Barbuda — precious blue

For islands, coastal waters form a boundary, but also a source of life, offering food and other resources, and protection from storms. When Barbuda’s coast began to suffer from decades of pollution and overfishing, the Blue Halo Initiative stepped in. Nazma Muller finds out more

  • Mangroves and sea grass flourish in Barbuda’s Codrington Lagoon. Photo courtesy Waitt Institute
  • Frigatebirds nesting in Barbuda’s Codrington Lagoon. Photo ©iStock/Temmuz Can Arsiray

The people of Barbuda are culturally connected to the sea, depending on it for food, recreation, and their livelihoods. Coral reefs and mangroves act as a buffer zone, protecting the shoreline from the impact of storms. Elderly Barbudan fishermen recall when they could harvest conch in water that barely reached their knees. But for the last couple of decades, the lobsters and fish have been getting smaller and fewer, and the fishermen have to venture further out to sea to find fish — and still their catch is much smaller than it used to be. Years of overfishing, agricultural pesticide run-off, and coastal development have wreaked havoc on marine ecosystems.

Algae smothers more than three-quarters of the island’s reefs, leading to a dramatic drop in groupers and snappers, a long-time staple of the Barbudan diet. An assessment of Barbuda’s coral cover in 2013 found that it was a paltry 2.6 per cent, much lower than the already dismal Caribbean average of seventeen per cent. Barbuda’s tiny size makes it very vulnerable to climate change, and any rise in sea level would have serious consequences.

It’s an alarming situation, but out of the blue (as it were) help has come from an unexpected source, a project whose beginnings were decidedly landlocked.


In September 1985, a twenty-two-year-old named Theodore Waitt from Sioux City, Iowa, started a company, along with Mike Hammond, using a US$10,000 loan, secured by Waitt’s grandmother. The start-up’s HQ was the farmhouse on Waitt’s father’s cattle ranch. Using a rented computer and a three-page business plan, the two gave birth to the company that would become known as Gateway 2000. Within a decade, their distinctive black and white computer boxes, boasting the colours of Holstein Friesian cattle (a nod to Gateway’s agrarian roots), were known across the globe, and the company had entered the Fortune 500.

Eventually, the billionaire became a philanthropist. In 1993, Ted Waitt launched the Waitt Foundation, with the aim of strengthening communities. When he finally retired from Gateway, the born-and-bred Iowan took to the seas. What he saw shook him to the core. As he travelled across the oceans, he saw the devastating effects of modern living and climate change: tonnes of rubbish on beaches, dying reefs, and fisheries on the verge of collapse. So in 2006 the Foundation established the Waitt Institute for Discovery to fund research into both the past and the future: historical discoveries and future innovations.

The Institute supported ocean exploration expeditions, using the latest technology to survey shipwrecks, do 3D mappings (most notably, of the Titanic crash site), and provide submarine research in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In 2009, the Foundation also turned its focus to ocean conservation, and entered a very important partnership with the National Geographic Society. It also became a Pew Global Ocean Legacy partner, collaborated with the University of California–Santa Barbara’s Sustainable Fisheries Group, and funded the Small-Scale and Artisanal Fisheries Research Network at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

That same year, Waitt and a National Geographic team met with the government of Bermuda, and the concept of a “blue halo,” a large offshore marine reserve, took form. The idea was simple: set some areas aside, protect key species, and prevent habitat damage. This would benefit the economy, ensure food security, and the ocean would be used sustainably by not only this generation, but those to come.

In 2012, Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnson was appointed executive director of the Waitt Institute. The marine biologist had already held policy positions at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency in the US. Her PhD, from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, looked at how to sustainably manage coral reefs, based on extensive fieldwork in the Caribbean islands of Curaçao and Bonaire. Coral reefs are the bedrock of many of the economies in the region, generating US$3 billion a year through tourism and fishing, in addition to providing protection from storms. Johnson identified the tiny island of Barbuda (population 1,600) as the first Caribbean site for the Blue Halo Initiative.


The main thrust of the Blue Halo Initiative is to reach consensus among all stakeholders, and balance current and future needs. Working closely with the community and the Waitt Institute, the Council of Barbuda drafted and signed into law in August 2014 regulations aimed at restoring and protecting its coastal waters. Based on extensive data collected by scientists and seventeen consultations with locals, the new laws aim to restore Barbuda’s coast and ensure its long-term health. Coastal waters have been zoned, parrotfish and urchins are now protected — as they are the main species that keep algae levels on reefs low, so the coral can grow — and one-third of all coastal areas has been placed into five marine sanctuaries. At the request of local fishermen, nets are no longer allowed on the reefs, to avoid damaging them.

The government has clearly defined which areas are open for fishing, diving, water sports, and so on. This minimises environmental impacts while still addressing the needs of the local community. A two-year hiatus on fishing in a designated lagoon will give fish populations and habitats the chance to recuperate. The protected areas will eventually recover: fish and lobster will increase in size and number, sharks and other predators will return, and the reefs will come back to life.

The new laws and awareness of the need to protect their “blue halo” have inspired Barbudans to implement and enforce the regulations. Through education and outreach, ocean conservation is now everyone’s business. Over the next few years, the Waitt Institute will continue to work with the Barbuda Council to train locals in marine ecology, design effective enforcement strategies, provide needed equipment, and develop an ocean education curriculum for schools so that the next generation understands their responsibility to the sea.

And where next? The Waitt Institute is working with the governments of Montserrat and Curaçao to develop their own Blue Halo initiatives, with hopes that the model will be adapted elsewhere in the Caribbean. After all, the sea that defines our islands is the greatest natural resource we share.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.