Model Island

New work in the Bahamas proves that economic prosperity and ecological health can go hand in hand.

At daybreak on October 6, 2016, Lowe Sound was a quaint seaside fishing community at the northern tip of Andros Island, The Bahamas. By lunchtime, it was all but gone. Hurricane Matthew, the most powerful Atlantic storm in a decade, struck the island at around 8 o’clock that morning. Over the course of five brutal hours, winds snapped utility poles, ripped trees out from their roots, and tossed cars around like toys. Old wooden homes were literally blown to pieces. But it was the shallow waters off the coast that wreaked the most havoc. “The sound has only about 4 feet of water during high tide,” says Ivan Ferguson, the town administrator. “No one thought it was a threat.”

They were wrong. “The surge—15 feet of surge—rushed onto the land,” says Ferguson. The wall of water obliterated coastal cafes, swallowed supply stores, and inundated areas up to 4 miles inland. Ferguson recounts stories of homes filling with seawater, frantic parents in chest-high waters holding babies above their heads. Even the deceased weren’t left in peace. Caskets and crypts from a seaside cemetery were washed into the street and onto people’s lawns, the human remains they once contained now a part of history.

It’s hard to look at even two months later. “Oh my God. There were homes all along here,” says Katie Arkema, her eyes welling up. “There were people hanging out, singing, listening to music.” Arkema, a lead scientist with an organization called the Natural Capital Project, or NatCap, has been a regular on Andros since July 2015. An ecologist based at Stanford University, Arkema began her career studying how changes to one ecosystem—kelp forests, for example—have a domino effect, impacting neighboring natural areas, like reefs, and their inhabitants. But for her, there was always an important component missing: people. She joined NatCap to give her work a more real-life, human connection. Unfortunately, in circumstances such as this, that can also bring heartbreak. “It’s so, so sad this had to happen,” she says, shaking her head.

NatCap, as its name implies, views natural ecosystems and their components as capital, as assets whose inherent features generate a positive return for society. Mangroves, for example, buffer coasts from storm surge and sap the energy of waves. These are hugely valuable services, but they often go completely unnoticed. Arkema has spent the last year and a half assessing areas across Andros, in part, to identify where and how local ecosystems could potentially be restored, expanded, or even newly introduced to help protect communities from catastrophes like the one that struck here in October.

Indeed, early analyses by Arkema and her team had flagged Lowe Sound as being at very high risk for major storm damage long before the hurricane hit. A key factor in this dire assessment was the shallow, shelf-like sound itself, a perfect platform upon which ocean waters can quickly rise under extreme conditions. “Where it’s really wide and flat, the water can just build, build, build up on it,” explains Arkema. To make matters worse, mangroves that once fringed Lowe Sound were removed in 2009 and replaced by a road and sidewalk, protected by a three-foot-high seawall. If the mangroves had been left in place, would it have averted this disaster? “For sure it would have done something,” says Arkema. “Whether or not it would have been able to prevent all this damage, I don’t know.” We’re in Lowe Sound now, in part, to figure this out.

To this end, Arkema and her team document anything and everything that influences water dynamics. They measure the slope of the beach, and how it changes, from the water line to the dry shore. They note any shoreline vegetation, like seagrape or mangrove, as well as the structure of the shore itself, because mud, sand, and rock affect water flow to varying degrees. They survey the nearshore for seagrass and corals, and record their location and depth. They even measure the length and width of seagrass blades and the diameter of sand grains. It all matters. Meanwhile, a drone flies overhead, capturing a bird’s-eye view of mangrove stands, sandbars, seagrass beds, and patch reefs, and their locations relative to roads, homes, and other infrastructure.

NatCap will use this information in models to create a sort of digital coastline. Then they’ll simulate storm surge and wave action and visualize the risk for flooding and property damage throughout the area. Add virtual mangroves here and a reef there to see how storm damage changes. The picture that emerges provides a roadmap that informs decisions about which natural features, where, and at what extent, would provide meaningful protections in the future.

“Ideally, we’d have a menu of nature-based solutions including seagrass planting, mangrove rehabilitation, and artificial reefs,” says local engineer and NatCap partner Michelle Lakin Hope, who will be responsible for putting the analyses into action, in consultation with government officials and with funding from the Inter-American Development Bank. “We may also consider installing offshore islands.”

