Scripps Alumna Leads Successful Collaboration for Sustainable Ocean Regulations in Barbuda


Barbuda is a serene Caribbean island with a small, vibrant community. However, in recent years, Barbuda's coral reefs have taken a turn for the worse and its fish populations have plummeted.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a PhD graduate from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, and Executive Director of the Waitt Institute, selected Barbuda as the pilot for the Blue Halo Initiative because of the government and local community’s willingness to work toward a stronger, more sustainable ocean management plan, including the creation of no-take sanctuary zones.

“Barbuda’s economy and culture depend on a healthy ocean,” said Johnson. “Barbudans understand what’s at stake and want to improve the way their waters are managed, so the Waitt Institute and I were eager to support them.”

Thus, the Barbuda Blue Halo Initiative was born. Under this initiative, the Waitt Institute, an organization that partners with governments to “empower communities to restore their oceans,” supplied the Barbudan government and community with the tools needed for sustainable ocean management.

The Institute’s chairman and founder, Ted Waitt, started his success by co-founding computer software giant Gateway, Inc. He was named by Business Week as one of America’s 50 most generous philanthropists, and has worked vigorously in his endeavors of ocean conservation, through both the Waitt Foundation, which funds conservation efforts, and the Waitt Institute, which undertakes its own conservation projects.

Since Johnson’s arrival on Barbuda two years ago, she has been making waves to create a science-based, community-driven approach to management, working closely with Barbuda locals to improve the lot of the island’s marine life and its fishing industry.

Johnson led six community meetings, four additional meetings just with fishers, and interviewed over 100 community members to deeply understand how they use ocean resources, what their greatest concerns are, and what types of management they would like to see. Johnson and her team worked closely with the local government and community to turn initial policy recommendations into locally appropriate measures. The resulting regulations reflect the stakeholders’ priorities and concerns. Every line on the ocean-zoning map was drawn by Barbudans, using tools and data provided by the Waitt Institute.

“If the community didn’t support this, it wouldn’t work,” said Johnson. “Compliance first, enforcement later.”

Through the Barbuda Blue Halo Initiative, Johnson has seen her hard work pay off in government action. In mid-August, the Barbuda Council, which is the island's governing body, signed into law these new ocean management regulations that won’t just stop current unsustainable practices, but also will create a plan that enables a sustainable future.

With these new regulations, Barbuda’s coastline has been zoned, with 33 percent of the coastal waters protected amongst five marine sanctuaries. The initiative also protects parrotfish and sea urchins, key herbivores that eat algae off the reef so corals can thrive. Protections for seagrass and mangrove habitats were also established, and the use of nets on or near the reefs has been prohibited.

Barbuda is the first Caribbean island to put regulations like this into place.

Johnson was introduced to the Waitt Institute as a Scripps student while earning her PhD in marine biology. When picking a team to ensure success for Barbuda, she sought out help from her alma mater and members of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation (CMBC) program.

“This was largely a CMBC effort in the end,” said Johnson. “It was a really great experience to collaborate with CMBC and Scripps.”

Scripps people involved in the initiative include Academic Coordinator and marine protection attorney Kathryn Mengerink, who helped draft the new regulations; Associate Professors Stuart Sandin and Jen Smith, who participated in the ecological assessment of Barbuda; and graduate students Ashley Nee, Jeff Wescott, and Stephanie Roach, who were research assistants.

Roach believed so deeply in the Waitt Institute's mission that her Scripps Master of Advanced Studies capstone project was to work with them in drafting an implementation plan for Barbuda’s new ocean regulations. Roach was recently hired full time as the Waitt Institute’s Program Manager.

Recently, Johnson co-authored a New York Times opinion piece (“We Can Save the Caribbean’s Coral Reefs”) with Scripps Professor Emeritus Jeremy Jackson that highlights the need for all islands to take similar steps to protect parrotfish and manage fishing sustainably to buy time while climate change impacts are addressed.

So what’s next for Barbuda? The Waitt Institute will support the ramp-up of implementation and enforcement over the next three years, to ensure the initiative is more than just changes on paper. This will include setting up a scientific monitoring program and training local staff and organizing enforcement training for the fisheries and park officers. More broadly, the Waitt Institute hopes to ease this transition for fishers, and generally ensure the community has the right tools to enforce these regulations. Plans include purchasing a patrol boat, uniforms, radios, and GPS equipment for enforcement staff.

Johnson’s motivation is to “ensure sustainable seafood for the one billion people who depend on the ocean for their nutrition, livelihoods, and cultures.”

The Barbuda Blue Halo Initiative was the Waitt Institute's first partnership of this kind, and they plan to build on its success, launching at least one additional partnership each year indefinitely. The Waitt Institute will support creation of a unique project for each island, and involve community members every step of the way. The next Blue Halo site will be announced in December.

To learn more about the Barbuda Blue Halo Initiative and read the new regulations, please visit:

- Mia Mendola is a public relations intern for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography communications office and a graduate from the Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo journalism department.

Related Image Gallery: Barbuda Blue Halo Initiative


Related Video: Barbuda Blue Halo Initiative - Using the Ocean Without Using it Up


Sign Up For
Explorations Now

explorations now is the free award-winning digital science magazine from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Join subscribers from around the world and keep up on our cutting-edge research.