Thursday, December 6, 2012

A lesson in environmental policy from a small island fishery

I was extremely fortunate early on in my career. I guess I can be credited with bucking my educational system and insisting on doing research that had application to real-world environmental issues. Upon choosing this path, I recall advice from faculty that included such colorful phrases as “no funding,” “unemployable,” and “throwing your career away.” Thankfully, I was even more stubborn back then than I am now and so I did it anyway.

Red hind
It wasn’t an easy path. Despite a new Ph.D. from Cornell University, a world powerhouse in ecology, and a publication in Ecology, the top ecological journal in the world, my job search was brutal. Maybe those faculty were right after all! I applied for about 60 positions, and only one of them resulted in any follow up. Fortunately, it was a great opportunity.

Shortly after finishing up my dissertation, I moved to St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, to do research with Callum Roberts, a leader in applied marine environmental research. I came in to help with a project to rezone a marine park on St. Lucia. Callum left in my first year to return to his native England, and I was chosen to replace him as a professor at the University of the Virgin Islands. Not bad for a 27 year old! My job included advisory responsibilities to the government on environmental issues. Through those responsibilities, I got to know the fishing community.

Near the end of my three year stint on the island, a major issue resurfaced. The Caribbean Fisheries Management Council, which helps to set fishing policy for the waters around Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, wanted a no-fishing zone as a way of helping to protect coral and coral reef ecosystems. Such closures have many names, from marine protected areas to marine reserves to, most recently, marine spatial planning. The Council’s scientific advisory panel had their heart set on an area that was south of St. John (a close neighbor to St. Thomas and home to  the Virgin Islands National Park, which covers a large section of the island due to the foresight and generosity of the Rockefeller family). The proposed area was close to, but not actually bordering, the waters of the British Virgin Islands (part of the same island chain but a British territory with independent environmental management).

The fishermen of St. Thomas and St. John were not pleased. These were productive fishing grounds and, more importantly, closing them would also isolate a further area between the proposed closure and the British Virgin Islands border. Traveling a fair distance to that remote corner would not have been worthwhile. The fishing community had responded to the threat of the closed area by stalling. Their primary technique was to propose the closure of a small area bordering the British Virgin Islands, suggesting that authorities on the other side of the border could reciprocate and, together, the two areas would be suitable. The likelihood of this sort of international cooperation was slim, and so the fishermen’s proposal slowed progress.

When the issue resurfaced, I had an opportunity to meet with the local fisheries advisory board, made up mostly of fishermen. I was invited to present my research on the design of fisheries closures because I was a world expert in the subject. Instead of preaching, though, I talked to the fishermen and women in attendance, asking them about the quality of fishing, how it had changed over the years, and what they wanted out of their fisheries in the future. What was supposed to be a half-hour scientific presentation turned into a three hour heart-to-heart on fisheries management. I encouraged the fishing community to embrace the change suggested by the Council, but to use the process to create management measures that would serve their purposes instead of thwarting them. Over subsequent weeks, leaders of the fishing community floated several proposals by me, eventually coming up with one that, in my expert opinion, matched the conservation value of the Council’s proposed area.

The fishermen’s proposal was an interesting one. Due to earlier good work by some responsible fishermen and two marine biologist friends of mine, Jim Beets and Alan Friedlander, the Council had identified a spawning aggregation site for red hind, a medium-sized member of the Serranid (grouper) family. From 1990, the Council closed the Red Hind Bank during spawning season. You see, some of the tastiest and most sought-after fish in tropical waters gather together in large numbers once or more per year to reproduce. When discovered, these large aggregations of prized fish can be subject to intense fishing pressure, which can deplete that species across a broad area. For this reason, protecting spawning aggregations is generally a good idea.

Red Hind Bank Marine Conservation District (blue border), and
areas to which red hind migrated after spawning (red border).
But the seasonal closure complicated fishing efforts in that area during the open season. One of the preferred methods of fishing in the tropics is the use of fish traps, cages with funnels that fish swim into but are less likely to swim out of. Traps are typically strung together on lines, and moving a line of traps is an undertaking. Fishermen prefer to pull up traps, empty them, and return them immediately to continue fishing. Because of the productivity of the Red Hind Bank even outside of spawning season, fishermen still brought traps in, but either had to leave them there (illegally) or move them back and forth. When they proposed a year-round closure of the area, it fit with the mandate to protect corals and coral reef ecosystems. With the support of the fishing community and the scientific stamp of approval by a world expert in marine protected area design, the fishermen’s proposal sailed through the Council process. In 1999, the Red Hind Bank Marine Conservation District was created and closed year-round the area around the spawning aggregation.

On my visit to St. Thomas last week, I heard welcome news about the closure. Red hind were extremely plentiful in the catches of St. Thomas fishermen, and it was common to catch very large individuals, larger than fishermen used to think was possible. The fishermen I spoke to continue to support the closure and seem more open to protection of other spawning aggregations, more of which have now been identified in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Efforts to create fishery closures do not always go this smoothly or result in such vivid benefits. However, they often have the capacity for success if we use science more effectively and inspire fishing communities to develop management measures that meet their objectives while satisfying broader sustainability and conservation mandates. We did that in creating the Red Hind Bank Marine Conservation District, and both fish and fishermen are better off as a result.

Warm regards,

PS Próxiamente, una version en español de este blog. ¡Estén pendientes!

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