Small islands face big ocean problems, but the solutions can be simple. Set some areas aside, protect key species, and prevent habitat damage. This will benefit the economy, help ensure food security, and allow the ocean to be used sustainably, profitably, and enjoyably, for this and future generations.

A year and a-half ago, the Barbuda Council and the Waitt Institute forged a partnership to envision a sustainable ocean future for the island of Barbuda and launch the Barbuda Blue Halo Initiative. Put simply, we collaborated to design a plan to use the ocean without using it up.

Today, the Barbuda Council signed into law a sweeping set of new ocean management regulations that zone the coastal waters, strengthen fisheries management, and establish a network of marine sanctuaries. Barbuda may be a small island, but we hope the big commitment represented by these new policies will set an inspiring example for the region.

The new regulations create five marine sanctuaries, collectively protecting 33 per cent (139 km2) of the coastal area, and initiate a two-year hiatus on fishing in Codrington Lagoon to enable fish populations to rebuild and habitats to recover. Catching parrotfish and sea urchins has been completely prohibited, as those herbivores are critical to keeping algae levels on reefs low so coral can thrive. Barbuda is the first Caribbean island to put either of these important, strong measures in place.

Of course, if the community didn’t support this, it wouldn’t work. Therefore, to ensure the new policies reflect stakeholders’ concerns and priorities, there were six rounds of community consultations. The final zoning map is the fourth iteration – the boundaries have changed dramatically since the Council’s initial draft. The prohibition of using nets on the reefs was included at the request of local fishers concerned with reef damage. Though there will never be 100 per cent agreement, this has been a consensus-seeking process and the Council aimed to balance current and future needs to use ocean resources.

Why were these measures necessary? Firstly, Caribbean-wide, communities are seeing declines in the health of coastal ecosystems and fish populations. Barbuda is no exception. On average, Barbuda’s reefs are 79 per cent covered in algae, with less than 14 per cent living coral. This is not good for fishing or tourism; fish need habitats and tourists want to see vibrant abundance.

Secondly, fishers now have to go further and into deeper waters to make a good catch. This is expensive in fuel and it is also dangerous. The regulations aim to rebuild coastal fisheries and ensure fishers have a livelihood that will last in perpetuity. Some people will say that these policies are meant to hurt fishers, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The sanctuaries were created to replenish the surrounding fishing areas. Thirdly, Barbuda is highly endangered by climate change and sea level rise. The coral reefs and mangroves buffer the island from the impacts of storms, so by protecting the reefs and mangroves, they will in turn protect the island. Healthier reefs will also be more resilient to impacts like warming sea temperature that can’t be prevented locally.

Last, but certainly not least, dwindling coastal resources threaten local culture. The people of Barbuda have a strong connection to the sea – fish fries, camping on the beaches, kids growing up learning to fish with their parents and grandparents. In order to preserve this way of life, ocean ecosystems must be protected.

Over the next several years, the Barbuda Council and Waitt Institute will continue to work closely as these regulations are implemented. The Institute will help to set up a long-term scientific monitoring programme, train local staff in marine ecology and field research techniques, design enforcement approaches, provide needed equipment, and work with the schools to develop an ocean education curriculum.

Unfortunately, Barbuda is not unique in facing these challenges – degraded coral reefs, depleted fisheries, and climate change impacts are nearly ubiquitous globally. So putting strong ocean policies in place is merely the first step, and we hope that more and more nations will take this step alongside Barbuda.


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