It’s a massive undertaking and it gives hope to the people of Lowe Sound. But it doesn’t stop there. The government of The Bahamas is looking to revitalize all of Andros. This means protecting all of the island’s vulnerable coastal communities, while at the same time creating jobs and modernizing the island. Andros has been in a state of stagnation since the 1980s, society literally crumbling with every passing year as seawalls collapse, local businesses fail, and young people leave the island in search of more promising opportunities. NatCap is here to help Androsians carry out a colossal upgrade—but one that carefully retains the thriving natural environment on which this island community depends.

To this end, the organization must map and model everything about the island, from beaches, forests, homes, and sources of freshwater to the impacts of various business activities. Then, similar to the Lowe Sound storm analysis, they will simulate the impacts of a force—this time, development—on society and the environment to essentially predict the future. They’ll present the results to the public in maps and graphics that illustrate the outcomes of various scenarios—enabling islanders to literally see where their path will lead based on decisions they make today.

Having conducted dozens of similar projects around the world, from the United States and Central and South America through Africa to Asia, NatCap is uniquely positioned to pull off such a monumental feat. With its work ranging from coastal planning, which balances development and conservation, to quantifying the jobs supported by a species or ecosystem, to helping multinational corporations lessen their environmental impact, NatCap has honed its analytical skills, and its modeling tools. The organization’s goal: finding harmony among a vast array of human needs and local habitats. This would be a tall order just about anywhere, but Andros presents its own unique set of challenges. Indeed, this project is one of NatCap’s most complex to date, requiring inland, coastal, and marine plans, all integrated in a strictly ecofriendly way that would provide a major boost to the economy.

“Incoming—12 o’clock, 80 feet,” says Charles Bethell in an excited half-shout, half-whisper. He stands atop a three-foot-high platform in the rear of a small flat-bottom skiff. Up there, he can spot the legendary “gray ghosts” that haunt the shallow waters we navigate—before they detect us. “Going left. 10 o’clock,” he rasps, straining to be heard by his passengers without tipping off our whereabouts to the approaching underwater apparition. Although Bethell cut the engine long ago, and now uses a 20-foot pole to shove us around the shallows, the odds of being detected by our quarry are still high. “You hear that little pitter-patter?” he asks, referring to the light lapping of water against the boat’s hull. “They hear that.”

We’re on the remote western shore of Andros, and the ghouls we’re chasing are bonefish (genus Albula), one of the most prized trophies in saltwater fly fishing. These sleek, bullet-shaped sport fish, named for their bony flesh, truly earn their eerie nickname. Their stark-white bellies and silver flanks disappear between the sparkling surface waters and chalky carbonate mud flats they inhabit; dark bars across their backs blend into sparse patches of seagrass and the ripples created by light winds. They’re also ridiculously easy to spook, and one of the fastest fishes on the flats. Any hint of danger and—poof!—they blast off and vanish into the distance. Only a very sharp and seasoned eye (behind polarized sunglasses) can track them.

Bonefish guides like 30-year veteran Bethell find and trail fish to direct the casts of anglers. The thrill of stalking a gray ghost lurking nearby, even if you can’t quite see it; the challenge of continually placing the fly where you’re told the fish is headed; and the suspense of wondering if a phantom will bite is half the draw of this popular sport. The other half is the bonefish’s fight. Once hooked, “It rockets off like a torpedo,” says Bethell. “There’s nothing quite like it.” A two-foot-long bone can bolt the length of a football field in seconds. Landing them is an experience sought out by serious, expert anglers the world over.

Sadly, I’m not here to fish. Bethell and his wife Cindy are just showing me the ropes—and their chunk of the most extensive bonefishing flats on Earth. “Andros has millions of acres in the backcountry,” says Bethell. “It’s unbelievable.” The Bethells run a lodge centered around the fish—which, here, is no simple feat. There’s no one and nothing around except a maze of mangroves and mudflats interspersed among tidal creeks and estuaries—an immense nursery and feeding grounds for everything from shrimp and crabs to bonefish, barracuda, sharks, and critically endangered sawfish. There are no roads, much less public utilities supplying electricity and potable water.

