As the only protected marine area in Trinidad and Tobago, the Buccoo Reef Marine Park is key to Tobago’s tourism sector and must be properly managed. So maintains Shivonne Peters, the newly appointed Policy Adviser to Tobago House of Assembly (THA) Chief Secretary, Ancil Dennis.
As a 36-year-old with a wealth of academic and entrepreneurial experience in the marine sector, Peters has pledged to make protecting the Buccoo Reef Marine Park a top priority. Since recovering from back surgery in 2018 Peters has juggled her PhD research in marine science with running three marine-oriented enterprises: Seven Environmental; Top Catch; and Padee Again.
When the opportunity came knocking in June this year to add Policy Adviser to the THA Chief Secretary to her portfolio, the ambitious millennial was nevertheless unfazed by the challenge and accepted in hopes that her combination of youth and experience would be a game-changer. She has since advised THA Chief Secretary, Ancil Dennis, on matters ranging from the island’s agricultural sector to managing tourism in the midst of a global pandemic.
From an environmental perspective, Peters’ appointment is noteworthy as she has a reputation for speaking out in favour of conservation, including her recent call for the seasonal closure of the Buccoo Reef Marine Protected Area. She has also studied the unique challenges that Small Island Developing States (SIDS) like Trinidad and Tobago face as a result of climate change.
Speaking at the office of the Chief Secretary’s Secretariat in uptown Scarborough, Peters said, “the whole of Tobago is considered the coastal zone and our livelihood depends – one way or another – very much on the marine sector and marine environment.”
This is one reason she is so passionate about conserving Tobago’s Buccoo Reef Marine Park, which extends for seven square km from the Pigeon Point jetty to Buccoo and which is critical to Tobago’s blue economy.
As a Buccoo resident, Peters’ passion for the reef was also inspired by the decade she spent as the Buccoo Reef Marine Park Manager. This background has allowed her to play a unique role as an adviser having experienced the issues from the ‘other side’.
“My strategy is to pull information from all the different elements that make up Tobago as a whole and do things holistically – we have resources we can tap into to bring everything together so it’s sustainable in the long term – so we have a resilient people and a resilient society coming out of the pandemic.”
Peters emphasized that the Park is much more than the Coral Gardens, Nylon Pool and No Man’s Land by saying that is also a nursery for the reef.
“What’s important to note is that this a system – the only place in Trinidad and Tobago with three distinct and connected ecosystems forming part of an entire habitat comprising coral reef, seagrass and mangrove and in which all juvenile species spend their life cycle – everything grows in that space.”
Peters said that sustainable management of this space and its resources is important for many Tobagonians who rely on marine sector activities like, glass bottom boat tours, fishing and diving expeditions for their livelihoods.
In evaluating her contributions to the marine sector thus far, Peters described herself as satisfied but not complacent. She highlighted one of her proudest achievements as contributing to the creation of the 2015 Marine Park User Policy, which is being implemented on a phased basis. She spoke of her experience becoming a part of the implementing team for key aspects of the policy that were made effective from June 6 after the first national pandemic lockdown ended.
“It’s been a five-year-long wait but I’m happy that we now have a policy to manage our space effectively. The Department of Marine Affairs and Fisheries still has responsibility for the area but there is a Task Force established by the Chief Secretary comprising different agencies – maritime services and tourism services and actual users – coming together, to not only implement the Policy but also to make recommendations as to how to improve the product.”
Peters believes that the continued implementation of The Marine Park User Policy is likely to have a noticeably positive impact once the global COVID-19 pandemic stabilizes leading borders and beaches to reopen.
In the interim, Peters has been working closely with THA Chief Secretary’s Ancil Dennis on two major issues plaguing the park during the national lockdown: unregulated boat trips and illegal poaching for seafood and conch. Both problems are longstanding issues exacerbated by lockdown conditions. Peters said, however, that with the implementation of a formal policy for violations, including strict enforcement and penalties, the park and its ecosystem will be better protected.
She remains hopeful that collaboration for the protection of the marine and terrestrial environment is improving, saying that she has “seen a lot of progress”. She offered the example of the Environmental Partnership Conference of 2019 that sought to develop a strategy for sustainable development and was the first event of its kind to be held in this country: a feat which she said “brought together stakeholders from all over Tobago”.
In closing, Peters made it clear that she thinks all citizens have a role to play in conserving the Buccoo Reef Marine Park, along with the state and private sector, and supports the implementation of ongoing public education campaigns that build awareness of the importance of protecting the marine environment.
‘One point I would like the public to know is that their support is key for anything the THA is trying to do – we really need the support of the public and stakeholders to make any initiative with Buccoo Reef Marine Park a success.’