How Barbuda Enacted One of the World's Most Successful Ocean Conservation Efforts

By Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

A certain level of idealism is needed when deciding to pursue ocean conservation work professionally. While idealism can serve as a kind of moral compass, it can quickly become a hindrance when conservationists attempt to convince foreign communities or governments to enact specific policies.

When you look at the history of conservation efforts, too often Western conservationists with pre-determined views helicopter into a country and inform the local government of the policies it should pass. It shouldn't be surprising that foreign governments regard these outsiders with wariness and skepticism. It's difficult for a nation's citizens to welcome you with open arms when they don't know who you are or what your agenda is, so when conservationists immediately advocate for a specific course of action without even speaking to key stakeholders, they can be viewed as condescending, patriarchal (or even colonial), and arrogant.

When the Waitt Institute developed the Blue Halo Initiative, a program wherein we partner with willing governments to develop and implement ocean conservation policies, we did so with the foundational commitment that we would never approach a partnership assuming we had all the answers. Conservation needs to be science-based, but the science needed differs depending on specifics of the local ecosystems, economy, and culture. Conservation must be driven by the community, and by that I mean deeply engaging with stakeholders and understanding their concerns, priorities, and needs. Ocean conservation is not about protecting specific places or species in a vacuum. The cultural history of the region, particularly as it pertains to how people fish or otherwise use their coasts and waters is a critical piece of the puzzle.

Being comprehensive is key. We consider and support every aspect of the conservation process. Too often conservationists succumb to tunnel vision when it comes to their own specialities, but the Waitt Institute offers a toolkit that includes everything from facilitating community consultations, to ecological assessments, to zoning analysis, to ocean education in schools, to legal drafting and enforcement support.

We employed this comprehensive toolkit when working with the Barbuda government to envision, design and implement ocean preservation laws. Barbuda, a small, low-population island in the Eastern Caribbean, had the political will and eagerness to enact change, and over the course of 18 months, our team traveled to and from the island and worked with its citizens to develop policies that were customized to their specific needs and preferences.

This involved spending significant lengths of time living on the island (after all, conservation work can't be done over Skype). While there, I got to know the local community, interviewing almost 100 stakeholders and organizing community meetings geared toward keeping citizens informed of our work. And it wasn't just me. Our group included legal experts, a mapping and analysis team, scientists, and even a filmmaker (to document the project). After months of meetings, research, and incorporation of feedback, the Barbuda Council passed new legislation in August 2014 that zones their entire coastal waters and protects 33 percent of the island's coastal area. These progressive laws have set a new standard for ocean management in the Caribbean.

To me, the most meaningful metric of Blue Halo Barbuda was how much the regulations that were finally signed into law had changed from the initial policy recommendations I had made 18 months before. I had said, "Here are some policies other governments have implemented that work for them. You might want to consider them as a starting point." Those recommendations changed dramatically over the course of the year and a half of public consultation until they became honed into a set of locally appropriate regulations.

For instance, many countries have passed bans on catching sharks -- an important policy when you consider their important ecological role -- but Barbudans have only ever caught them occasionally for local consumption, so the law merely restricted the development of a commercial shark fishery while continuing to allow traditional fishing.

Now that these laws have been passed, our focus is on measuring the outcomes and providing support as enforcement begins. Because Barbuda's engaged in comprehensive, science-based, and community-driven conservation, with buy-in from stakeholders who feel their voices have been heard, we feel confident the island is on a path to preserve its ecosystems and will provide a case study that other countries will want to emulate. As a conservationist, it's important to admit you don't know all the answers, and to listen to community elders and experts, and to allow your views to evolve. That's how lasting, groundbreaking ocean conservation happens.

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is an award-winning marine biologist and the Executive Director of the Waitt Institute. Johnson's mission is to collect, create, and amplify the best ideas in ocean conservation. To learn more, follow her on Twitter (@ayanaeliza) and read her National Geographic blog.