It took the Bethells three decades to build their lodge from the ground up—boating in wood, cement, roofing, furniture, you name it, from Nassau, the nation’s capital on the main island of New Providence. “It really was an act of insanity,” says Bethell, who in his mid-fifties still looks like he wrestles down wild boar for lunch. “I wouldn’t want to do it again.”

Today, the Bethells harness sunlight for power, collect and store rainwater to shower and wash dishes, and rely on a satellite phone to communicate with the outside world. They buy most of their groceries in Nassau—about a 45-minute flight in their single-prop seaplane—and fly out all garbage and recyclables to Fresh Creek, the closest town clear across on the other side of Andros. It’s about as inconvenient a place one could ever dream of living—much less running a business.

But its wildness is also what makes it so special. And because of it—and the Bethells’ wherewithal and wits to run a business in the middle of nowhere—their operation has morphed into a club whose members include the likes of Tom Brokaw and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame.

“Bonefishing gives local people a good livelihood,” Arkema would tell me later. Indeed, in NatCap’s world, bonefish are natural capital on steroids. More than a dozen lodges like the Bethells’ have popped up across the island. These businesses employ fishing guides, cooks, and other staff. Anglers also visit towns and eat at restaurants, buy groceries and crafts, and take snorkeling and scuba tours. According to a 2016 United Nations study on the economic impact of anglers who visit The Bahamas, flats fishing hauls in about US$183 million to the nation as a whole. A detailed breakdown by the Bahamian Flats Fishing Alliance put the total for Andros alone at nearly $50 million annually, or about 80 percent of all revenue generated from tourism to the island (and second only to commercial fishing overall). That’s a lot of livelihood riding on this single species of fish.

Yet the natural treasures of Andros go well beyond bonefish. As Bethell poled us around the shallows, West Indian flamingoes flew overhead while lemon sharks, sea turtles, and rays swam below. The island’s waters are brimming with lobster, crab, and other commercially important species. A barrier reef lines the eastern shore, beyond which lies a 6,000-foot underwater cliff into a trench called the Tongue of the Ocean—home to whales, tuna, mahi-mahi, and marlin. Inland, unique pine and coppice forests host birds, butterflies, boas, and iguanas found nowhere else on Earth. Andros also has the world’s highest concentration of blue holes—vertical, water-filled caves, often hundreds of feet deep, many linking land and ocean through mysterious subterranean tunnels.

Trouble is, the island is ill-equipped to benefit from most of it. Roadways are crumbling into the sea, docks and bridges are in disrepair, and entire communities don’t even have access to fresh water. Islanders need better-equipped clinics and schools, and appropriate sewage disposal sites, as much as they need more tourists and thrill seekers to infuse cash into local businesses. At the same time, too much development, fishing, and access to wild areas would erode the natural wealth on which life here depends. How do you develop on so many fronts without compromising the island’s ecological treasures?

Balancing competing interests is a challenge that NatCap was born to tackle. A rag-tag cast of ecologists, economists, software developers, and other specialists, the organization was founded in 2005 with the goal of aligning, and finding a better balance between, economics and ecology. In practice, it’s a bit more lopsided than that: It’s really about protecting nature from shortsighted, business-as-usual behavior by making its value more tangible—spelling out how we depend on it, what we get from it—and expressing those benefits in business-as-usual terms. This way, decision makers who may traditionally consider an ecosystem an impediment to progress—like a wetland that must be drained to build a subdivision—would instead consider clear, quantifiable advantages to keeping it around—to be a natural sponge that keeps a nearby city center from flooding.

The government of The Bahamas has long recognized the need to develop Andros—and to both harness and sustain its natural resources. They called in NatCap to help them figure out how to balance all three objectives. 

The process starts simply. “First round, we chat with people,” explains Arkema. “‘What do you want? What’s important to you?’ And the crabs come up, and the lobsters. Protections from storms. High-quality tourism. And we can start to model and evaluate those things.” In this case, working with the University of The Bahamas, The Nature Conservancy, and a local environmental consultant, the team met with Androsians across the island to document how they make a living and what natural areas they visit or depend on. They held town meetings to discuss community-wide concerns—say, an unsafe port or the need for a library.

