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Fishers and Divers Agree Coral Reefs Need Stronger Management

Policy change, even at its most efficient, is often difficult and slow. This can be especially true for conservation policy, which often involves curtailing private sector business practices. On the flip side, the policymaking process can be sped up by clear public support. That’s why the recent consensus between the Caribbean fishing and SCUBA diving...

Policy change, even at its most efficient, is often difficult and slow. This can be especially true for conservation policy, which often involves curtailing private sector business practices. On the flip side, the policymaking process can be sped up by clear public support. That’s why the recent consensus between the Caribbean fishing and SCUBA diving communities is so important – both groups understand that their coral reefs and fisheries are in serious trouble.

Over the past 45 years, Caribbean coral cover has declined by more than half. Fish populations have plummeted due to overfishing. Fishermen are having a hard time making a living. Meanwhile, SCUBA tourism has increased dramatically. It’s evident to locals who derive their livelihoods from the sea that the ocean ecosystem on which they’ve traditionally relied is deteriorating rapidly.

Interviewing Curaçaoan fishers as they sell their catch at the side of the road. (Photo courtesy A.E. Johnson)

In a study recently published in Global Ecology and Conservation (open access, free download), my Ph.D. advisor and now colleague, Dr. Jeremy B.C. Jackson, and I report our findings from interviewing 388 fishers and SCUBA instructors on the islands of Curaçao and Bonaire in 2009. I spent hundreds of hours with the interviewees developing a deep understanding of how they use the ocean, how they perceive the reefs and fisheries, and what types of management they would support.

While researching, I heard stories from fishermen who remembered a sea so full of fish they treated it like a supermarket, setting out to catch a specific fish and bringing it home for dinner. Today, they say, they often come home empty-handed. Meanwhile, SCUBA instructors show visitors seahorses and rare marine life – a practice that’s great for business, until tourists bump into sensitive corals and further damage a degraded environment. More than 95% of local fishermen and professional divers say that species they used to depend on seeing or catching are rare – or completely missing – now.

The most jarring anecdote was from a 15 year-old fisher who told me that in the stories he has heard and pictures he has seen, fishers used to show the size of their catch vertically [holding his hands off the ground]. Today, they show fish size horizontally [holding his hands a shoulder-width apart]. This decline happened in the past few decades.

Johnson and Jackson 2015 - Figure 1
Figure 1 from Johnson and Jackson 2015. Catch of spearfisher Jose Streder in 1960, (a) a goliath grouper and (b) Nassau and other groupers; and a day’s catch in 2009 (c) for one fisher using snorkel (mostly parrotfish), and (d) for two fishers using SCUBA.

Of course, though both divers and fishermen acknowledge the problem, and that they play a role in it, they’re at odds about which activities have wrought the most damage to local fish populations and the reef ecosystem. According to our research, fishermen are more aware of declining ecosystem health, but they rarely take the blame. SCUBA divers in Curaçao and Bonaire have a rosier view of reef health, but they point to fishers as the primary culprits behind its destruction. But divers also have an impact – especially as their numbers grow. Novices tend to kick the reefs, and they also want to eat local seafood for dinner. There is plenty of blame to go around – certainly including pollution, climate change, and coastal development.

Nonetheless, both fishermen and divers understand they need to make concessions in order to preserve marine wildlife. For instance, almost two thirds of divers support closing some areas to diving, while two in five fishermen support closing some areas to fishing. The large majority of interviewees believed there should be more management of both sectors.

After conducting  hundreds of interviews as part of my PhD research, it’s been an honor to come back to Curaçao with the Waitt Institute and launch the Blue Halo Initiative. I look forward to again working closely with these and other stakeholders to support the community and government in their efforts to envision, design, and implement new ocean management.

Ayana interviewing a young fisher in Curaçao - courtesy Ayana E. Johnson
Interviewing a young fisher with a translator, discussing what types of fish he most often catches. (Photo courtesy A. Johnson)

Similar interviews were conducted in Barbuda in 2013, during the community consultations that led to the Barbuda Council passing new legislation that zones their entire coastal waters and protects 33 percent of the island’s coastal area. As I wrote in a recent piece for the Huffington Post, these progressive laws have set a new standard for ocean management in the Caribbean. I’m looking forward to what the citizens of Curaçao will decide to do next.

Blue Halo Curaçao is grounded in community concerns and priorities and based on science. It’s an amazing opportunity for a fresh start, and the input of these knowledgeable groups is the most critical component. During our upcoming Listening Tour on Curaçao, we’ll be checking in with these stakeholders again to see how things have changed in the last few years – we are especially keen to hear what ocean laws they would put in place if given the pen.

The consensus I heard in 2009 is atypical among industries competing for the same natural resources, and that’s why I’m optimistic for the future of ocean conservation in the Caribbean, and that its governments can translate public concern and support into actionable reform.


To learn more about the work of the Waitt Institute and the Blue Halo Initiative, find @WaittInstitute on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Tumblr.

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Meet the Author

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson
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.