In January, I was in the Bahamas to learn about efforts there to establish new marine protected areas (MPAs), meet the key players, and help strategize about how to make these efforts more successful more quickly (see previous blog post). I’m back because a critical step of that strategy has just been completed.
Last week a team of scientists brought together by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) returned from a two-week expedition to remote islands in the southeastern Bahamas (see map below). Offered the opportunity to use the Waitt research vessel, TNC pulled together a great team of scientists and organized an expedition in record time. They conducted an ecological assessment of several areas that have been proposed for protection, but were virtually unexplored scientifically.
One step in creating MPAs is to understand what’s out there under the water so you can make a solid argument for why particular areas should be protected. The government here agrees – “science must drive informed decision making,” in the words of the Minister of the Environment, Mr. Dorsett.
To facilitate this connection between science and policy, this past weekend the Waitt Foundation hosted a reception for the Bahamas’ political leaders aboard the Waitt vessel so they could meet the scientists, hear about the initial results, and discuss next steps. The Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of the Environment, and several other Ministers and Members of Parliament were in attendance, as were the heads of the Bahamas National Trust (BNT) and Department of Marine Resources (see photo below).
The data from the expedition are still being analyzed, but one of the most interesting preliminary results is how few large fish (groupers and snappers) there were on some of the most remote reefs of Samana and Plana Cays. To me this is indicative of how little fishing pressure it can take to deplete a fish population. It also indicates the importance of protecting nursery habitats – these remote islands did not have much in the way of seagrass, mangrove, and tidal creek habitats where juvenile fish thrive, so the fish the scientists did see likely grew up elsewhere. Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but if an area’s fish population is not self-sustaining, you can’t expect to be able to fish there sustainably, which is a good argument for protecting that area from fishing.
Near the end of the gathering, the Environment Minister said, “The Bahamas has been and will continue to be a leader in marine protection and in the Caribbean Challenge.” I sincerely hope they not only lead, but raise the bar. The Challenge aims for 20% of marine area managed by 2020. I say “managed” isn’t enough; it should be 20% of marine area set aside as fish sanctuaries, marine reserves closed to fishing, by 2020. Then sustainably fish the other 80% of the Bahamas’ waters. As the nation with the largest exclusive economic zone in the Caribbean, there would certainly be plenty of places left to fish.
But as the Deputy Prime Minister noted by way of allegory, if you dive into shallow water headfirst you can get paralyzed. He sees it as the role of science to ensure ocean management decisions are well reasoned and therefore more likely to succeed. Well, I’m certainly on board with science-based decision making. Here’s to such bold decisions, and them being made soon.