Bonaire 2011- Looking Back

After dozens of interviews, hours of field research, and some serious thought- I think I figured it out. I think I figured out why Bonaire has such a successful reef conservation program. It’s a combination of multiple factors, all of which feed off of each other to create a healthy and dynamic partnership between the human population and the environment. But what is the most important, most influential factor? The international conservation organization of Bonaire recognizes the importance of connectivity.

The idea of connectivity isn’t exactly common sense. For example, it seems that if you want to decrease damage to coral reefs, you should establish protected areas around the reef itself. In fact, that’s exactly what many Caribbean islands have done in recent years. Should solve the problem, right? Not exactly- Caribbean reefs are still disappearing in alarming numbers. To understand why this is the case, you need to have a little background in fish biology. For example, for many reef species, juvenile maturity actually occurs in nearby mangrove forests where there are clumps of tangled roots to protect from fierce predators. Then, the young fish make their way back to the reef where they feed and reproduce. But mangrove forests are being destroyed worldwide for shrimp fisheries and cheap wood. So even if an island protects its reef system, juvenile fish cannot reach maturity if there aren’t available mangrove forests.

This is where Bonaire gets it right. STINAPA, the conservation organization of Bonaire, recognizes the importance of protecting every type of ecosystem. Coral heads, mangrove forests, sea grass beds, and sand lagoons all have an important role in fish reproduction. It’s an intricate web of food transfer and population migrations. By not protecting all of those ecosystems, the entire structure of the food chain is disrupted.

Bonaire has room for improvement, especially when it comes to managing development and offshore runoff. But overall, the island has made tremendous strides that should be recognized and rewarded. I hope that other islands in the Caribbean look to Bonaire as an example for how to model their own conservation strategies. Bonaire is a perfect example of how environmental awareness can be incorporated with culture and economic growth. And with the reef system being such a delicate and beautiful resource, there is no time to waste.