Working toward a sustainable future in the Eastern Caribbean
SFG has been working with the Blue Halo Initiative since 2014, and my field visits to Montserrat and Antigua and Barbuda showed me just how diverse the Initiative’s sites and programs really are. My guide and companion for my two-week trip was Andy Estep, the Waitt Institute’s Science & Field Manager, who has lived and worked in the Caribbean for several years.
We began in Antigua, where we met with Dr. Brian Cooper and Jasiel Murphy at National Parks Antigua’s (NPA) Environment Unit. In addition to managing the large terrestrial national parks system, NPA is also keen to learn more about the coastal marine habitat within park boundaries. To that end, Andy, Jasiel and I spent a morning scoping the reefs, seagrass, and mangrove areas within Nelson’s Dockyard National Park, snorkeling and free-diving where possible, and taking geotagged photos that we later uploaded to Google maps to get a better spatial understanding of the underwater environment. As is common with many reefs in the Caribbean, there were large tracts of dead elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) stands, likely wiped out during the mass mortality of Acroporid corals in the late 1970s and early 1980s. However, there were also several younger stands of elkhorn coral that showed promising signs of recovery. The Waitt Institute is currently exploring a partnership with NPA to conduct underwater surveys to get a quantitative view of the coastal ecosystems. The surveys will involve estimating sizes and counting fish, and photographing and recording other details about the marine environment.
Our next stop was Barbuda, the sister island of Antigua. Though the islands may be twins, each has a distinct look, and the juxtaposition is easy to see from the air when flying from one to the other. Antigua, a lush island with green hills, has been extensively developed, whereas Barbuda, a very flat island with scrubby vegetation, has very little development. Our goal in Barbuda was to collect lobster data and help install the remaining Blue Halo zone-markers, demarcating the edge of one of the fish sanctuary areas. The morning after our arrival, we visited the impressive Barbuda Fisheries Division building, where fisheries officers were sorting lobsters and checking them for eggs before boxing them for export to Guadalupe. By the time we arrived, lobsters were already coming in thick and fast, so Andy gloved-up and started measuring, while I recorded the data. We recorded a single measurement of carapace length for each lobster, also noting its sex and maturity. These measurements are critical inputs for fishery assessments, and SFG is currently working on an assessment of Barbuda’s lobster fishery to determine if the current level of fishing is sustainable.
After the lobsters had caught their flight to Guadalupe, we headed off on a bumpy truck ride to the eastern, more remote side of Barbuda. There we helped fisheries officers install the final boundary-zone post denoting the southern limit of the Two Foot Bay sanctuary zone. These posts are clearly visible from the ocean and mark edges of the zones, such as coastal sanctuaries, where fishing is prohibited or restricted. Barbuda was the first island to be part of the Blue Halo Initiative, and these boundary posts are a crucial first step in implementing and enforcing the zones.
Our final destination was Montserrat. The lush, green north of the island stands in stark contrast to the south, where volcanic eruptions, starting in 1995, have rendered more than half the island uninhabitable and off-limits. While in Montserrat, we attended the Blue Halo Steering Committee meeting focused on where and how to delineate marine reserves and other zones in Montserrat’s territorial waters. Though Montserrat is a small island with only a few full-time fishers, a recent fisheries assessment conducted by SFG concluded that some species are currently being fished at unsustainable levels. At the meeting, I gave a brief presentation outlining the benefits of and guidelines for designing marine reserves, highlighting that reserves can form an important part of a sustainable ocean-use policy, eventually leading to increased catches for fishers.
Will McClintock from the Seasketch lab kicked off the zoning discussions, encouraging members of the Steering Committee to help inform where zones should be located and what type they should be (e.g. no-take zones, no-net zones, shipping lanes). After a morning’s work, the committee was well acquainted with the process and had drawn preliminary zones in three areas. Throughout the week, Will and his team followed up with individual committee members to produce a collection of maps in Seasketch that will aid the zoning process.
On our last day in Montserrat, Andy and I set off to the southwest coast of the island on a mission to find a seamount that we had observed on a global dataset, but does not appear on any local maps. Despite our best efforts, our search led us only to blue water, so we settled for a dive around the relatively undisturbed reefs at the southern end of the island. The volcano has dumped sediment, ash, and in some cases, volcanic boulders on Montserrat’s reefs, but the reef we saw was still fairly lively and vibrant. In a world where coral reefs are under ever increasing pressure from stressors such as climate change, development, and overfishing, it was reassuring to see that Montserrat’s reefs have made it through such an extreme event.