"We used to get threatened by fishermen, but now they have been asking for more reserves to be created because they have seen such big improvements," said St. Lucia's chief marine warden, Peter Butcher.
In other regions, commercial and sport fishing interests have criticized some no-take zones, especially on the open sea, as unnecessarily restrictive and badly planned. But the Caribbean's reserves are focused along shores and reefs. They mainly affect poor communities who fish to survive.
In Jamaica alone, reef fisheries support as many as 20,000 subsistence fishermen and not all of them see the value of the sanctuaries, even though they recognize how badly depleted the sea has become.
In the Belmont district of Bluefields Bay, where the azure sea is framed by forested mountains heavy with fruit trees and hardwoods, Nicholas Clark and other frustrated young men insist they are not seeing any increase in fish in the abutting areas where they dive with spear guns.
"I used to be able to send my two kids to school with fish and lobster I caught in that place (the reserve). Now, we have to go further out and we're suffering," said Clark, who was among a group of about 10 young men holding up small parrotfish and a few palm-sized red snappers they had caught outside of the protected area and were trying to sell to motorists on a coastal road.
Still, the roughly four-year-old reserve at Bluefields Bay is already visibly teeming with marine life, even if the scientific studies are not yet finished. Spiny lobsters and darting bonito fish can even be seen right at the dock, something almost unheard of in severely overfished Jamaica.
Conservationists say they hope the growing evidence that reserves boost fisheries and protect tourism attractions will lead to more reserves across the Caribbean.
"The idea was always to start small, do it properly and be able to show success to all, especially the skeptics," said Llewellyn Meggs, conservation director at the non-profit Jamaica Environment Trust. "We could then have justification for expanding."
David McFadden on Twitter: http://twitter/com/dmcfadd
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.