By Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Waitt Foundation, ayanaelizabeth [at] gmail.com
As is easy to do, I have fallen in love with Barbuda. It’s magical. The community, the beaches, the children, the tranquility, the seafood, the ingenuity. But from photographs and stories, it’s clear that when you literally dive beneath the surface, Barbuda is not as magnificent underwater as it once was, or as it could be.
The reefs are covered with algae, smothered; very little living coral remains. Palastar Reef, once splendid, is now a graveyard of coral skeletons, and a ghost town with few fish. Fish, lobster, and conch are becoming scarce. Fishermen take more risks and go further from shore and into deeper waters for their catches, and even then the refrain is “it’s not like it used to be.”
This is serious. It’s a threat to Barbuda’s economy, livelihoods, food security, and culture, all of which depend on the ocean.
This is why the Waitt Institute has been supporting and collaborating with the community, fishermen, and government to develop a plan to restore the waters around Barbuda. There is hope. There are baby fish and corals; the water is clean – the ocean can be abundant again. The ocean can be used in a way that is simultaneously sustainable, profitable, and enjoyable, and that is the goal of the Barbuda Blue Halo Initiative.
I have interviewed over a hundred fishers and community members on Barbuda to understand their concerns and priorities. I heard: illegal fishing is a problem; the use of nets is new and destructive; people are starting to heavily target parrotfish (herbivores that eat algae and “clean the reef”); and the catching of baby fish, conch, and lobster (thereby preventing reproduction and a next generation) is prevalent.
As Josiah Deazle (also known as Papa Joe, Barbuda’s oldest active fisherman, and featured in a previous blog post “Listen to Your Elders”) said to me:
“This is no joke. This is a serious serious serious thing. If you’re in a country and you mash up your own livelihood what is going to happen?
Parrotfish is my favorite fish to eat because I have no teeth anymore. How I’m going to eat boney fish? … But catch of parrotfish should be banned. People are taking so much of them the reef is gonna die.
If it go good, it’s good for everybody; if it go bad, it’s bad for everybody. It’s everybody’s business.”
He has seen the reefs and fisheries decline, but even he is not without hope, saying, “There’s supposed to be a solution to every problem.”
So we are working toward solutions, toward addressing the community’s concerns. Here’s the plan: (1) strictly manage fishing, (2) zone the coastal waters, and (3) monitor and enforce it. Of course that’s easier said than done, so here’s a bit more detail.
The Barbuda Council (island government) has authority to manage the costal waters around Barbuda out to one league (around 3.5 miles) from shore, and within that area (in addition to implementing the new national fishing regulations) the Council is considering: requiring fishing permits so they can keep track of who is fishing; banning the catch of parrotfish and urchins (key herbivores); banning the use of nets on the reefs and other key areas; and restricting the catch of sharks. In sum, it’s time to end fishing of whatever, whenever, however, because that doesn’t end well.
Community-driven ocean zoning will be the other key tool. On land there are residential areas, commercial areas, industrial areas, and agricultural areas. The ocean can be zoned in the same way. You can’t do all activities in all areas without conflict, so there will be mooring zones, recreational zones, shipping lanes, and sanctuary zones.
Sanctuary zones will be areas permanently closed to all fishing. Inside the sanctuaries, fish will reproduce and then spill out into the surrounding areas where fishing occurs, and improve fishermen’s catches. Just like when you leave the faucet on and a sink overflows, the sanctuaries will be a permanent source of replenishment for the fishery.
The Barbuda Council is on track to have a suite of new regulations and coastal zones in place by early 2014. Of course, laws can be meaningless words on the page if not implemented, so then comes the hard part: monitoring and enforcement. To prepare for implementation to begin in mid-2014, we are consulting with experts in enforcement technology, training local fisheries and park staff, and coordinating with the Coast Guard. The Council is planning to establish a dedicated fund to pay for monitoring and enforcement.
However, even if enforcement is perfect and no one breaks any of the rules, recovery of Barbuda’s coastal ecosystems will take time. Lobster and conch take three or more years before they grow big enough to reproduce, and some groupers and snappers take even longer. Most corals grow only a centimeter a year. There is so much algae and not yet enough parrotfish to eat it – our research showed the reefs are currently 79 percent algae and only 2.6 percent live coral!
But evidence from other places around the world where similar measures have been put in place shows that improved management will work. The ocean will become more abundant. Habitats will recover. We can use the ocean without using it up. This and future generations can enjoy the delicious seafood, exciting snorkeling, lucrative tourism, and protection from storms that healthy coastal ecosystems provide.
My role, and the Institute’s role, is to facilitate Barbuda’s work to restore the ocean by providing a team of technical experts, engaging the community, making policy recommendations, and building local capacity. The Waitt Institute can’t determine the final policies or outcomes – nor should we. It’s up to the people and the government of Barbuda to decide what will work for Barbuda, to decide what steps they will take. We are thrilled to be supporting Barbudans as they head toward a sustainable future. I already love Barbuda, and I hope that soon, underwater, there will be even more to love.
For more information and updates about the Barbuda Blue Halo Initiative, please check out our website, Facebook page, and Twitter feed. This piece was originally published on January 14 on the National Geographic blog.