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about Saba's Marine Environment

Ask anyone what the greatest human threat to the oceans is and they will tell you it is pollution. Fishing comes low on most people’s lists, yet it is fishing that claims the largest toll on marine life. Few places in the world have escaped the impact of fishing; many supposedly great dive destinations have been ravaged by it. On that last trip you made to Jamaica, how many fish did you see larger than your hand? And how many fish traps and spearfishers did you see? Indonesia – those beautiful reefs dominated by soft corals were once covered in hard corals before they were bombed to pieces in the pursuit of fish. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the National Park and Biosphere Reserve in St. John was extended to include coastal waters in 1962. Forty years on, a recent analysis of fish stocks declared this park an abject failure, with stocks just as severely depleted in park waters as on other Virgin Islands reefs. Somehow, the park didn’t think then that controlling fishing was important.

In 1987, Saba declared a marine park that took a different view. While fishing still wasn’t even on most people’s radar screens, they decided to close 20% of the island’s waters to fishing, including The Pinnacles, Diamond Rock and half of the west coast south to Tent Reef. Four years later, we visited Saba for the first time, intent on answering a question that was just beginning to be asked by a handful of scientists around the world – can places that are closed to fishing (now usually called marine reserves) foster recovery of fish stocks? With the kind assistance of park staff and Saban diving centres, we circled the island for four weeks counting fish. Our findings were encouraging. After only four years of protection, there were more and larger fish in reserve areas than on reefs that were still fished.

We’ve been coming back ever since to repeat our fish counts and things just keep getting better. By 1995, we were convinced of the benefits of the park, having documented a rapid surge in fish stocks from levels on our first visit. We have been writing about Saba ever since and the island has become something of a cause célèbre among scientists and environmentalists. It was one of the first marine parks to protect some places from fishing and it was one of the first places to convincingly demonstrate the benefits of such protection. The example set by the Saba Marine Park is now being emulated in a growing number of countries. For example, evidence from Saba’s reefs was included in a U.S. National Research Council report issued in 2001 that called for the creation of marine protected areas like it in the United States. It influenced the thinking of the legislators who crafted President Clinton’s Executive Order of 2000 to create a national system of marine protected areas in America. St. Lucia modelled its own marine reserves on Saba’s in 1995. Our research there has shown not just swift recovery of fish stocks, but also that the reserves are spilling fish into the surrounding fishery, boosting catches.

What, Me Worry?Saba’s fish stocks have been getting better over time not just because of the reserve zones. The amount of fishing on the rest of the island’s reefs has been in decline. Today there is very little fishing anywhere around Saba. So when you come to Saba one thing you won’t see much of on your dives is tangled fishing line. Nor are there any fish traps or the ragged remains of nets snagged in coral. What you will see is lots of fish, small and large! The Pinnacles throng with them – tiger, yellowfin and Nassau groupers stalking through the corals, sharks patrolling the edges of visibility. Diamond Rock affords a breathtaking spectacle – a sponge-crusted cathedral with foaming surge for a roof and a congregation of untold numbers of fish. Like all good cathedrals it offers refuge. Saba’s reefs are afforded real sanctuary in a world where fishing still rules. It makes up a tiny but very important part of the one hundredth of one percent of the world’s oceans that have so far been protected from fishing. The Saban experience is helping shape approaches to conservation from Alaska to Australia, Norway to Namibia. And where Saba leads, they soon will follow.

Dr Callum Roberts is Senior Lecturer in Marine Conservation Biology and Julie Hawkins is Research Associate in the Environment Department, University of York, York, YO10 5DD, UK.  Click here to go directly to Callum and Julie's Research Activities and Recent Publications.  

This page last updated on 11/22/2007 from our Windwardside office.

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