Sustaining Fishing and Island Culture in the Caribbean


Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego alumni and current students are involved in two new projects to develop sustainable ocean management solutions on the Caribbean islands of Curaçao and Montserrat. Scripps alumna Ayana Elizabeth Johnson (PhD ’11), now executive director of the Waitt Institute, is leading the effort as part of Waitt’s Blue Halo Initiative.

As a Scripps PhD student, Johnson studied how local communities and governments can work together to sustainably manage coral reefs. Her academic research took her to Curaçao, among other places in the Caribbean, to work with fishermen and the local fisheries agency to redesign fish traps with escape slots that allow unwanted fish to escape. The small modification in the commonly used fishing gear yielded a big benefit for ocean health by reducing the unintentional take of juvenile and ornamental fish by 80 percent, without reducing fishers’ incomes.

“My PhD research enabled me to think holistically about sustainable ocean use,” said Johnson. “And about practical solutions beyond traditional academia that work in real-world contexts.”

Johnson returned to Curaçao in March to launch Blue Halo Curaçao, a formal partnership with the island’s government to create a sustainable ocean policy. The Waitt Institute will provide the science and policy-making support with the goal of keeping the Dutch island’s reefs – some of the healthiest in the region – ecologically and economically valuable.

“Our initiative takes a very similar approach to my PhD research, developing ocean management solutions by including as many points of view as possible,” said Johnson.

The Waitt Institute partners with local governments and the community to develop science-based coastal-use policies that will replenish fish populations and restore healthy ecosystems, while supporting coastal and fishing livelihoods. Understanding the priorities and concerns of the local ocean users is a major component of the effort.

A recent Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network report, Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs, showed that Caribbean corals have declined by more than 50 percent since the 1970s. The report notes that although the rate of decline is alarming, changes in ocean management strategies, such as managing overfishing and coastal pollution, can help Caribbean coral reefs recover.

A second Blue Halo project on the British island of Montserrat was launched by the Waitt Institute to coincide with a broader community rebuilding effort due to ongoing volcanic eruptions that have caused extensive economic damage.

“An important part of this work for me is preserving Caribbean cultures, which are tied to the ocean,” said Johnson, whose own Caribbean roots come from her Jamaican-born father. “When you lose the quality of the ocean resources, you lose the culture too.”

Johnson will be joined by others from Scripps Oceanography, including alumni Stephanie Roach, Waitt Institute project manager; Kathryn Mengerink, Scripps lecturer and alumna, and senior attorney at the Environmental Law Institute; and Kristen Marhaver, National Science Foundation research fellow at the CARMABI Research Institute in Curaçao. Current Scripps graduate students Chad Koll and Nathaniel Hanna Holloway will also join the Blue Halo conservation team as part of their Marine Biodiversity and Conservation capstone research.

For more information on the Blue Halo Initiative, visit

— Annie Reisewitz

Related Image Gallery: Blue Halo Initiative


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