Paper Parks and the Challenges of Marine Management

The view from St. Kitts, with Nevis in the background.


In the summer of 2014, I found myself in the back of a colorful taxi van, flying down the winding roads of St. Kitts on my way to Nevis, the island where I would be conducting research for my undergraduate thesis. I had come to Nevis to study the area’s marine management efforts, searching for ways that Nevis, and other small islands, could sustainably manage their coasts and waters.

The driver, speaking in a strong Caribbean accent, was giving me a crash course in the islands’ local dialect, a type of creole English spoken in the region. “Wa gwaan?” he had me repeat, a huge smile spread across his face, failing to contain his laughter at my struggled attempts to copy the simple phrase. “It means, ‘What’s going on, what’s up!’”

I had first learned about Nevis from my professor at the University of Denver, who had conducted research there several years prior. St. Kitts and Nevis, like numerous other island nations in the Caribbean, is experiencing a decline in the health of its coral reefs, a phenomenon threatening not only the area’s tourism income, but also the livelihoods of local residents, many of whom depend on reef fishing for food and income.

When I visited Nevis in 2014, marine management and conservation were still distant goals. While many local and international groups had discussed plans for implementing conservation tactics, nothing had been done yet to slow the decline of the area’s marine ecosystems. The Department of Marine Resources on Nevis, the governing body responsible for creating and enforcing laws pertaining to the area’s reefs and their resources, didn’t even have access to a boat.

Now, two years later, St. Kitts and Nevis has created its first marine managed area, including the designation of two marine reserves. A huge step forward for the country’s marine conservation and management goals, the question is now raised, will this plan be successful in balancing the needs of local fishermen, tourists and the environment? Will the drafted plans, with their carefully thought-out strategies and goals, become reality?

The term “paper park” has been used to refer to marine managed areas, including protected areas and reserves, that are faced with political, cultural or enforcement challenges that limit their success, resulting in plans that exist solely on paper. A policing boat, intended to enforce a new fishing regulation on a small island, may be hesitant to issue a citation because the fisherman in question is a cousin of a close friend. The need to provide dinner for his family may overpower the risk of getting caught in a no-catch fishing zone. A lack of environmental education may make it difficult for a community to understand why regulations, such as a catch limit or protected area restrictions, are beneficial.

But looking at the recently released plans for St. Kitts and Nevis’ marine managed area, I’m hopeful for the future of the country’s reefs and marine resources. The Narrows Marine Reserve, an area of high biodiversity between the two islands, will prohibit fishing in a section of the managed area. The Reserve is accompanied by a promise for increased enforcement of fishing regulations, which has been almost nonexistent up to this point. The Reserve is intended to protect vital species and allow for the maturation of juvenile species, a crucial component of maintaining healthy reefs and fish stocks over time. (You can view the full project summary here.)

The plan also designates a Fishing Priority Area, a section of the managed area in which authorized boats may fish, a strategy intended to accommodate the resource needs of local families and stakeholders. Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs)structures made from buoys or other materials, will be used to attract fish to the Fishing Priority Area, as well. While somewhat controversial in regards to their possible overexploitation of fish stocks, FADs have the potential to increase food security if used alongside substantial, ongoing monitoring efforts of fish populations.

While it’s still too early to tell if the country’s plans will be successful, I have high hopes for St. Kitts and Nevis, and am excited to follow the story of the islands that welcomed me with open arms, and left me transfixed, years before.

St. Kitts and Nevis established its first Marine Managed Area on August 18th, 2016. The recent summary report released by The Nature Conservancy, the Caribbean Marine Protected Areas Management Network (CaMPAM) and other project partners outlines the management plan for the islands. 

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