More Marine Protected Areas Coming Soon to the Bahamas?

Last month I had the pleasure not only of traveling among Bahamian islands, but of seeing them through the eyes of local conservation organizations. As manager of the Waitt Foundation’s grant to The Nature Conservancy (TNC), I was there looking for ways we could further ensure successful expansion of the Bahamas’ network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). [Note: For more on the Waitt Foundation and my role there, see my previous (and first!) Ocean Views post.] So, with TNC’s Eleanor Phillips (North Caribbean Director) and Shenique Albury (Senior Policy Advisor), via tiny planes and small boats, I went to learn about the local organizations they partner with and see project sites firsthand.

Left to right: Eric Carey (BNT), Eleanor Phillips (TNC), Minister Dorsett, and me.
L. to R.: Eric Carey (BNT), Eleanor Phillips (TNC), Hon. Kenred Dorsett (Minister of Environment), and me.

In Nassau, the capital city, I was honored to meet with Mr. Dorsett, Minister of Environment and Housing, the Bahamas National Trust (BNT, which manages the country’s MPAs), and the Department of Marine Resources. We discussed the need to empower local communities to participate in the designation of new MPAs, the importance of economic data on the effects of MPA expansion, the need to create a sustained awareness campaign about the benefits of fish sanctuaries (where no fishing occurs), and the perennial challenge of how to prevent illegal fishing. Much to do, but Mr. Dorsett’s recent appointment as Minister is cause for hope that sustainable ocean management will get the thoughtful attention it requires.

East Abaco Creek proposed MPA site.
Proposed East Abaco Creek MPA site.

While many important ocean management decisions are made in the capital, I was eager to get to the “Family Islands,” to see the locations whose protection was being discussed in these city meetings.

On Abaco, we explored the proposed East Abaco Creeks National Park with Friends of the Environment. I learned about Friends’ wonderful education and community engagement programs, and their goal to increase the amount of environmental research conducted on the island. I snorkeled in the surprisingly vibrant tidal flats, and made some failed attempts at fly-casting for bonefish. When I confessed this failure to my boss, he responded, “fly fishing is all about zen.” Given my excitement about the creatures I was spotting, I could not have been further from a meditative state. “Ooh! Cassiopeia upside-down jellyfish!” However, in such a lovely setting I’d happily try my hand again at this catch-and-release fishing that is such a big recreational draw for the Bahamas, and whose proponents tend to be conservation-minded.

View from the headquarters of Exuma Land and Sea Park. Makes me want to become a sailor.

 

Next we arrived at Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park via my first ever flight on a sea plane. That did not disappoint – a plane landing on the water and pulling right up to the beach?! From Park Administrator Andrew Kris, I learned about how the Park keeps itself running by collecting mooring fees and making use of passing sailors as park volunteers. We snorkeled, saw four reef sharks (yay sharks!) and swimming pigs (hysterical). Despite the delightful diversions, discussions here, as on every island came back to the challenges of building community support and ensuring adequate enforcement in such a large and sparsely populated set of islands.

Exuma adventures: snorkeling, reef sharks, sea plane, and swimming pigs.
Exuma adventures: snorkeling, reef sharks, sea plane, and swimming pigs.

 

Ocean conservation work from my office in Washington, DC can get abstract. Absurd as it may sound, I sometimes lose touch with the wondrous magnificence of the ocean. Doing cartwheels on the beach, swimming with graceful and goofy sea creatures, and hearing about the real challenges of implementing sound ocean management on the ground were my reality check about both how much hard work remains to be done, and why it’s overwhelmingly worth the effort. The good news is there are a bunch of dedicated people in the Bahamas working hard to improve ocean management. I hope to be reporting some MPA victories to you soon.

Til next time, you can find me (@ayanaeliza) on Twitter sharing pieces of ocean conservation news I find compelling.

Changing Planet

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Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, policy expert, conservation strategist, and Brooklyn native. She is founder and president of Ocean Collectiv, a consulting firm for ocean conservation strategies grounded in social justice. She teaches at New York University as an adjunct professor, and was co-director of partnerships for the March for Science. As executive director of the Waitt Institute, Ayana co-founded the Blue Halo Initiative and led the Caribbean’s first successful island-wide ocean zoning effort. Previously, she worked on ocean policy at the EPA and NOAA, and was recently a TED resident and Aspen Institute fellow. She envisions and works toward a healthy ocean that supports food security, economies, and cultures. Find her @ayanaeliza.