Interview: Felicity Burrows
The manager of marine conservation in TNC’s Caribbean program works to promote more sustainable fishing practices in the Bahamas.
Working to create sustainable fisheries in the Bahamas is no easy task, but I’m told you have found at least one perk: When you come home from a work trip, you always bring the catch of the day. I realized that we conservationists don’t often patronize local businesses; we tend to come in with our agenda and then leave. For me, I like seafood, and I like the idea of supporting fishermen who are legally fishing. And then I get them involved in my conservation agenda, too.
I’ve been learning about the favorite cuisine in the Bahamas, and it reads like a Who’s Who of the overfished: grouper, snapper, tuna. It makes me wonder how you protect marine species without significantly changing the culture. It really depends on the species. For example, the Nassau grouper is on the [international] endangered species list and is still harvested and consumed here in the Bahamas. But we do have a closed season and size limits, and spawning aggregations are monitored every year to determine if their numbers are increasing or not.
Some of that management of grouper takes place within the realm of marine protected areas (MPAs), which TNC has helped establish, expand and manage in the Bahamas and elsewhere in the Caribbean. How do those MPAs work? First, the health of marine ecosystems—mangroves, coral reefs, endangered marine species—and threats that may be affecting their growth and productivity are assessed. Then resource use of the area is taken into consideration. All that information helps us design the most appropriate management scheme to protect and sustain marine biodiversity and human well-being. When we talk about successes, we’re not limiting that to ecological success. The MPA has to be respected and appreciated by the communities.
You’re talking about striking a balance. How do you do that with something like the queen conch, which is in decline and yet remains an iconic food of the Bahamas? People eat it every way imaginable. It’s challenging. In the Bahamas, eating conch is like drinking water. It’s also exported and commercially important. It’s fished throughout the year; there’s no season. So it’s not adequately managed. There are debates throughout the conservation realm about whether the conch should be considered for the endangered species list. But as soon as you establish a fishing season, it has a direct impact on business.
And yet it was business—economic pressure—that spurred the Bahamian government to place new regulations on the spiny lobster catch, a project you spent five years on. Yes, the European Union, which buys about 30 percent of the Bahamas’ spiny lobster exports, does not believe in buying depleted species. We did have seasons and size requirements for the lobster as far back as the ’70s. But those restrictions put everything on the fishermen. And so many others are involved: the processors, exporters, restaurants.
Wait. Before we go any further, you have to talk to me about spiny lobsters. I had to Google them. They don’t have large front claws the way Maine lobsters do. So what do you eat and how else are they different? The masses eat the lobster tail, and that’s what’s exported. The texture is different from Maine lobster. I think spiny lobster tends to have more texture, more content in meat. Most definitely I prefer spiny lobster.
Apparently so do a lot of Europeans. That’s one reason you’ve been working to get the seal of approval of the Marine Stewardship Council, which certifies to consumers that their seafood has been harvested in a sustainable manner. What’s involved in winning the approval? Going through that certification provides a process to try to better manage fisheries. And that process involves the government, the conservationists, the processers and the fishers—all different parts of the chain have to be on board to sustain the fishery. That’s one of the major values of the certification: It requires a comprehensive approach to sustaining fisheries.
Sustaining parrotfish is among the goals of a big five-year project you’re now leading with the support of the U.S. Agency for International Development.The agency is attempting a comprehensive approach to protecting marine biodiversity across the Caribbean islands. Unfortunately we now have an [emerging] global market for parrotfish. In the Bahamas, we have never looked at it as more than a pretty reef fish you see when snorkeling. We never relied on it, as they have in Jamaica and Haiti and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. But we have a growing Jamaican and Haitian population in the Bahamas and so fishermen could see an opportunity.
So the global market is small for these big herbivores. How do you keep it from growing, which could spell doom for reefs if those parrotfish disappear and all the algae they eat smother the reefs? We’ve been trying to educate people on the value of parrotfish and what happens if its population dwindles significantly. And so the first step is encouraging people to not harvest the juveniles. You start from there and work toward meeting the targeted goal, which would be to divert people from harvesting parrotfish, period. If we started with our end goal, we would not get as much support.
But for some species, at least in the Bahamas, you have been able to jump immediately to the end goal of “no take,” right? Yes. There is a total ban on fishing for sharks. We know they’re overfished globally and we understand their importance ecologically. And here, sharks are not part of our diet. Not fishing for sharks doesn’t interfere with livelihoods.
When you’re not thinking about economic livelihoods, I’m told you’re planning the next party. Talk to me about Junkanoo. It’s kind of like Carnival, but it’s very native to the Bahamas. We use a lot of our native instruments—goatskin drums, cowbells, empty conch shells to blow on—along with different brass instruments. I’m part of the major Junkanoo in Nassau; I dance, but not to instruments. I let the spirit move me. It always seems to be the best approach.
Your spirit, despite this land-based dance, has mainly been born of water, right? I’ve always been in the water. I was 17 or 18 when I got scuba-certified, which was not typical at all. If you talk to my mom, she says that if I was ever asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, I’d say I just want to swim with the fishes for my entire life.
What would you say that feels like? For me it’s as if you’re experiencing a whole other world that you don’t have control over. It’s as if you see people you’ve never seen before interacting in their home. I still go sit on the beach and imagine and snorkel and appreciate a different part of life. It’s been very meditative for me. I like the idea of experiencing another part of life well beyond what humans experience day to day.
And one of your long-term goals is to make sure that that other part of life is still here for other generations to experience. When you promote the environment for what it is, then you attract the people who respect it. I want to be remembered not only for promoting the environment but for paving the way. I always try to bring people along the way. I want to know that I helped to try to create change agents for my country.