They also handed out blank maps of Andros. “We asked them, ‘What areas shouldn’t be touched by development, and why?’” says Arkema’s colleague Katherine Wyatt, an Ecosystem Services Analyst with NatCap. “So many people circled similar areas on the map saying, ‘This is really important lobster nursery habitat,’ and pointing out bonefish nesting sites and sponging sites.” People also expressed their ideas for development—which were, well, all over the map. Some wanted a web of new roads and ports for cruise ships, while others didn’t want anything that could risk damaging their natural resources. 

The team combined this information with data from scientific journals, government reports, and image databases—about 250 sources in all—to flesh-out the full picture. On-the-ground assessments, like the work in Lowe Sound, plugged any remaining holes.

Ultimately, these efforts provided a detailed picture of the island’s resources, the most important benefits derived from them, and the main activities in each region—plus a sort of consensus of local opinion. “It’s really important to make sure that lots of different voices are heard,” says Arkema.

It also gave NatCap all the baseline data it needed to build a virtual world, like the digital coast for Lowe Sound. Now, just as the NatCap scientists can simulate waves hitting digitally reconstructed shores, they can model the impact of development on the island and how it would likely ripple through Andros’s communities. 

This is not an elementary analysis. In fact, its complexity is difficult to wrap your head around. To demonstrate, in wave-impact analyses alone, the team’s models start off with known values for the density of seawater, pull of gravity, and the initial height and speed of waves offshore. Then, using physics-based formulae, they compute how these waves evolve as they approach the specific coastline being assessed—how they respond to changes in local relief and how they lose energy as they break and experience drag from vegetation and friction with the seabed. These effects depend on detailed features of the habitat—like those collected for Lowe Sound—and are calculated using different coefficients of influence for each “object” (e.g., a seagrass blade) amplified by its total coverage, density, and depth from the surface. And all of this is just to determine the size and speed of waves that strike a coast. From there, equally complex models estimate erosion and other impacts, and still others work out the costs of property damage based on such information as local real estate sales and tax assessment data. 

Extrapolate this ‘simple’ analysis—modeling habitat-based coastal protections for a single region—to the entire island, scientifically assessing each ecosystem and resource, and adding to this all development projects in each area and their respective impacts on both nature and people, plus feedback loops among all of these factors, and it starts to become clear why NatCap’s simulations inch close to reflecting reality.

On Andros, they’ve used these tools to evaluate, for example, how roads and new hotels would boost local commerce and tourist visits but also disrupt forests and mangroves—the pros and cons of everything from preserving habitats to dredging and mining, agriculture, fishing, forestry, ecotourism, and more. “We digitized elements on people’s maps and swapped them into different development scenarios,” says Arkema. Then they simulated the impacts for 25 years into the future, and printed each outcome on a poster-sized map. For instance, in an intensive development scenario, virtual Andros enjoys a large spike in tourism and thriving forestry and agriculture sectors, but also endures far more boat traffic, fishing pressure, and coastal development, which eventually degrades nursery habitats and crashes the fisheries industry.

“Presenting these maps back to stakeholders was an incredible experience,” recalls Wyatt. “They represented people’s visions for the future, but also facilitated thoughtful conversations between interest groups in a way that I don’t think had been done before.” This was not a one-step process. Each scenario was, in fact, mapped and shared with communities, discussed, tweaked, re-run, re-mapped, and so on until refined to satisfaction.

Annual Lobster Catch Provided by Andros Nursery Habitats

NatCap has modeled the impacts of various development scenarios on many aspects of life on Andros Island, including the contribution of nursery habitats to the lobster fishery depicted here. While there were differences in potential catches attributable to Andors habitats—both locally and overall—the Sustainable Prosperity and the Conservation scenarios were found to be equally productive in terms of total lobster catch.

The final master plan is much more than a pretty poster of peoples’ hopes. The Bahamas regularly receives proposals from foreign interests to cut their pines and fish their seas. With plan in hand, the public and government leaders alike can determine at a glance whether any given pitch fits into their universal vision. Critically, it also spells out exactly where the economy is headed in each region—giving locals an inside scoop on what business opportunities are likely to succeed. And it coordinates all development activities, rather than allowing them to take place in a helter-skelter manner. “To engage in multiple projects without any overarching framework—it’s death by a million projects,” says Arkema.

