by David Kooistra, Manager, Saba Marine Park

Saba is the most mountainous of the three islands that form the Northern Netherlands Antilles (St. Maarten, St Eustatius and Saba). The island’s origins are volcanic and the resulting domular topography, with its deep valleys carpeted by lush vegetation which fan down from the upper slopes, make for a very attractive setting and important asset for encouraging eco-tourism.

Saba remained rather isolated until the development of reasonable harbour facilities and a cement road from Fort Bay to The Bottom in 1943 and completion of the island’s airport in 1963. In the late 1960’s a vehicle road was completed which links each of the villages to the airport and harbour and since then, the island has developed very quickly both socially and economically.

Still, Saba is so different from all the other Caribbean islands just because it remained quiet in character even during this fast and recent development phase. Secluded, mountainous and beachless, Saba has become a destination for Caribbean travellers who are looking for something special in their diving and holiday adventures.

The highest point on the island, Mount Scenery, is capped with a cloud forest where humidity and rainfall is high. The mountain mahogany tree is the dominant species and has thick spreading bows hosting numerous mosses, lichens and other epiphytic plants. The upper slopes of the mountain play host to primary rain forest. Networking across the island are scenic trails once used as the main means of transporting goods from village to village before the construction of the vehicle road. These days the fourteen trails are maintained for hiking.

The Saba coastline is very dramatic and for the most part consists of cliff face with the exception of three places where the man-made concrete road meets the ocean, and a small gently sloping area on the south coast. Consequently, there is little coastal development. The sub-marine area near the coast comprises a narrow shelf consisting of large volcanic boulders, lava flows and overhangs most of which have become encrusted with corals, sponges and algae.

The marine environment of Saba is also characterised by the existence of a number of undersea mountains, so-called pinnacles, which come within 25 meters of the surface approximately a kilometer off the west coast. These sea mountains and the coastal area from the shoreline to a depth of 60 metres are protected by law and are managed under the auspices of the Saba Marine Park.

Saba Marine Park

In 1984, with a stagnating economy and net population loss, the Ministry of Economic Affairs of the central government of the Netherlands Antilles suggested promotion of dive tourism as one means of strengthening the Saba economy. The Island Government agreed it should take place but not at the expense of the marine environment and they subsequently joined forces with STINAPA (Netherlands Antilles National Parks Foundation) in order to determine the feasibility of such development. Pilot investigations were carried out to assess the potential for dive tourism and to recommend a strategy for managing the marine resources. These studies resulted in a proposal entitled “Saba Marine Park, a proposal for integrated marine resource management in Saba”. This proposal was submitted to the Executive Council of Saba in 1985. Upon approval, funding was sought for the establishment of the Saba Marine Park. The project began in October 1986 when full funding became available from World Wildlife Fund Netherlands, the Prince Bernhard Fund, the Dutch Minister of Netherland Antillean and Aruban Affairs, and the Executive Council of Saba. The project was completed in October 1989 and in April 1990 the Executive Council of Saba delegated the formal administration of the marine park to a local NGO, the Saba Conservation Foundation.

Having been in existence and fully operational since 1987, the Saba Marine Park is a good example of present-day conservation and aims at protecting the marine resources, while at the same time allowing for sustainable use. The park stretches around the entire island, from a high water mark to a 200ft depth contour and includes the seabed as well as the overlying waters. A zoning system has been applied to ensure the best possible compromise between different uses of the marine environment.

Park management requires a variety of tasks both in the field and in the office. Staff are actively involved in daily efforts of interpretation, patrolling and law enforcement, weekly educational programs, research and monitoring programs, establishing permanent moorings, and administration of the park and its facilities. One of the most important aspects of their work is probably communicating and dealing with people - the local community, park visitors, tour operators, yachtsmen, and politicians.

Marine research which has been carried out in the waters around Saba includes Baseline Coral Reef Monitoring in conjunction with the US Fish and Wildlife Cooperative Research Unit and participation in the Caribbean Coastal Marine Productivity (CARICOMP) program. Dive and yachting statistics are collected on a routine basis and this data is invaluable in enabling the park manager to adequately respond to potential impacts or specific trends. To help determine the carrying capacity of the marine park a study using the concepts of the Limits of Acceptable Change will be initiated this year. Fish monitoring includes a comparative study of reef fish populations in the diving zones verus the populations in the all purpose (or fishing) zones. Collecting conch is subject to rather severe limitations and further survey work is needed to determine if the restrictions are effective in protecting the population. Monitoring of bleaching and coastal impacts from the rock crushing plant perhaps by setting up sediment traps is also planned for the future.

