Let’s Make Marine Sanctuaries Together!
by brian lam
That is the coast of Berry Island. Ten years ago, its government declared it a protected marine area. Except no one is watching or caring for it. Thayer Walker and his friends at Summit Series want to change that.
First, let me tell you about Thayer Walker. Before Thayer Walker was an island-saving eco-hippie, he was one of my favorite adventure writers. He always got the most fun story assignments. I remember, when I was a young tech editor, reading his work in Outside Magazine. He’d go on crazy trips that would somehow end up with him spearfishing in endlessly deep water or walking leopards like dogs on leashes in the jungle. I was stuck in front of my computer covering the internet and all I wanted to do was get outside. Thayer was doing that.
Now, Thayer is with Summit Series, where he’s chief reconnaissance officer. In short, Summit Series is a conference that might be described as a party of smart people in interesting places. But one of the fruits of this a particular conference that was held at sea last year was this idea to improve the South Berry Island Marine reserves, 70 square miles of protected ocean that aren’t really protected. And unlike most ideas at thinky conferences, this one’s on the brink of happening.
I’m definitely going to donate.
But before I do, I have some questions for Thayer about the reserve itself, his project, and how my money is going to be used to help it.
You’re helping to set up a marine protected area. Where is it and what is the area like?
The marine protected area (MPA) is in the same archipelago–the Berry Islands–that hosted Summit at Sea, about 20 miles from where we dropped anchor. The MPA we’re focusing on, the South Berry Islands MPA is 70 square miles, about three times the size of Manhattan, and one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the Bahamas. Habitat ranges from coral reefs and conch nurseries to a trench call Tongue of the Ocean, which drops to more than 6,000 feet deep. And there are sharks. Lots of sharks. It’s incredible.
Who else is involved?
The money is all going to The Nature Conservancy, a non-profit managing the project. The idea actually came to us from one of our attendees at Summit at Sea, Kristofor Lofgren. Kristofor is the founder of Bamboo Sushi, the country’s first sustainable sushi restaurant. Bamboo Sushi has developed a revenue model allocating a percentage of profits toward the creation of marine protected areas. After Summit, Kristofor came to us with a $250,000 contribution to The Nature Conservancy for the MPA and asked us to help raise the other half. We jumped at the opportunity and the rest of our community has been hugely supportive. Tim Ferriss just put up a $25,000 match.
Have you been there before?
Summit at Sea was actually my first trip to the Bahamas. Given it’s proximity to the US and the number of bareboat charters in the Caribbean, I never thought the Bahamas was on par with some of the wilderness I’ve explored in Africa and South America. Boy was I wrong. The day we went shark tagging out there with the University of Miami, we caught, tagged, and released a dozen sharks. One of them was an 800-pound, 12-foot pregnant female. It’s inspiring to know there’s a place so close to home that remains so wild and ecologically vibrant. That’s what we’re trying to protect.
Why this place in particular over others like the Great Barrier reef, which is also in bad shape?
Globally, the oceans are facing serious threats: over-fishing, ocean acidification, pollution, you name it. Every part of it needs love and attention. It’s a big endeavor, but as a wise woman once told me: you don’t have to do everything, you just have to do something. This area is particularly important to us because it was our backyard for Summit at Sea.
If I donate, and the money is raised, what will happen to the wildlife in the reserve?
MPA’s serve as a sanctuary for wildlife. This particular MPA is a no-take zone, meaning there is no fishing of any kind allowed. That gives marine life the opportunity to reproduce in a natural cycle and repopulate the surrounding areas. Studies have shown that creating no-take MPAs actually increases commercial fishing yields outside the protected area because of an overall growth in fish stock. The government actually named this area an MPA more than a decade ago, but it hasn’t had the funds to build infrastructure, enforcement, or a management plan. That’s what these funding will go to. Right now, though it’s a paper park–it would be like calling Yosemite a national park if there was no one taking care of it.
What does taking care of the reserve entail?
The first step will be to create a management plan: what’s the best way to protect the area while still giving people a chance to enjoy it? How many enforcement officers are needed to protect the area? Are there Berry Island locals with training to do that? If not, is it best to create a training program or bring in people from other parts of the Bahamas with the existing skills? How much science can be done in the area vs. pure protection? What kind of infrastructure needs to be built for enforcement and public engagement? These are simple questions that have yet to be answered. So far we’ve identified that this is an important area to protect, we just haven’t had the funds to sit down and determine the most effective way to go about that
What else do people get for donating?
People get entered into a raffle to go shark tagging with the University of Miami, too.
How much more do you need?
Getting the park up and running is a $500,000 project. We need to raise another $40,000 or so to finish it out, which is why we launched the Crowdrise page.
Why aren’t people doing this for all the oceanic places that need protection?
That’s a great question. Here’s a startling fact: the ocean covers 71% of the planet, yet less than 2% of it is protected in any way. By comparison more than 12% of our planet’s landmass falls under protection. Considering that the oceans govern our climate, generate more that 50% of the oxygen we breath, and feed billions of people, I think it’s pretty important to focus on protecting it.
I’m no ecohippie, but I don’t want to scuba dive bleached reef when I’m 45. So here’s some money. Can I visit?
Absolutely. Scuba diving is a $1.5 billion business in the Caribbean and half of that occurs within MPAs. These areas are worth protecting for their own sake, but when they start driving revenue, it makes their importance that much more obvious.