The balance of development and habitat use, without abuse, that islanders sought from the start was found in what NatCap named the “sustainable prosperity” scenario. In this plan, new initiatives are created, such as sustainable farming ventures and processing and packaging plants to sell value-added goods like canned crab and coconut. Ailing industries like sponge harvesting are reinvigorated, and nature-based tourism activities such as birding, scuba diving, and deep-sea fishing are developed to build on the bonefish draw. It also emphasizes the repair of existing infrastructure instead of new construction. “Most people were saying, ‘We’ve already got a road running down the coast, but it’s in bad shape—you get a flat tire. Just fix it,’” explains Arkema.

It’s early on a Sunday morning and Leo Forbes strolls out of his living room to find me in his front yard—a beach in southern Andros. He grins and holds up a big clear bag packed with shiny white meat. “I sell ‘em to anyone who want ‘em, mon,” he says with colorful Afro-Caribbean flair. He speaks of queen conch—a giant sea snail and Bahamian delicacy that, when cooked and served cold in salads or stewed or fried into fritters, tastes a lot like octopus. But this bag isn’t for me. “I send it on a plane today,” he says. A pilot agreed to take it to Nassau for him. That doesn’t happen often.

Forbes fishes for lobster and conch, and occasionally moonlights as a bonefishing guide at a lodge near his house. Unlike the Bethells, he enjoys societal perks such as a paved road, access to docks, a gas station, and a convenience store. He can order eggs and grits at a local café in the morning and grab a beer at a bar in the evening. A medical clinic isn’t too far away.

But selling his catch is anything but easy. Andros is the largest inhabited island in The Bahamas, by far, but the least populated—it’s the size of Hawaii with only 4 percent of its population, about 7,500 people. About half live in the north, in and around Lowe Sound. Except for the Bethells out west, the rest are scattered among tiny towns of a few dozen to a few hundred people that pepper the east coast. There are no city centers with central markets. Much more problematic, the island is in fact an archipelago of four main land masses (and countless islets), called districts, separated by three-mile-wide estuaries (that the locals call bights) with no bridges linking them. Forbes can’t even visit the more-populated North Andros district without dropping hundreds of dollars on travel—forget about doing business. Basically, each district is like a separate colony of Nassau, from which nearly everything is imported and to which nearly all products are exported.

And that, too, is limited. Currently, Forbes has four opportunities a month to sell anything—via a cargo ship that shuttles products and supplies between his district and Nassau once a week. In between shipments, he stores captured animals offshore in various locations. “I crack a hole in the shells and I tie ‘em in strings of five and keep ‘em live in the water. They can’t move,” he says.

In the sustainable development plan, a new 40-foot ferry would serve all districts twice a week for both leisure and commerce. Forbes would have a chance to sell his goods three times a week—and twice to fellow Androsians for every one sale to Nassau. This, in turn, would benefit buyers on Andros, a win-win for the island as a whole. The plan would also repair docks and ramps he uses to launch his boat, fit them with electricity and fuel pumps, and make access channels and docking safer by installing channel markers and lights. His district would also become a hub of nature-based tourism centered around blue holes and birding, with investments into small, family-run eco-lodges. One day, maybe he could sell his harvest in his own town.

“We have all the pine yards, the biggest barrier reef, the largest fishin’ nursery,” grunts Stephen Smith, as he drives a pickaxe into a hardened pile of aragonite. “Of all the places in the world, we have the most blue hole. We have vast everything in this place,” he continues, taking another swing. “Everything in abundance, untouched,” he says, as he leans the pick against a pine. Smith, Andros’s sole warden, is using the cement-like material to make trails to a blue hole nestled in a pine forest.

Smith knows how nature works—and how to work with nature. “I’ve had my own operations most of my life—deep-sea fishin’, huntin’, commercial fishin’, the whole shebang, and it was good to me.” He grew up on the water. His father Charlie started the first bonefishing lodge on Andros, and is a legendary figure in fly fishing circles, as the creator of the iconic “Crazy Charlie” fly found today in dozens of variants around the globe.

As a warden who has worn many hats, Smith knows better than most that for the master plan to play out as intended, the ecosystems and resources must be protected, but not blocked from use. “Everything in Andros you can do, just monitor what you’re doin’. Think about the future generation. That’s how this whole operation run,” says Smith.