Income from Tourism

Tourism is the mainstay of Saba’s economy. The most recent figures indicate that there were approximately 25,000 non-Saban visitors to the island in 1995. About half of these tourists arrive on Saba by plane landing on the smallest international airport in the world and the other half arrive by day ferry from St.Maarten. Saba attracts only small cruise ships carrying a maximum of 100 - 150 passengers. The size of ship is limited by the local infrastructure, i.e. the number of taxis, the anchorage facilities etc. and this control is of benefit to the island in that it limits commercial development which would be contradictory to the island’s quiet character.

At present the Saba Marine Park hosts some 5,000 divers per year, who make about 25,000 dives at the island’s 27 official dive sites. Another 2,500 visitors utilise the park in other ways such as boating, swimming and snorkeling. Although the number of divers has varied over the last nine years usually due to outside influences, like hurricanes and the Gulf War, the general trend is on the increase. Dive tourism is an important income not only for the island but also the Saba Marine Park. For each dollar the park spends on dive tourism US $2.00 are made.

One of the main achievements of the Saba Marine Park is that it was the first self-financed marine park in the world. At the beginning of 1993 the island government withdrew it’s subsidy for staff salaries and since then the park has been dependent on donations, souvenir sales and visitor fees.

In order to make the park successful the principle of user fees had to be embedded in the legislation and every person diving within the marine park pays US $3.00 per dive to do so. The island’s four authorized dive operators incorporate this fee in their charges and then transfer the accumulated amount to the marine park at the end of each month. On a yearly basis, almost half of the income necessary to operate the park comes directly from these dive fees. Yacht visitors pay a fee of US $3.00 per person on board and yachts over 100ft in length pay US $0.15 per gross registered ton. Yacht visitors fees are collected after a verbal interpretation about the Saba Marine Park and the rules and regulations are given.

Part of the Saba Marine Park facilities are set aside for a small gift shop where T-shirts, guidebooks, postcards, posters, stickers, and educational materials are sold.

The Friends of the Saba Conservation Foundation was set up in the USA and locally as a non-profit organisation in 1991. This support group works in cooperation with the Saba Conservation Foundation and the Saba Marine Park and being incorporated in the US allows for tax deductible donations to be made by US citizens. The “Friends” help to finance much needed conservation work in the marine park and on the island.

Employment Opportunities

The Saba Marine Park employs three people directly. But indirectly the park is responsible for many tourism related jobs. There is little data available because much of the tourist sector related employment is seasonal or part-time. An estimate of 150 workers has been made by Tourism Planning and Research Associates and includes accommodation staff, restaurants, dive shops, handicraft shops, taxi drivers and suppliers to the trade.

It is important to consider the fact that dive tourism would still be popular on the island if the Saba Marine Park did not exist. However, the park is responsible for encouraging at least half of the dive tourists to the island as they come to see a near pristine marine environment in an uncrowded location. It would also be likely that without the Saba Marine Park management economic benefits through use of the marine resources around the island would be short lived.

In general the distribution of benefits is wide to those within the tourist sector. The economy of the island is growing and people have a reasonable standard of living. There is no evidence to suggest that there has been a loss of revenue for anyone on Saba due to the restriction of resource use. The only profession directly affected is fishing and this generally occurs outside the Saba Marine Park area. This activity is therefore not affected by park law and restrictions are more an inconvenience than an economic hardship for the recreational fishermen who fish for their own consumption. They are restricted within the Saba Marine Park to areas usually exposed to the wind and which therefore have rougher sea conditions.

Although viewed sceptically by the local population in its initial phase of development and meeting with some strong opposition, the Saba Marine Park quickly turned into an attraction for eco-tourist type divers and the economic benefits showed in a very short time. People were also aware that there has been a decrease in anchor and other contact damage to the coral reef through the provision of moorings and the education of visiting divers.

In conclusion, the Saba Marine Park does provide an excellent example of a fully managed and self-financed marine park which could offer valuable lessons for other islands wishing to maintain the integrity of their marine resources as well as develop their eco-tourism potential.