Conservation

Making waves in Barbados

Words by Beth Finney
Photographs by John Alexander

Pale sunlight dances across languid, rolling waves.

Net bags at the ready, a group of 26 volunteers – a mix of residents and tourists – plunge into the teal Barbadian waters. They drift to the ocean floor, fins kicking against the current, and began their search for marine debris to gather and log using the Project AWARE Dive Against Debris data app. Goggles, bottles, ‘compostable’ plastic cups and strands of fishing line are quickly collected.

“We’ve been doing underwater clean-ups since 1998,” says André Miller, marine biologist and founder of Barbados Blue dive shop. “Even in Carlisle Bay, when we first started, we used to remove thousands of pounds of debris at a time. Nowadays it’s more like 80-90lbs, so we can see that we’ve removed a lot and that hopefully, people are dropping less plastic.”

Like most island nations around the world, Barbados has suffered from discarded single-use materials, but in an innovative move, the government has introduced a gradual ban on single-use plastics. This started on April 1st this year with a countrywide ban on the importation of petro-based single-use plastics. Vendors and retailers on the island had until July 1st to use up existing stock. On January 1st, 2020, a ban on all petro-based plastic bags will come into effect. Cups, cutlery, straws, crockery, egg trays and Styrofoam containers are slowly but surely disappearing from view. “Our sea space is 424 times the size of our land space. I believe we have to treat with more urgency and a greater degree of seriousness the things that are in our ocean,” says Kirk Humphrey, Minister of Maritime Affairs and the Blue Economy in Barbados. “This is our chance to be innovative, creative and self-supporting and look for sustainable, indigenous ways to do our thing. For me, it’s never been about banning plastics but about doing my small part to save our planet and country, and about local entrepreneurs coming up with new ways to do this.”

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Back on land after a productive ocean clean-up, teams from Barbados Blue, Eco Dive Barbados and Project AWARE settle down with volunteers to start sorting through their 145lbs of marine debris. Plastic fragments, bags and food wrappers were the main items found on the dive, and 65% of the 309 pieces of trash collected was plastic. This aligned with the Project AWARE global dataset that shows that the majority of marine debris found globally through its Dive Against Debris program is made of plastic.

“It’s not about being anti-plastic. Plastic is an amazing, innovative product. It’s about being anti-single-use plastic. For small islands it’s fundamental to decrease that as quickly as possible – they simply don’t have the space,” says Danna Moore, Director of Project AWARE. “We’ve seen other islands implement the same restrictions and it’s invigorated the local economy. For example, in Vanuatu, they used the Dive Against Debris data to start implementing a ban, initially on plastic bags. A completely new industry emerged – woven bags being made by the local community. That’s exactly what will happen here. They will have to decide what they are going to replace these plastics with, and that will bring in an innovative and entrepreneurial industry.”

Within the global ocean conservation movement, divers have a unique opportunity to document, analyse and share their experiences beneath the waves with those who have little to no connection with the water. Additionally, Project AWARE has found that this community is willing to go the extra mile for citizen science in order to protect their office and playground. So far, it has had 57,000 divers participate in more than 8,000 surveys – numbers that demonstrate the power of a motivated community. “Without partners like Barbados Blue and community leaders like André, we couldn’t have the conservation impact we do. Our community is what drives our work and we always seek to engage and support champions like André in their local communities,” explains Danna.

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Project AWARE has been running the Dive Against Debris initiative for nearly a decade and has been working with Barbados Blue for more than 20 years. Together, they work hard to activate the global diving community and to empower the local community in Barbados through various campaigns, including Dive Against Debris, Adopt a Dive Site, and DiveFest, which is in its third year. By engaging both global and local groups, they can gain actionable data to inform national environmental policy changes. For Barbados, a single-use plastic ban is likely only the beginning.

“Attitudes still need to change. This ban is a good first step, but bioplastics can choke a turtle or trap a hatchling just as well as petroleum-based plastic,” says Carla Daniel, director of public education and awareness at the Barbados Sea Turtle Project (BSTP). “This has sparked the conversation around the impact of plastic on our local environment and on the health of our people. Hopefully now people will be more conscious and will have an awareness that there’s a cost attached to using plastic.”

The BSTP is another example of how powerful a community can be. Sustained almost entirely by volunteers, it’s another area in which eco-tourism is starting to have an impact. Whether it’s students coming to the island to volunteer with the BSTP or divers coming to experience the beautiful reefs and help with clean-ups or turtle tagging, there’s a new wave of visitors looking to raise awareness, gain education and leave Barbados a little better off than when they arrived.

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“We’re hoping that the plastic ban equates to less plastic on our reefs, beaches and in our waterways. Along with that there’s now a lot more education. Every year we take 100 children from the island who wouldn’t have been exposed to the ocean or to water activities and we take them out on the boat and teach them how to swim with our water awareness course,” says Miller. “Since DiveFest started we have taught 400 kids that they don’t need to be afraid of the sea. They now understand what we have to lose if we don’t take care of it. These kids are our greatest ambassadors because they go home and tell their families why they can’t drop plastic and why we need to help the reefs.”

Miller was responsible for Barbados’ Carlisle Bay being turned into a protected marine park. Twenty years ago, he sunk four wrecks with the help of local volunteers and friends to create artificial reefs, which have since become popular dive sites. Sure enough, when diving the wrecks one afternoon, sergeant majors and jacks soar around the wrecks, while seahorses, frogfish and spotted moray eels peer out from the sandy banks below. Conservation in action.

Globally, there is still a long way to go in terms of solving the problems of overfishing, climate change and ocean pollution, but changes like those being made in Barbados offer up a glimmer of hope for the future of the ocean. Community-driven action can inspire global change – and there are plenty of change-makers in Barbados. Here’s hoping the rest of the world is watching.

‘No hatchling left behind’, a beautiful and thought-provoking piece about the people and organisations working hard to protect turtles in Barbados, features in Issue 08 of Oceanographic Magazine – available now to pre-order

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Photographs by John Alexander

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