Building a blue economy in the Bahamas and globally
One of the best tools we have right now for improving the health of our marine ecosystems is a Marine Protected Areas (MPA). And to operate and manage an MPA effectively, we have to run them like any other business. We can’t depend only on governments and grants to pay for MPAs. We need a new source of revenue that will allow for proper management — sustainable funding — and that is what is leading our efforts at Ocean Crest Alliance (OCA), to create a Blue Economy that will contribute to marine reserve management and in turn create new business and job opportunities for generations to come.
From January 2018 to May 2020, the founders of our nonprofit, OCA, signed a two-year contract with the Bahamas National Trust (BNT), to manage and operate one of the oldest marine parks in the world — the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park (ECLSP). The BNT manages 32 national parks across the Bahamian archipelago, relying mostly on government, grants and private donations to stay solvent.
During our tenure, we worked to create a new business model at the park that would operate financially sustainable, something that had not been achieved in the park’s 58 years of operations.
“I can say with great confidence that Joe and the OCA completely transformed the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park and made it ship-shape and much more functional,” says Eric Carey, executive director of the BNT. “Last year, for the first time ever in its history, Exuma Park covered its operating cost, with a significant surplus to support other parks.”
So how did we achieve this success in such a short period of time? First and foremost, we worked to create or enhance several revenue streams, one being through Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) to help with the sustainable management of the 174 square miles of marine habitat. For example, one way we drove more revenue was by increasing user fees for boats (mostly yachts) based on length, passenger count and other factors. These luxury vessels want to anchor in the park and enjoy some of the most pristine waters on the planet. In almost all cases, they are more than willing to pay a fair user fee, especially knowing that those dollars are being used to maintain and improve the facilities, such as the visitor’s center or the series of mooring balls that protect the reefs from anchor damage.
In addition to being financially sustainable, this MPAs success was also designed to be replicable, based on the location, the local framework, the number of the users of the MPA and the ecosystems requirements. This business model is scalable globally and is being tailored accordingly to attract the many PPP opportunities as well as Venture Capital groups, looking to get into and support a potential lucrative business of the Blue Economy.
This type of co-management agreement was adopted and created between the OCA founders and the BNT to improve the management and operations of the ECLSP through investable initiatives, such as adding more moorings, expanding the dive operations, offering snorkel, kayaking and land-based tours, providing more lodging opportunities, and any other traditional revenue streams that are offered to tourists.
This is not rocket science, but when a park is running on financial fumes, which is most often the case, there’s no money for expansion. VC money can provide the capital needed to build out infrastructure and staffing needs so that parks can capitalize on traditional tourism income. The only difference is to create a for-profit business within the operations to help enhance the nonprofit entity of the park, satisfying the financial needs for both. This type of arrangement has been operating within our land-based national parks for years, with both business entities generating sustainable funding to run their respective operations while maintaining the management goals and commitments to keeping the park natural and pristine.
If the co-management operations move along without a hitch, it becomes an attractive and effective model for private investors, who are keen to put their money to work in ocean conservation. In the past, when wealthy users donated funds to parks, the only financial benefit was getting a tax write-off. If done properly, funding can now become investments with significant returns. This is both good for the giver and the environment.
Of course, the notion that our unspoiled oceans and coastal areas should be managed for the benefit of private investors is uncomfortable for some. No one wants to see an Atlantis-style resort or Disney World atmosphere built in an ultra-pristine national park. That’s why the management company and agreement are critical to the overall planning. Profits are great to attract more investors — but not to the detriment of the ecosystem.
MPA Challenges Globally
While we have seen an increase in the number of Marine Protected Areas globally, most do not achieve what they are designed to do. Unless we start running MPAs like any successful business, they will fail. As our dear friend and supporter Dr. Guy Harvey says, “It takes cash to care.”
MPAs take on many flavors, from an area being closed to all human activities — such as fishing, boating and extraction, called a No Take Zone (NTZ) — to areas designated as Marine Managed Areas (MMAs), which encompass sustainable fisheries, nature-friendly tourism and conservation areas called a multi-use zone. The methods may vary, but the goal is clear: to mitigate the negative impact of human activity and to protect and support marine life in all its forms.
Presently there are 14,092 MPAs around the world, with 1,014 being fully/highly protected and 13,078 being less protected/unknown or as many call them “paper MPAs” — meaning there is no effective level of management being implemented. As a percentage, this equates to 6.4% of our oceans under protection, with 2.7% being fully protected and 3.7% being less protected. This figure is seen as too low by many conservationists, who argue that 50% would be a more appropriate target.
The global challenge is that many of the countries that have marine reserves are typically developing economies with myriad issues needing attention. The political will and vast financial resources needed for management of these reserves can be hard to come by. And if you are not policing the area for illegal activities, or if you are not clamping down on development and pollution, then you will see no real improvement — or perhaps even degradation — in the biodiversity and water quality.
Value of MPA’s
The first hurdle in creating successfully managed MPAs is convincing governments and the local stakeholders of their value. That process can take years of working with the various parties, such as the fishing, tourism and energy industries impacted by new MPAs.
