Bermuda has a long history of robust conservation measures – in fact, Bermuda introduced some of the earliest conservation legislation in the world. Without some of these initiatives, Bermuda’s natural environment might have looked drastically different than it does today.
1. Sea Turtle Protections
Bermuda passed its first law to protect turtles in 1620 – and it may have been the New World’s first ever written conservation legislation. The law prohibited the catching and killing of young turtles that measured less than 18 inches across or around the shell.
Some of the oldest written records of the early settlers describe the abundance of green turtles on Bermuda’s shores– green turtles were even described nesting here, laying up to 500 eggs at a time. However, they were also a very easy to catch and convenient source of food. Their populations were quickly depleted.
By the 1930s further legislation was passed to prohibit the taking of turtles under a certain weight. Turtles had to be protected until they reached sexual maturity and could reproduce to prevent the species from going into decline. Even the settlers in 1620 could understand this. However, Bermuda has a cultural history of eating green turtles, and this was still done up to the 70s – as evidenced by our article on Dennis’ Hideaway.
In 1972, a 5-year moratorium on the taking of green turtles was put in place. In 1978, they were officially listed as endangered in the U.S. Bermuda permanently extended this law and green turtles have been fully protected ever since. There were also further protections added such as no wake zones. Now, Bermuda is one of the only places where the endangered turtle is common.
2. Parrotfish Protections
Locals have no problems asserting the importance of protecting Bermuda’s favorite jewel-toned fish. However, all species of parrotfish only became protected in 1993. This legislation followed a period in the 80s when parrotfish accounted for 36% of reef fish catch in Bermuda. Fishermen had started to catch them in 1977 when more desirable species, such as grouper and snapper, were in decline.
Parrotfish are a keystone species for Bermuda’s reefs. They feed by scraping algae and seaweed off of the rocks, and this in turn ensures that corals do not become overwhelmed by the algae. They also produce beach sand when they excrete the excess rock they have ingested, making them an important factor countering beach erosion. Thanks to the quick action of the Bermuda government, parrotfish were put on to the list of protected species.
The presence of parrotfish gives rise to a healthy reef. This can be demonstrated starkly by the decline of Caribbean reefs, which many researchers believe is in part due to commercial fishing of parrotfish in Caribbean waters.
3. Banning Fish Pots
Bermuda has a rich history of fishing, with locals relying on the abundance of fish in Bermuda’s waters for recreational and commercial fisheries. Banning fish pots was very controversial as substantial fishing regulations didn’t come into play until the 1970s.
At that point the effects of overfishing on the Bermuda platform were only beginning to be understood. Many fishermen felt powerless in the face of new regulations that were often poorly communicated, and enacted without public consultation.
Fish pots are metal structures with strategically-placed openings that allow organisms, like fish or lobsters, to enter the trap, but which make escape difficult or impossible. Bait is affixed to the traps and left overnight or longer, and fishermen can return later to retrieve the catch.
In the late 80s, an organization called Friends of Fish entered the scene, establishing that fish pots were largely to blame for the decline of Bermuda’s reefs. The lines running from the traps can entangle other marine life, such as turtles and marine mammals – which can lead to stress and possibly death. The traps are often dragged along the seabed damaging corals and sponges. Furthermore ‘ghost traps’ – fish pots that are lost and become drifting marine debris – continue to trap animals, but the traps are never opened and the animals die.
Banning fish pots was an important step in protecting Bermuda’s corals, and worked in tandem with the prohibition of fishing parrotfish – if the legislation had not been enacted when it was, our reefs may have looked very different today.
Photo courtesy of Nonsuch Island Expeditions (@nonsuchexpeditions)
4. Nonsuch Island
It would not be possible to write about Bermuda’s conservation initiatives without mentioning the ‘living museum’ of Nonsuch Island. Nonsuch Island is a highly specialized nature reserve, developed over many years by Dr. David Wingate and now managed by Jeremy Medeiros. Nonsuch Island was one of the earliest examples of ecological restoration in the world.
The aim of Nonsuch Island was to create an environment for the endangered and endemic Bermuda Petrel, or Cahow. Dr. David Wingate realized that the most effective way to conserve the rare birds would be to create a haven for them based on pre-colonial Bermuda.
A cahow’s lifestyle is so specialized to the pre-colonial environment, and the island has been changed so much by human arrival, that an initiative like Nonsuch was the only way to ensure their continued existence.
Nonsuch Island is home only to native and endemic plants and animals, and allows them to thrive as they would be unable to on the mainland. This was achieved over years of re-planting efforts, and prevention of introduced species reaching the island.
5. Bermuda Ocean Prosperity Programme
In 2019 the Bermuda Government unveiled one of the most significant conservation initiatives in recent years: the Bermuda Ocean Prosperity Program (BOPP). Bermuda has committed to fully protecting 20% of its exclusive economic zone, that is, the area within 200 nautical miles off the coast of Bermuda. In the protected areas (which are yet to be chosen), no fishing or extraction of any kind would be allowed.
Marine protected areas generally support much larger populations of fish than areas that are not protected. The population of fish existing in the marine protected areas will eventually reach a point where they must venture outside of the marine protected area in order to find food, where they can be fished sustainably.
Marine protected areas allow for increased resilience of marine ecosystems by allowing corals and fish to thrive. Healthy reefs help to preserve our shores from coastal erosion, and encouraging ecotourism.
The BOPP have committed to include marine spatial planning in order to sustainably develop marine industries, such as tourism, transportation and fishing. The programme places a big emphasis on creating a solution that will benefit all Bermudians, by considering the needs of citizens as well as the environment.
Photographer Meredith Andrews is renowned for her work with ocean plastics. Using trash found during beach cleanups, Andrews repurposes the discarded plastic into striking pieces of art.
6. Potential Ban of Single Use Plastics
The Bermuda Government has recently introduced an initiative to ban single-use plastics on island. This initiative follows other nations that have made the switch, such as Jamaica, in response to calls by the UN to reduce marine litter in order to mitigate climate change.
Microplastics in the ocean are a huge problem – these tiny pieces of broken up plastic become integrated in the ocean food web as they are ingested by smaller organisms, which are in turn ingested by larger ones. The result is that humans may ingest about 5 grams of plastic per week because of its presence in our food.
The Bermuda government has committed to banning single use plastics by 2022. They hope to make the change as part of a process – including public consultation, followed by prohibition of importation of single use plastics in favor of biodegradable alternatives. This single use plastics legislation will be an important step in ensuring Bermuda becomes part of the change to a more sustainable and waste-free world.