Partnering to Preserve the Caribbean Sea:
We Are Part of a Big, Blue Picture
by Emma Doyle
“Why is it that scuba divers and surfers are some of the strongest advocates of ocean conservation?” asks Dr. Silvia Earle, ocean explorer and former Chief Scientist at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “Because they’ve spent time in and around the ocean, and they’ve personally seen the beauty, the fragility, and even the degradation of our planet’s blue heart.”
Sailors, too, know the blue heart of the planet especially well, and all too often bear witness to its degradation. But what do we know about efforts to conserve the blue Caribbean Sea?
Most cruisers visiting the Caribbean will at some point find themselves in a marine protected area, whether by design (they’re usually special places to visit), or to their chagrin (upon learning that a favourite anchorage now comes with a fee). Whether called a marine park, reserve, managed area, environmental protection zone, sanctuary, natural monument or similar, these places by law have a special protected status that is designed to protect part of the environment and features an area or various zones where rules apply to users.
What Are Our Tools?
Ocean conservation calls on an array of familiar tools, such as fish catch limits, fishing gear regulations and no-take areas. Ocean conservation is founded on a suite of policy measures, including international treaties, multilateral conventions and country-specific laws and regulations. And ocean conservation depends upon broad-based support, ranging from international cooperation between countries, financing arrangements with donors and agreements with specialist research organizations, to shared protocols between national agencies and day-to-day compliance with regulations by local community members and visitors.
Research tells us that marine protected areas are an important and successful ocean conservation tool. So rest assured, the marine protected area in which you might have just anchored or picked up a mooring is not an invention to take advantage of cruisers, nor does it exist in isolation. It’s one of some 400 marine parks in the Caribbean. Its manager and staff will be part of a regional network and they’ll be in regular contact with their counterparts in other countries, at face-to-face meetings, electronically and no doubt via WhatsApp. The marine park’s research and education activities might well count on support or expertise from a major international partner. More and more of its rangers will have undertaken training with national or regional law enforcement agencies.
Look closely and you’ll find a host of non-profit groups, businesses and individuals helping the park to achieve its ocean conservation goals, be it through hunting invasive lionfish, growing threatened species of coral, helping fishers diversify into other livelihoods, or running targeted educational activities and communications campaigns.
We’re Part of a Big Picture
These ocean conservation activities are the result of years of planning, negotiation and organization. They’re also backed up by a host of institutions and initiatives.
The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity guides the world-wide protection of natural resources. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature administers a global Program of Work on Protected Areas.
The Caribbean Environment Programme of the United Nations Environment Program oversees international agreements for ocean conservation in the Caribbean — such as the Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment of the Wider Caribbean Region (the Cartagena Convention), the Protocol Concerning Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife of the Cartagena Convention (SPAW), the Protocol Concerning Pollution from Land-Based Sources of the Cartagena Convention, and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL).
Big environmental groups such as The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) are helping countries to apply tools and technology for ocean conservation. Through the Caribbean Challenge Initiative, governments, non-profit organizations and businesses are working to ensure the protection of at least 20 percent of nearshore and coastal habitats by 2020. Nine Caribbean countries — The Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, St. Lucia, St. Kitts & Nevis, and St. Vincent & the Grenadines — are currently members of this effort that also seeks to ensure long-term financing for marine protected areas through the establishment of a Caribbean Biodiversity Fund and a series of National Conservation Trust Funds.
Experts in many specialist topics are lending support to Caribbean marine protected areas. MPA Enforcement International is led by Retired Captain Jayson Horadam, formerly captain of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s law-enforcement team. In recent years, he’s been working with local law enforcement agencies and international donors to help train some 265 rangers in 15 Caribbean countries and territories in how to apply the law, and at the same time how to be good ambassadors for the ocean.
Balancing Costs and Benefits
Ocean conservation makes sense, and importantly it makes economic sense. But it’s also a reality that long-term conservation benefits involve short-term economic costs. For fishermen, that means the loss of access to their former fishing grounds on nearshore coral reefs, and the increased burden of costs to fish farther offshore for pelagic species. For others, it means paying for a permit to run a dive or tourism business associated with a protected area. For cruisers, it might mean paying a visitor’s, anchoring or mooring fee, and will involve a request to use your holding tank while in the protected area.
Benefits of marine protected areas do accrue, albeit at the ocean’s own pace of regeneration. By protecting marine habitats from anchor or net damage and from pollution, fish and wildlife can find a home in coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds. These habitats in turn serve to protect coastal communities from storms and the impacts of climate change, and provide a solid foundation for tourism economies. The spillover of fish from no-take reserves into adjoining areas replenishes the local fisheries that underpin livelihoods and provide food security. But protected areas need to be large enough to bring real benefits, and most Caribbean marine parks are small (on average less than 750 square kilometres). So it’s essential that those areas are networked together, that they work with each other, and that management across the network is as effective as possible.
Human Resources for Marine Protection
Working diligently behind the scenes to build human capacity for the effective management of marine protected areas are several important partners. NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program and the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute (GCFI), for example, work in partnership with Caribbean marine protected areas to strengthen local management capacity and to help share successful management practices from within and beyond the Caribbean. From the Blue Hole Natural Monument in Belize to the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park in The Bahamas, from the Soufriere Marine Managed Area in St. Lucia to The Baths in the British Virgin Islands, and from the National Parks Commission of Mexico to the locally managed marine protected areas in the Grenadines, there is a lot of existing knowledge to share.
Meetings arranged by the GCFI and NOAA partnership have helped park managers to share ideas about sustainable finance strategies, law enforcement and compliance, socio-economic monitoring, education programmes and, most recently, biological monitoring. Twenty-five coral reef managers and marine biologists came together in September 2016 “in the field” in Carriacou, Grenada where they exchanged information on ocean and coral reef health, shared experiences in applying biological monitoring methods, and examined best management practices with their peers and with technical experts. Each marine park has unique needs, so tailored assistance is now helping to put lessons learned at that meeting into action back home. Of course, working in conservation means the scale of support is hardly large. But focused and sustained assistance from partners like NOAA and GCFI, even with limited funding, means responding to local needs that in turn will tangibly enhance ocean conservation.
Keep Our Allies in Mind
Next time you’re in a marine protected area and meet the ranger who’s working at the frontlines of ocean conservation, give a thought to the efforts and hopes of so many other allies near and far who are riding along in that patrol boat, too. They — and we — all play a role in ensuring a sustainable future for the Caribbean Sea and the coastal communities we visit.
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