Changing Planet

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.

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.
  • Rachel Dearborn

    Yay sharks is right!

  • Paul Black

    Ayana, good job on giving the Bahamas positive reenforcement on our conservation measures. We need the support as well as more effort from our Government on establishing and enforcing conservational natural habitat.

    I bet you weren’t shown Bell Island though. Smack in the center of the Exuma Park is a cay owned by the Agha Khan. He has blasted drilled dug and dredged thousands of tons of rock for two marinas and his own private resort. How is this possible in a “no take” zone you ask? Ask our PM how many rides he’s had in the Khans’ helicopter etc.

    This is comparable to the Shah of Iran building a temple complex in the middle of your Yellowstone Park. That is no exaggeration. Our government tells its people that it cannot catch fish to feed their families in a specific area, then lets a wealthy foreigner to destroy land and reefs for miles around.

    How in our most sacred park???? Spend less time looking like a travel writer and more time asking questions that a real conservationist might on your next visit please. Then re-write this article. Thank you.

    • Paul, thank you for commenting. I did consider including this issue in my blog but chose to take the positive re-enforcement approach, as you noted. I did see many privately-owned islands in the Exumas from boat and plane, and did indeed notice some development that certainly can not be considered sustainable, including the dredging and marina building you describe. Yes, I too would very much like to see that type development stopped. It is my understanding that while Exuma Park is managed by the Bahamas National Trust (BNT), they do not have control over the development of private islands within the park, unfortunately. However, I have heard that BNT is working with Harvard University to create clear policy guidelines for future development within the Park boundaries. Hopefully those efforts will receive support from the highest political levels, and stricter environmental standards for development will be applied nation-wide. On a positive note, Johnny Depp’s island seems to be a model of an environmentally responsible approach to development, with a small footprint, and I’m sure it’s still quite nice there.

  • Dan Brumbaugh

    Great to read about your recent trip to The Bahamas — you were lucky to visit some beautiful places. I wholeheartedly agree that the country offers plenty of opportunities for additional investments in marine conservation through new AND enhanced MPAs and fisheries management.

    • Dan, thanks for reading and commenting. I am lucky indeed! Not only to get to see these beautiful place, but to get to work with great people pushing for expansion of the Bahamas’ network of MPAs. For more on this, check out my newest blog post about my return trip to Nassau last week:

  • Patti Mulligan

    I appreciate your positive article on the Bahamas, however, if you really want to “dive into ocean issues” you might want to consider what has happened to the Great Guana Cay reef at the Baker’s Bay Golf & Ocean Club on Great Guana Cay, Abaco, Bahamas. Discovery Land Company (an American company located in Scottsdale, AZ) purchased private and government lands to develop an upscale community, marina and golf course on approximately 1/3 of tiny Great Guana Cay. Fearing pollution (mainly from the golf course) and the loss of their way of life, the local community fought this development and spent years in the courts to stop it’s progress, to no avail. The marina and golf course are now completed as well as a number of homes. Baker’s Bay agreed to do continued monitoring before and after construction, in fact, it was part of the legal documents between the developer and the Bahamian government. Baker’s Bay has not done the continued monitoring and now the Great Guana Cay Reef (which runs the length of the island) is suffering the consequences from the golf course nutrient runoff according to a scientific paper published in January of 2012. It is my understanding from reliable parties involved that neither Discovery/Baker’s Bay nor the Bahamian government have done anything to address this issue. A copy of that paper, as well as the history and commentary can be found at, or, or
    So, while it is a great idea to set aside property for land and sea parks, and that the Bahamian government speaks about preserving their natural treasures for future generations, if the reef surrounding Guana Cay dies from this continued pollution, the residents will lose their way of life and source of income-fishing/diving/tourism.
    I hope I’ve at least peaked your interest. Feel free to contact me for additional information or to put you in touch with the scientists, attorneys and/or parties directly involved. Thank you.

  • Patti, thanks very much for your comment and for providing the links to more information. This kind of development is certainly concerning – especially without adequate science for the planning and monitoring phases. Working with officials to act on the principles they verbalize is often a challenge. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to get involved in this particular issue (you’ll see why in my next blog post about a new initiative I’m launching in Barbuda), but it sounds like you have very active and informed community members working on this project, which is a great step in the right direction. Best of luck with your efforts.

  • Patricia Mulligan

    Sorry you are unable to get involved in the Baker’s Bay issue at Guana Cay, but I appreciate your response. Because of your recent trip to the Bahamas, you might be interested in a new coalition (with some high profile members and supporters) which was just formed to protect the waters of the Bahamas, Coalition to Protect Clifton Bay. Their website is and on that website there is a petition to Prime Minister Christie which includes, among other items, a request to enact environmental legislation for the Bahamas. This much needed legislation would protect all of the Bahamas.
    Several Bahamian papers covered this new coalition:
    The petition can be directly found at
    Perhaps you and/or some of your colleagues would consider attaching your names. Best of luck with your Barbuda work and us Abaco/Guana folks will slog on!

  • Patricia, thank you again for your comment and providing the associated resources. I have some very sharp colleagues who are working on the Clifton Bay issue, so I am optimistic (as I perennially seem to be) that there will be positive steps there, and I’ll leave it in their capable hands. I wish there were more hours in the day, but I have to force myself to stay focused in order to get some things accomplished. But always a pleasure to have reminders from engaged citizens about the urgency of ocean conservation work. Thank you.

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (

Social Media