More data is needed to show that MPAs are in the best interests of the country’s economy, especially countries like the Bahamas that are reliant on tourism and fishing — their No. 1 and No. 3 economies respectively. Data has already shown that effectively managed marine reserves can produce on average approximately seven times more biomass than an unprotected area, providing a blueprint of success to all stakeholders of the area.
Like Florida and other beach/water-related locations, Bahamian tourism is reliant on thriving coral reefs, clean beaches and abundant marine life. That is why the tourists come. If those assets deteriorate, tourism and revenue drop, and both the environment and economy suffer.
The dive industry in the Bahamas generates nearly $115 million per year, with a large percent of that money coming from shark diving, according to a 2018 study in the scientific journal Biological Conservation. The study found that the Bahamas has the largest shark diving economy in the world. This is exciting because it demonstrates the stream of economic benefits that the Bahamas is receiving from conservation actions it took many years ago.
Even with excellent examples like this, it’s still hard to convince governments of the relationship between ocean health and climate change and the subsequent impact on coastal areas.
Science has proven that sea levels are rising. Investing in our marine environment, such as mangroves and sea grasses, creates a buffer to coastlines as well as carbon sequestration.
The long road to operate financially sustainable MPAs is what leads Ocean Crest Alliance efforts, but ultimately it is the political will of the government and the community that will bring success to these efforts. That is the chief challenge. We are hopeful that once we have a couple of models in place and the benefits become clear, governments will be more open to the idea of co-management of our marine resources by community stakeholders and NGOs such as OCA.
Born and raised in Italy, Alessandro Sarno made his first trip to the Bahamas approximately 12 years ago, and it was a trip that changed his life. Mesmerized by the incredible blue waters, he was compelled to buy his first camera. What started out as a short vacation transformed into a deep love for both photography and the Bahamas, where he still feels most inspired to capture the everyday moments of life. Sarno has published five coffee table books portraying life in the islands: Exumas: The Kingdom of Blue, Eleuthera: The Garden of Freedom, Junkanoo: The Spirit of a People, Catch Da Cat, and Blue And Beyond. Sarno’s photography focuses on the details and crossroads of daily life: community gatherings, worship services, wildlife, vistas of solitude, rhythms of connection, forgotten corners, unexpected treasures and other small details illuminating humanity’s vastness. His personal notes and thoughts on what makes for a more memorable and deeper visitor experience are found in his unique curated photography books: The Exuma Cays Land & Sea Park, Eleuthera, and White Bull on the Highway.
For more info, visit TheLonesomePhotographer.com.
Ocean Crest Alliance Adventure Centers
Diversity is key to sustainability
Following our first-hand experience in operating and creating a financially sustainable MPA in the Exuma Cays, Ocean Crest Alliance designed a PPP model for the co-management of an even larger MPA, a 257,000-acre park known as the Long Island Marine Management Area (LIMMA). At the heart of this MPA will be an OCA Adventure Center, which we plan to build to create income via user fees paid by the many visitors — tourists, filmmakers, scientists, researchers, adventurers, explorers and others who just want to relax on the beach and enjoy the sunset.
Other focus areas for the park include coral reef ecosystem improvements, reducing pollution, expanding clean energy, enhancing local food production, promoting community engagement, developing alternative incomes for local citizens, increasing scientific research and finally compliance and enforcement. On this latter point, enforcement, which has always been one of the most difficult aspects of marine conservation, the Bahamian government will provide wardens who will have policing functions so our marine resources are protected.
To start with, 13 permanent staff will be hired, with annual operational expenses expected to run to about $1 million. Capital expenditure for vessels, scientific equipment and the actual construction of an adventure center will add another $3 million. We anticipate these same costs for other OCA Adventure Centers we build on other islands and in other countries.
Beyond the heavy focus on the environment, the financial return on the investment could be as high as 20% to 30% annually. Based on what we have learned from the effects of COVID on the global tourism sector, we wanted to be conservative with our numbers. At 20% yearly growth year over year, and based on our five-year projections, we show a gross revenue of $3,499,770. This sort of return makes for an attractive investment for PPP and VC groups.
To finance the Adventure Center projects, investment will come from the many blue economy financial institutions, public and private investors, VC groups and grants. To get each center up and running will cost approximately $5 million. Once we show how this proof of concept works on small MPAs such as the ECLSP and LIMMA, the concept can be scaled up to accommodate the larger MPAs around the planet, thereby providing a template for Blue Economy growth around the globe.
Ocean Crest Alliance is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to honor, protect and restore the health of the world’s oceans and the life of the earth’s systems through conservation, research, education, science and technology.The projects and programs we are involved with provide relevant and beneficial information to every marine ecosystem worldwide and to all of earth’s living systems. Our Mission contributes to United Nations SDGs nº14 (‘life below water’), nº2 (‘achieve food security), nº7 (‘sustainable energy’), nº8 (‘decent work’), nº5 (‘gender equality), nº12 (‘sustainable consumption and production’), and nº13 (‘climate action’) as a priority. We will dedicate our resources to build marine operation facilities, design and build a fleet of vessels to support the sustainability of the various contracted research projects, as well as, to assist in the establishing of Marine Protected Areas (MPA’s).