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Baa Atoll Marine Reserve in Maldives Expands

Laamu, Maldives — The recent four-day, ocean-focused conference—dubbed WaterWoMen by its sponsors, Six Senses Resorts and +H2O—was a first-of-a-kind blend of water sport activities and intellectual athleticism.

Surfer Bethany Hamilton teaches young Maldivian girl to surf (Photo: Cat Vinton)

In attendance were not just some of the world’s top water athletes (surfers, windsurfers, free divers, kite boarders) but also some of the planet’s more thoughtful thinkers on ocean issues.

On the athlete side were surfers Layne Beachley and Buzzy Kerbox, windsurfers Levi Silver and Keith Teboul, kite surfers Mark Shinn and Alex Caizergues, and extreme wake boarder Duncan Zuur.

The slightly less active contingent included biologist and oceanographer Dr. Callum Roberts; aquatic filmmaker and third-generation ocean lover Fabien Cousteau; director of the IUCN’s Global Marine Program, Carl Gustaf Lundin; Bollywood producer/director Shekhar Kapur; executive producer of the film The End of the Line, Chris Gorell Barnes; and Water Charity cofounders, Dr. Jacqueline Chan and Averill Strasser.

The conference was also a coming out party for the resort, located on this remote Maldivian atoll just 100 miles north of the equator. The Maldives is perhaps the perfect place for such a meeting since warming sea temperatures have put its coral reefs at risk, thus endangering both its local population and the tourism industry that is its economic base. The event was prudently also a fundraiser for a trio of ocean nonprofits:

The Blue Marine Foundation (www.bluemarinefoundation.com), a recent initiative created by Barnes pushing for ten percent of the world’s ocean to be placed into marine reserves by 2020 (today less than one percent is protected);

Plant A Fish (www.plantafish.org), Fabien Cousteau’s hands-on marine education and restoration effort to “re-plant” aquatic plants and animals in environmentally stressed areas by engaging local communities around the globe through schools, businesses and government agencies;

and Water Charity (www.watercharity.org), which is focused on providing safe drinking water, effective sanitation and health education to those most in need via the most cost-effective and efficient means.

One of the key subjects discussed whenever marine folk gather is how to better protect the ocean at the edges of our coastlines. The statistics are simple and seemingly ridiculous: More than 12 percent of the Earth’s land is protected, whether as park, reserve, preserve or sanctuary. Of the ocean, which covers nearly 72 percent of the planet, far less than 1 percent is formally protected.

The Maldives is proudly home to the new, 1,200-kilometer-square Baa Atoll World Biosphere Reserve. And at one of the gathering’s frank talks about Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), Callum Roberts, whose Unnatural History of the Sea is perhaps the best book out there about how man has so badly treated the ocean over the past 500 years, launched the discussion and was most direct: “So-called paper MPAs won’t work,” he said, referring to all the talking and thinking about protecting parts of the ocean that goes on without actually doing anything. “Establishing them, then enforcing the boundaries is key.”

“And only local protection works,” he continued. “Bringing in environmental groups or government agencies from outside won’t work. Local people have to protect their own waters.”

Calling MPAs “barometers” of the ocean, he said he was thankful for the newly announced set aside of the Baa Atoll—one of 26 big atolls that make up the Maldives, which include more than 800 individual islands or smaller atolls—because the Indian Ocean that surrounds the island state has been badly impacted by development stress, overfishing, pollution and, particularly, the impacts of climate change.

Chris Gorrell Barnes, whose Blue Marine Foundation—created as a follow up to the success of the End of the Line—was among several instrumental in getting the Baa Atoll approved as an official UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, excalimed, “What we need now is not more science, but money. The biggest challenge is how to fund marine reserves, especially in bad economic times,” said Barnes.

Working with the IUCN, an MPA five times the size of the one in the Maldives has been set up in the Chagos Islands. “But in order to get that accomplished,” said Barnes, “we had to raise outside money to help the U.K. government, which is a prosperous First World nation. Imagine how difficult it is for countries in the developing world to find money to protect the ocean.”

Roberts chimed in that the money needed to protect even 30 percent of the ocean was not that much, in the big picture. “That would cost just over $14 billion,” he said, “or about the amount spent on beauty care products each year.”

Carl Gustaf Lundin, who oversees marine and polar programs for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which is responsible for helping create MPAs around the globe, suggested that $14 billion was paltry compared to the $70 billion spent by countries around the world to subsidize fishermen. “The big question for MPAs, including here in the Maldives, is how do you subsidize people not to fish?”

He dove off Laamu earlier in the morning and had seen just five big fish in a stretcher where “I should have seen 50.”

“We have to do better at teaching people that a live manta ray, which helps bring millions of tourist dollars to the Maldives, is a far better deal than killing and selling its gills to China for a few hundred dollars.

“But the time to act is now,” he continued,” since we’ve only got 10 percent of the fish left.”

“We have helped many areas in India gain protection, but enforcement then becomes a low priority. The reality is that you have to hang a few people high from time to time, as example, to help with enforcement,” he said. He agreed with Roberts that enforcement was key to making MPAs work.

The IUCN keeps a list of scofflaw vessels around the globe, including the names of ships and their captains, but Lundin liked the example of Malaysians, who, after catching a boat poaching in its waters, sink it within 24 hours.

“‘Warm and fuzzy’ doesn’t always work,” he said. “For MPAs to work, enforcement must be swift and effective.”