Helping Caribbean Coral Reef Managers Get Their Heads Above Water

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Published on July 23rd, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  

bonding-in-bonair

I should start by introducing myself — Stephanie Wear, Conservancy marine scientist and coral reef optimist.

I just returned from Bonaire, where I co-led a coral reef resilience training for Caribbean reef managers. If you have never heard of Bonaire — an island territory that’s part of the Netherlands Antilles, just off the coast of Venezuela — you are probably not a diver. It is a diving mecca — a must-see for anyone who wants to experience a healthy Caribbean coral reef.

In fact, all tourist activities here somehow relate to or include the underwater action. This is why we chose Bonaire as the location for our training; well, that and the fact that Bonaire is celebrating the 30th anniversary of their marine park.

I have known the park manager for Bonaire National Marine Park for about four years. Ramon de Leon is one of those park managers that knows how to get things done, finding creative ways to clear the many hurdles that managers working to protect marine resources face on a daily basis.

I have traveled with Ramon to South Africa and Spain to have him share his story and insight with coral reef managers from around the world. Ramon tells great stories — like the time he put a diver on a plane home for refusing to take off his gloves, a big no-no in the park — and is inspiring to managers who feel paralyzed by bureaucracy and lack of political will.

So, last summer Ramon and I were talking about doing something for Caribbean coral reef managers. He suggested that to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Bonaire’s marine park, he would like to host a training to help managers address the impacts of climate change.

Climate change is really making things messy for coral reef managers, who have traditionally faced a long list of threats including overfishing, pollution, and coastal development. These problems alone seriously threaten the health and distribution of coral reefs globally.

However, when you throw climate change into the mix, specifically rising sea temperatures and acidification of the oceans, the accumulation of all these threats spells big trouble for reefs.  The Nature Conservancy works to attack this problem by both getting involved in making a difference at the policy level as well as working with managers to reduce the threats they have some control over locally.  At this training, we were working with managers to make them aware of the problems that are on the horizon as well as helping them develop strategies to reduce the impacts that climate change is already bringing such as coral bleaching and slowed growth due to the changes in ocean chemistry.

Ramon attended the first reef resilience training I conducted back in 2005, and thought it was time to reach out again. I agreed and began working with NOAA to put something together. A year later, I am sitting here doing the wrap up for the workshop, and reflecting on what comes of trainings such as these. Here is what I’ve come up with…

Of course, managers learn new things, like:

  • Latest management ideas;
  • Trends in global threats;
  • How other managers are coping, and what they can do to adapt.

These are all critical bits of information that managers don’t just happen upon during they daily lives. Managers are immersed (or submersed, as the case may be) in so many problems with people and parks that the last thing on their mind is to check out what is on the horizon, or ask their peers about ways to solve problems they are having. What we do is try to make life easier for managers by doing all the investigating and sharing the results in a form that they can use to make decisions. All this is good.

But I think what is most valuable, and pretty much a guaranteed outcome of trainings such as these, is the incredible bonding and networking that occurs between people that are thrown together in a room, on a boat, or in the water for extended periods of time.

We work to make sure that they spend most of their time together, whether it be in the classroom or at dinner — people have no choice but to get to know one another. And these folks love it! They are so often isolated by distance and time, that this is their chance to see what the heck is going on down island.

I join the conversations and hear everything from insane stories of fishermen gone missing, panicked search parties out all night, only to have them show up in a neighboring country selling their fish from the island bus …to discussions of park fees and sustainable financing. These conversations and the friendships that result are what makes these trainings most valuable.

I have recently heard from managers that attended a similar training in 2005 that got to know each other at the workshop, and later conducted an exchange of fishermen between their island countries to help get support for marine protected areas.

These connections matter. Having long suspected that much would come of these connections, I have only recently been hearing direct results and am now scheming to sort out how I can increase this contact during future activities….perhaps spending time in an underwater habitat?

(Image: Stephanie Wear surrounded by reef managers at their training in Bonaire. Source: Stephanie Wear/TNC.)

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2 Responses to “Helping Caribbean Coral Reef Managers Get Their Heads Above Water”

  1. Tom Nicholson says:

    Very exciting about your trip to Bonair.
    Would or could you ever be interested in Mona Island?
    Mona is 19 square miles, vaguly abandoned U.S. Territory located in the Mona Channel between PR and Domincan Republic. It has recently been opened again for tourists.
    A visit to Mona is still in the age of discovery as there is zero population and still remains as it did when first discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493.

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