3 Steps to Community-Driven Ocean Zoning

Co-authored with Will McClintock

Ocean zoning is a simple concept. As on land, where there are industrial, commercial, residential, agricultural, and conservation zones, you can’t do everything in the same place at the same time in the ocean. Zoning ensures that each key use of the ocean is allocated appropriate space, and these different uses don’t conflict.

However, accommodating the preferences of multiple stakeholders, balancing the various uses of the ocean, and ensuring science and data are the foundation of decision making is no small undertaking. This big task is what we are taking on in Barbuda with the Blue Halo Initiative, a collaboration with the Barbuda Council (local government) and citizens of Barbuda, funded by the Waitt Institute.

The manager and a ranger from Codrington Lagoon Park discuss ocean zoning with SeaSketch.
The manager and a ranger from Codrington Lagoon Park discuss ocean zoning with SeaSketch. (Photo: Ayana)

Right now in Barbuda we are at the stage where consensus evolved around a zoning plan, and the Barbuda Council submitted this draft plan to the central government in Antigua for review. (Policy nerds: the full draft zoning regulations are available on the Initiative’s website.) The process of community-driven ocean zoning that has gotten us to this point can be broken down into three steps:

    1. Establish scientific guidelines
    2. Identify stakeholder priorities
    3. Balance stakeholder preferences while meeting science guidelines

In other words, the goal is to figure out how to develop a zoning plan that supports the mission of the Initiative: “sustainable, profitable, and enjoyable use of ocean resources for this and future generations.”

The scientific guidelines focus on rules-of-thumb for creating an effective system of sanctuary zones (closed permanently to all fishing) that can restore ecosystems and replenish fisheries. Based on analysis of case studies, and models of what could lead to restoration and replenishment, the guidelines are: (a) set aside 1/3 of the coastal waters as sanctuaries (marine reserves) closed to fishing, and leave 2/3 open to fishing, (b) ensure 1/3 of each key habitat type is included in the sanctuaries (i.e., not all sand, but also coral reef, and seagrass), (c) design sanctuaries so they are at minimum two kilometers wide; and (d) protect as much juvenile/nursery habitat as possible.

Draft zoning plan for the coastal waters around Barbuda as of December 2013.
Draft zoning plan for the coastal waters around Barbuda as of December 2013.

The key stakeholder priorities were (a) ensuring that culturally important areas remained open to fishing, (b) limiting damaging types of fishing, and (c) creating anchoring/mooring zones so they could limit where anchoring occurs and start charging fees.

So, how do we actually go about facilitating the process of finding the place where scientific guidelines and stakeholder priorities meet? First, we compiled key data to inform the process, which, along with the science guidelines, the Barbuda Council used to create a draft zoning plan for community feedback. Then, by consulting with community members, we iterated through several revisions of the map to accommodate as many stakeholder preferences as possible while still meeting the scientific guidelines.

The key data: It’s easy to get sucked in to gathering all the data possible, but here in Barbuda just a few pieces of information have been central to decision making:

    • map of coastal habitats (to determine how to reach the 1/3 of each type guideline),
    • high-resolution satellite image (to be able to see terrestrial and marine landmarks),
    • place names (to orient stakeholders),
    • locations of important fishing areas (to ensure not too many prime spots get closed off), and
    • zoning region boundary (in our case, the one league coastal zone under the Council’s jurisdiction)

The key stakeholders in Barbuda are the fishermen, tourism sector, broader community, and local government (including Fisheries Division and Codrington Lagoon Park).

Two Barbudan fishermen describe their fishing grounds and preferred placement of sanctuaries.
Two Barbudan fishermen describe their fishing grounds and preferred placement of sanctuaries. (Photo: Ayana)

The evolution of the zoning plan: No one on the Waitt team designed any of the prospective zones. The stakeholders designed the zones. This is where SeaSketch comes in. SeaSketch is a tool for integrating and visualizing all the data, sketching plans, capturing stakeholders’ preferences for the alternatives, and determining if the plans meet the scientific guidelines. (Tada!)

Here in Barbuda the process started with the Barbuda Council creating a plan that served as a strawman for the community to react to. (See below.) We then shared that with the community and discussed in it detail with many fishermen, who responded with what they did and did not support. This involved sitting with people at the docks and on the side of the road to figure out zoning solutions that would work for them.

Fishermen, a fisheries officer, and a customs officer take a break to discuss ocean zoning with members of the Waitt team. (Photo: Will)

Over several rounds of stakeholder input, the initial proposed zones changed radically (see Council’s original August 2013 strawman below), but still met the science guidelines.

    • Two prospective sanctuary zones on the east coast were merged into one so that fishermen would have larger continuous areas for fishing.
    • The southeastern sanctuary was shifted north, and northern and southern sanctuaries were made smaller to open up more hard-bottom area for lobster diving.
    • Boundaries were straightened and shifted to align with recognizable terrestrial landmarks to ease compliance and enforcement.
    • Cove at southern end of island opened to maintain access to culturally-important fishing area used during camping.
Draft zoning plan for the coastal waters around Barbuda as of August 2013.
Draft zoning plan for the coastal waters around Barbuda as of August 2013. This strawman proposal was created by the Barbuda Council for feedback from the community.

Grounding the conversation in data: While refining the zoning plans, we used SeaSketch to answer a wide array of questions: How will this affect fishermen’s preferred fishing areas? If we change this boundary will there still be enough seagrass protected? When a question came up, we used the data and analytics within SeaSketch to answer it and make discussions more concrete and less speculative.

One way to think of SeaSketch is lots of fancy math and computer code behind the scenes, a sophisticated tool that enables straightforward comparisons between different zoning options and clear discussion. We unburdened stakeholders, empowering them to make decisions grounded in data without having to perform complex analysis.

Will McClintock gives an introduction to SeaSketch for the staff of Barbuda Fisheries and Codrington Lagoon Park.
Will McClintock gives a workshop on SeaSketch for the staff of Barbuda Fisheries and Codrington Lagoon Park. (Photo: Ayana)

When to call it good: The iterations can be infinite, so it’s important to have a deadline that effectively limits the number of iterations. While the goal is to maximize ecological, economic, and cultural benefits, there is unlikely to be any plan that everyone is 100% happy with. There will always be a vocal minority, so political and social leaders will need to acknowledge that and commit to implementing the plan that best meets the community’s needs and leads to sustainability.

Part of a bigger picture: The creation of a zoning plan is one part of the initiative in Barbuda, with fishing regulations and an implementation plan being the other two. Setting aside sanctuary zones is far less meaningful if fishing remains uncontrolled and destructive in surrounding areas. Creating a beautiful zoning plan means nothing if it is not enforced.

This community-driven draft zoning plan came together in only nine months, and we hope that it will become legally implemented within the next few months. We’ll keep you updated…

For information on how these zones could be implemented, see previous blog post “Protecting Fisheries on a Budget: Low-Tech Solutions for Barbuda” written with Shah Selbe. For a 1-minute film that shows what community-driven ocean planning looks like, check out this gem from Daryn Deluco. For more information on the work in Barbuda, see our website, and check out our Facebook page and Twitter (@BarbudaBlueHalo).

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
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.