Article: Marine Reserves—Living Local main content.

Article: Marine Reserves—Living Local

In The Bahamas, you rely on the water for your survival more than the land,” says Tarah McDonald, a student at the College of The Bahamas. “We tell people to come to this country by showing them the water. It’s also something that Bahamians are very protective of.” For several months of 2004, McDonald joined Sunday services in towns across the Exumas, a string of islands in the center of the Bahamian archipelago. Church seemed to be the best place to find what McDonald was after: folks willing to chat about their community and their connection to the sea. She asked them when they first learned to fish, what, where, and how much they caught, sold, cooked, and ate, how their forebears did things differently, and dozens of other questions.

Discarded conch shells are common in The Bahamas. Some ancient piles, called middens, are thousands of years old and yield clues on historical settlements and species abundance.Jason Lelchuk for AMNH

McDonald also wanted the locals’ frank opinions about the marine reserve located in the northern part the Exuma chain, the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. For nearly 20 years, the park has been designated a “no-take” marine protected area in an effort to both preserve wilderness and revive adjacent fisheries. Nothing dead or alive can be removed from the park: no coral, no plants, no shells, not even sand. And definitely no fish.

Fishing supports residents all over the 700 Bahamian islands (in 1997, it earned the country $62.7 million), but even more so in the less-accessible “Out Islands” like the Exumas. Out Islands are any island other than the country’s two most populated, New Providence and Grand Bahama. An Out Island community, called a settlement, may consist of only 300 people, or 150, or even 50. In total, the Exumas have just 3,500 residents. Most fish for subsistence and income, or they work in tourism.

“When you tell people they now can’t fish in an area, you are impacting their livelihood, and they have to know why,” says Jessica Minnis, chair of the College of The Bahamas’ School of Social Sciences. “You can’t put a marine protected area in a region without having input from the people who live there.” Minnis is one of a small group of social scientists who are assessing the islands’ culture and economics as part of the Bahamas Biocomplexity Project, a five-year interdisciplinary study of marine reserves in the country. The project is both assessing the success of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park so far and preparing for the future, as the government is planning a patchwork of reserves that may make 20 percent of The Bahamas “no-take.” The socioeconomic data will be used to decide on exact boundaries and management of future parks that hopefully will help them meet both conservation and social goals.

The degree to which social research is being integrated with biophysical research in the Bahamas Biocomplexity Project is groundbreaking for scientific studies of marine reserves. It’s a new trend that makes sense: Since ecosystems involve inextricably linked natural and human components, investigating them holistically is the only way to understand how they function. Marine protected areas also have a better chance of achieving their goals when planners and resource managers understand how residents and visitors respond to them.

A Culture Forged by the Sea

Steve Ferguson Bodie is an Exuman fisherman who trolls the cays’ reef-dotted waters with a rod and reel almost daily. He catches snappers, grunts, porgy, queen conch, silvery-blue bonefish, and the prize specimen of the Bahamas: Nassau grouper, a 5 kilogram, boldly striped fish with a sizeable underbite. “We sell the snappers and groupers to the fish fry restaurants,” says Bodie. “That is something that puts a few dollars in the pocket.” A quarter-century ago, when he was a kid, he’d fish every day after school for fun with a hand-pulled line from shoreline rocks or at a fishing hole that was a guarded family secret for generations. According to Bodie, most Exumans still forgo a spin reel for a line pulled by hand. You can feel the nibble better.

College of The Bahamas student Tarah McDonald (left) and social scientist Jessica Minnis (right) interview Exuman fisherman Steve Bodie.Jason Lelchuk for AMNH

Bodie still fishes, mostly in the same places he fished when he was eight. Minnis and McDonald were curious about his feelings on the marine protected area that may eventually be staked among his time-honored fishing spots. “I’ll tell you one thing, it’s going to affect us a lot because we have to put food on the table. That’s number one,” says Bodie. “And if you can’t go in the areas that we make our money, we’ll have to find something else to do. And most of us aren’t used to doing much other than fishing.”

A Dollar Today

“Initially, we had a mixed community response to the [existing and proposed] marine protected areas,” says Minnis. “But once they were explained by the government with town meetings, people warmed up to the idea.” Data shows that the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park’s existence has increased the size and number ofthree species critical to Bahamian commercial fisheries—Nassau grouper, conch, and Caribbean spiny lobster—both inside and outside the park.

Still, poaching in the park is a major problem, according to Eric Carey, director of parks and science liaison for the Bahamas National Trust, the organization that operates the country’s national park system. “The reality is that most local fishermen do feel that they need a dollar today,” he says. “The dollar they get today is from going into the park and fishing. But we’ve had every kind of poacher, from the small guy in the tin boat to the filthy rich American in the big yachts.” He illustrates local sentiment with two nearby communities, Staniel Cay and Black Point. Staniel Cay, the settlement nearest the park’s southern rim, has a marina that attracts yachters and divers. Black Point, which at 300 residents is double Staniel Cay’s size, is even further south and has no marina. Tourism dollars are fewer, and Carey feels that poaching from this community is more prevalent.

Travel guidebooks extol Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park’s biological treasures. (“Endless jade and sapphire shallows…brimming with tropical marine life,” waxes one.) Boat and kayak cruising is permitted most anywhere, as is diving. But ill-placed fin kicks and boat propellers can break reefs and rustle up coral-suffocating sediment. Illegal discharge of sewage, fuel, and oil from boats pollutes the park. One warden and two full-time Royal Bahamian Defence Force officers find it nearly impossible to enforce regulations sufficiently in the 456 square kilometer park. (The warden job has been vacant since January. “Because of the park’s isolation,” says Carey, “it’s been difficult finding someone who’s interested and qualified. And a Bahamian.”) Other social researchers in the Bahamas Biocomplexity Project have polled divers and boaters in The Bahamas about what they look for when touring and how inclined they’d be to pay for maintenance of the marine parks they’d visit. 

A Shifting Culture 

As The Bahamas’ marine reserve system develops, tourism will play more of a role in Out Islands like the Exumas as fishing plays less. To lift fishing pressure from protected areas, the Bahamas National Trust aims to provide diver certification and guide training to locals. This will contribute to the already changing economic and social climate of the Bahamas, where more and more Out Islands residents are veering from the lifestyle of their parents and grandparents toward service jobs. “Not many of the kids today go fishing like we used to back in the day,” admits Bodie. “They don’t want to do it, and their parents and friends never taught them how to do it.”

The main challenge to marine parks is to balance the sometimes widely different goals and viewpoints of many different groups: citizens, businesspeople, park planners, scientists, tourists, government officials. “In this environment you have a lot of elements that interact with one another. But in a sense, all are dependent on the other,” says McDonald. “I think when people can see the interrelationship, then they can see a way to protect the environment, preserve culture, and respect the individuals that interact with it.”

Related Links


   Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation: Marine Reserves


   Bahamas National Trust


   The Islands of The Bahamas: Official Tourism Website