
What do you plan to do with your degree moving forward?
I want to apply the knowledge that I have acquired to projects that help conserve and protect marine ecosystems and coastal communities which are affected by climate change and pollution more and more every year. One of my interests is with the role that fisheries and communities (that interact directly or indirectly with the ocean) play in conservation. Another way in which I want to provoke change is through participating in the creation of public policies that adjust to the present and the future in order to better the quality of life and conservation of our communities and coastal and marine ecosystems.
This interview was translated into English by Anna Posada.
Watch Omar's full interview here.
Omar's Seed Fund project is supported by Medalla Light. Follow along here and on our social media to watch for more updates on her project!