Assessing Barbuda’s Ecosystems – What’s Under the Water?

Barbuda Expedition Scientists*
Barbuda Expedition Scientists*

Before making changes to ocean management, it helps to know something about the status of living creatures and ecosystems you’re trying to use sustainably. So, nine marine biologists* (plus me makes ten) descended on Barbuda in May to conduct an ecological assessment of the fish, coral, lobster, conch, and water quality within 3 miles of shore. This was part of the Waitt Foundation’s Barbuda Ocean Initiative, which aims to use ocean zoning plus fisheries management to achieve sustainable, profitable, and enjoyable use of ocean resources.

Led by ecologist Dr. Benjamin Ruttenberg, we dove at 250 sites (see map) around the island, counting and measuring key species, taking photos and water samples. It was a successful collaboration between scientists, newly certified local SCUBA divers from (from the Fisheries Department, Codrington Lagoon National Park, and Tourism Department), and local fishermen. The new local divers (see blog post about their dive training) worked alongside the scientists, and received training in the research methodologies.

Left to right, Baggas (fisherman), Jenn (scientist), Alexander (Lagoon Park Ranger), and Chaz (fisherman) collaborate on lobster assessments.
Left to right, Baggas (fisherman), Jenn (scientist), Alexander (Lagoon Park Ranger), and Chaz (fisherman) collaborate on lobster assessments.

The data are still being analyzed, but I just couldn’t wait for the report to be done to share with you some of the *very* preliminary results.

In general, our research supports the stories I have been hearing from Barbudan fishermen – there has been overfishing and the reefs are degraded. Much of what we saw were juveniles, babies, indicating that the adults have been depleted by fishing. However, Barbuda’s marine ecosystem is unique and productive, and water quality appears to be very good.

Fish: Populations of herbivorous (i.e. algae eating) fish, most importantly parrotfish and surgeonfish, are low. The large species of parrotfish (midnight, blue, and rainbow), the ones that fishermen report they used to be able to just shoot from shore, are virtually absent. Protecting parrotfish, which eat the algae that can overgrow and interfere with coral, will be a key step in coral reef recovery. Large groupers (e.g. Nassau grouper) are rare, but still present. There lots juvenile fish in Condrington Lagoon.

Though surrounded by algae, the endangered Elkhorn Coral is regrowing in some locations.
Though surrounded by algae, the endangered Elkhorn Coral is regrowing in some locations.

Corals: Barbuda’s coral reefs are unique. Compared to the rest of the Caribbean, the corals here occur at different levels of abundances, and have different shapes and colors. The amount of living coral is low, but much of the coral death seems to be recent – within the last 10-20 years. Many of the remaining corals appear healthy and there are many juvenile corals. Levels of algae are high, hindering the growth of coral.

Lobster and Conch: Fishermen are certainly better at catching lobster than scientists, so we went diving with local fishermen and quantified their catches. There are more lobster and conch in Barbuda relative to other places in the Caribbean, but that may say more about how bad it is other places than how good it is here. More data on lobster and conch are needed than we were able to collect in the short time we were there. We plan to continue the collaboration with fishermen, and set up a monitoring program to be carried out by the Fisheries Department and Lagoon Park (whose staffs have received training from the scientists).

Scientists working with Barbudan Fisheries Division staff to survey the conch population.
Scientists working with Barbudan Fisheries Division staff to survey the conch population.

Codrington Lagoon: The Lagoon appears to be in good shape – clear water, healthy seagrass, and extensive mangroves. Juvenile lobster is abundant inside the Lagoon, however no legal sized lobsters were observed in the Lagoon. The Lagoon provides critical nursery habitat for lobster and fish. The Lagoon is a treasure, and is almost certainly the key to the island’s fisheries.

Abundant mangroves, healthy seagrass, and clear water in Codrington Lagoon.
Abundant mangroves, healthy seagrass, and clear water in Codrington Lagoon.

Conclusions: Barbuda’s marine ecosystem is at a tipping point. Fishers report that coral, fish, lobster, and conch populations are much lower than they used to be. They report having to go further from port, into deeper waters, and use more advanced gear in order to make fishing trips worthwhile. Many other Caribbean islands have experienced similar declines but have failed to act, with the result that their ecosystems and fisheries have plummeted. For the economy and culture of Barbuda, it is critical to learn from the mistakes of others and prevent this crash.

There is still enough life left in Barbuda’s waters, enough juveniles and good water quality, that I expect the ecosystem would stabilize, and coral, fish, lobster, and conch populations could begin to recover if sound, bold management is put in place.

Evans (Barbudan fisherman) catching lobster as part of our collaborative research.
Evans (Barbudan fisherman) catching lobster as part of our collaborative research.

So, what are we going to do with all the data we have collected? We will return to Barbuda in July to present the full results to the Barbuda Council, Fisheries Department, Codrington Lagoon National Park, and the people of Barbuda. (I’ll share the formal findings with you here as well.) Then, this ecological data will be a key input into the process of zoning Barbuda’s waters.

Here’s to science-based management!

Bess (Barbudan fisherman) and Ayana doing their best lobster impersonations. (I need some practice.)
Bess (Barbudan fisherman) and me doing lobster impersonations. (I need practice.)

* The fantastic researchers: Benjamin Ruttenberg (lead scientist), Jennifer Caselle, Andy Estep, Dave Grenda, Kristen Marhaver, Lee Richter, Stuart Sandin, Jennifer Smith, and Mark Vermeij.

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 writes about how we can use the ocean without using it up here on National Geographic and @ayanaeliza.

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