The Caribbean Summit of Political and Business Leaders was held this past weekend (May 17th & 18th). Despite a fairly mundane sounding title and minimal international coverage leading up to the event, this was an important meeting for the future of marine conservation in the Caribbean as indicated by the tag line for the summit; “Charting a New Course for Marine and Coastal Protection.” More specifically, this summit served as the platform for launching the second phase of the Caribbean Challenge Initiative, an initiative first launched in 2008 whereby eight Caribbean nations committed to protecting 20% of their near shore marine area by 2020.
The issue at hand is that coastal areas and communities of the Caribbean are highly vulnerable to marine degradation and environmental change, including climate change. Increased storm intensity, coastal erosion, coral bleaching, invasive species (e.g. lionfish) and declining marine fisheries threaten the region.
While this is about protecting, preserving and conserving biodiversity it is also about people. The livelihoods and wellbeing of millions of coastal people are reliant on healthy coastal areas with benefits ranging from food security (e.g. key source of protein) and coastal protection to jobs and income. For example, coastal areas and coral reefs contribute to a 1.2 billion dollar fisheries industry in the Caribbean, which supports over 1.5 million people.
These numbers may seem like an abstraction, however one only has to take a stroll
through the local fish markets or landing sites to see the tangible impacts ranging from smaller fish on average to the numerous boats for sale. Furthermore, it is not uncommon to hear fisherman speak of having to travel further to sea and spend longer hours at sea in order to return with similar catches from years past.
It is evident that there is a need to develop effective strategies and mechanisms to manage coastal areas that address the marine degradation and better cope with the challenges of environmental change.
The Caribbean Challenge Initiative has already resulted in the establishment of new marine reserves (no-take zones) across the region. For example, the Caribbean Fish Sanctuary Partnership has been working with communities in Jamaica and Grenada. Among the objectives of phase two are announcing new, innovative public-private partnerships and promoting collaboration among multiple stakeholder groups.
However, with such a significant focus on establishing marine reserves to protect 20% by 2020 there is also cause for concern. While marine reserves have been shown to provide a variety of benefits (e.g. protecting biodiversity, increases in biomass and contributing to the spillover effect), they must not be seen as a silver bullet. As policy makers, government leaders, NGOs and private partners move forward it will be critical to a) ensure that these marine reserves are effectively embedded in broader management frameworks so as to avoid being islands of protection and b) ensure that the establishment, design and management of marine reserves consider both the ecological AND social context. Otherwise, rather than improve the problem, they may exacerbate the problem, shifting fishing activities and effort from one place to another and possibly resulting in new stocks and new species being exploited in addition to increased competition and conflict among resource users.
While the Caribbean Summit has come to a close, we have yet to hear of any formal commitments made by the participants in attendance. Based on the objectives of the summit and Phase 2 of the Caribbean Challenge Initiative I am optimistic. It certainly has the potential to result in new partnerships and arrangements that could serve as models of what marine conservation and governance looks like in the twenty-first century. However, it also serves as a reminder that now, more than ever, it is imperative to both consider and better understand the social dimensions of marine reserves in hopes of increasing the resilience of coastal communities and coral reefs alike. It is this concern that fuels my own research which seeks to examine if and how marine protected areas and marine protected area networks can serve as effective governance strategies for coping with environmental change.