I wrote recently about the 2014 assessment of the coral reefs in the Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA) (including several sites around Goat Islands, which are threatened by a transshipment port development). The University of the West Indies survey, funded by the Waitt Foundation, concluded that the reefs are in fairly good shape, although their condition varies from place to place. What was also abundantly clear was the need to preserve the PBPA’s fish sanctuaries – including the one adjoining Goat Islands. These, scientists from the University of the West Indies say, are “critically important nursery areas.” Indeed, during their dives the researchers saw thousands of young fish, despite an almost total lack of larger fish.
What measures did the scientists recommend would help restore the fish populations and nurture healthier coral reefs? Reducing the fishing of important herbivores (such as parrot fish) is important. Protecting key nursery habitats near Goat Islands was another “must.” Fishers must also allow fish to reach breeding size; don’t catch small fish that have not had a chance to breed. Catching snapper during its spawning period should be prohibited. And very importantly, the reefs should be regularly monitored; this was a “one off” assessment.
One Jamaican who has been keeping an eye on the reefs (and the fish) for decades is Old Harbour Bay fisherman Charles Moodie. He assisted the scientists with their field work. He has a deep understanding of the water, and the underwater landscape of Goat Islands – its shoals and banks and reefs. He told those gathered to hear the results of the survey that over the years many cays had eroded, and some have disappeared. And, he confessed, “We fishers had bad practices in the past,” – including dynamiting, which was incredibly destructive to reefs and marine life.
Mr. Moodie reflected on Goat Islands, and what they had to offer. “We have things there that people have not discovered yet,” he mused. “We are not doing enough research into the mangroves at Goat Islands.” He believes there is a freshwater well on Great Goat Island (and significant Taino remains). “It is the environment versus the economy,” Mr. Moodie concluded. That’s a hard conclusion.
According to Caribbean Community (CARICOM) records, Jamaica has the most over-fished waters in the Caribbean. And fish sanctuaries “definitely work,” said Jamaica Environment Trust CEO Diana McCaulay. “They make a dramatic difference – but they need more support.” She cited the example of the Pedro Cays, those far-flung islands that are also home to colonies of wonderful seabirds such as the Masked Booby and Brown Noddy (wonderful names, too!) Each sanctuary has its own special characteristics, added Brandon Hay of the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation (C-CAM), especially in terms of the social structure of surrounding areas. The sanctuary at Oracabessa, St. Mary has had a “very good turnaround,” he noted. Hay, who conducts baseline surveys for all Jamaica’s fish sanctuaries, said, “It’s happening, but we are still learning. We know this is where we are going to build our recovery [of fish stocks]…I am optimistic, but weaknesses in the system could still derail the sanctuaries.”
Support from government agencies for fish sanctuaries has been “intermittent,” environmentalists say. Will it continue? And when will the outdated Fishing Industry Act of 1976 actually come up in Parliament for repeal? I understand new legislation has been under discussion for fifteen years or more, and has still not been tabled. Clearly it is not a priority. What say you, Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries?
The non-governmental organizations are playing their part. Founder and former head of C-CAM Peter Espeut recalled that earlier assessments of the PBPA coral reefs in 1995 and during 2003 – 5 had been less encouraging than last year’s survey. He pointed out that C-CAM had been working with fisherfolk in the protected area for the past twenty years or so. Could it be that this close co-operation and dialogue is starting to pay off?
So where next? Dr. Suzanne Palmer and her UWI colleagues will produce a full scientific and technical report, along with associated scientific publications. The group is planning regional presentations, and a local meeting at the Old Harbour Bay fishing beach. They need to share the data, inform and educate Jamaicans about the value of the coral reefs.
Yes, the “people connection” is important. We are not separate from our environment. We are a part of it. Perhaps recent events at the Riverton dump and other experiences will eventually convince everyone of this.