An oversimplification for sure, but such an honor system mostly works because the island is chock-full of sustainability buffs. Case in point: bonefish lodge owner Bethell. He lays down strict ground rules with his guides, and his guests. “We don’t touch the fish. We don’t take it out of the water, period,” he explains. Touching it can damage its mucous barrier that protects it against bacteria and parasites. If one of his guides allows it? “That’s their resignation,” he says. He also crimps the barbs on his hooks, so the fish slip off easily, and uses heavier tackle than necessary to land them more quickly. Further, he limits the number of guests staying at his lodge to a maximum of six anglers at any one time. “Otherwise it’s too much pressure on the fish,” he says. “We have to fish for tomorrow.” Although few are as intense as Bethell, most businesses recognize their dependence on nature and are careful to keep it healthy.

The fisheries are the biggest challenge. Making it easier for people like Forbes to do their jobs opens up a dangerous can of worms ecologically speaking. There are already serious issues—like lobster fishermen who use bleach and soap to flush the critters out of reef crevices. And these things incur real punishments, such as jail time, fines, and unique penalties for people without the cash to pay up. “Fishermen in Lowe Sound have been required to go out and fish for weeks without profit – their catches instead being distributed to the elderly,” says Smith’s boss, Leslie Brace, who heads the Andros arm of The Bahamas National Trust, a nongovernmental organization in charge of national parks. But with Smith as the only warden, enforcement is spread extremely thin—although Smith says it’s better than it seems. “I have eyes all over—fly fishin’ guides, sport-fishin’ people. I call ‘em—‘Hey, check out the middle bights. See what’s goin’ on there.’ I don’t have to be everywhere,” he says.

Nonetheless, the island has a long way to go to ensure its resources aren’t abused. To this end, the master plan strengthens existing regulations and jumpstarts a whole new management strategy that includes island-wide stock assessments, new catch limits and seasonal closures, and the training of fishermen in sustainable harvest methods. Importantly, fishermen themselves are to be involved in each step. “You can’t alienate people,” says Brace. “They have to own it.”

Indeed, that in a nutshell is the entire point of NatCap’s participatory planning process. Unfortunately, however, community involvement was sometimes limited—mainly due to a widespread lack of faith in the government. “People are really skeptical that the government is going to follow through,” says Wyatt. Smith links this to previous government-run projects that went nowhere. “They asked for input but did what they wanted at the end of the day,” he says. Many Androsians assumed NatCap’s outreach was more of the same. “We sit down and let them come in and tell us a bunch of lies and things—Oh, that again. Tell me something different,” Sheila, a fed-up hotel owner near Smith’s blue hole trail, told me. And because of it, Sheila and many others like her view NatCap’s models and maps, indeed the entire project, as one giant fantasyland. “It ain’t real,” she said. “I don’t need no plan to tell me how to live.”

But Smith disagrees. “If you don’t make a plan then you can’t see where you’re goin’. It’s like buildin’ a house. If you have the foundation wrong, then you’re gonna have a problem with the roof,” Smith says. “We’re walkin’ blind. Andros needs that development plan.”

The plan was finalized with the Office of the Prime Minister at the end of February 2017, but no one is just sitting around celebrating. The Bahamas National Trust is building a network of birding and blue hole trails; roads are being paved and retrofitted with culverts to improve tidal flow with mangroves; and the Bethells are bringing in scientists to tag and monitor sawfish, sharks, and of course bonefish. Meanwhile, NatCap is in talks to reproduce this work on other Bahamian islands, and engineers like Lakin Hope are pricing out habitat-based coastal protections up and down the coast, based on NatCap’s ongoing analyses.

Androsians have chosen a promising future, and this story is just getting started, but now at least they know where they want to go—and how to get there.

Additional image credits: 

Header image of mangrove roots and conch shell by Danita Delimont/Getty

Aerial drone clip of Andros coastline by Steve Schill/The Nature Conservancy

Underwater shot of bonefish by Mark Lewis/Getty

Two sharks by Todd Bretl Photography/Getty

Hawksbill sea turtle by James R.D. Scott/Getty

Pile of discarded conch shells by George Shelley Productions/Getty

Footer image of Andros pine forest by Jad Davenport/Getty

David Butvill

David Butvill is a science writer who lives in Costa Rica. He writes about science and nature (and nature’s helpers) for various magazines and the radio. He thanks his son Nikolas for constantly reminding him that it is always worth trying to make the world a better place.

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