Touring Portland Bight, Part I: Old Harbour Bay


It was a humid, windless Saturday morning. As we drove onto the beach, there was the sharp scent of freshly caught fish. The boats were mostly in, and from the market on the beach voices rose above the quieter conversations at water’s edge. Business was starting to pick up. On the sidelines, boys played in and out of the water. Egrets, pelicans and a pair of circling frigate birds kept them company.

Passing the time of day at Old Harbour Bay beach.
Passing the time of day at Old Harbour Bay beach.

I was taking a tour of the Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA), with Ingrid Parchment, Executive Director of the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation (C-CAM) at the wheel. As I expected, Ingrid was an amazingly knowledgeable guide. Old Harbour Bay in St. Catherine was our first stop. I am sharing a few of my photographs, but if you want to take a look at all of them, please visit my Facebook page where I posted three albums full.

The vendors of Old Harbour Bay had sales on their minds. There was a large pot of homemade soup on the beach, and under the market roof it was business all the way. Large igloos were open and half-filled with fish; a man tipped a large quantity of fish we did not recognize onto a metal table. A Facebook friend identified them as Shad, another as Mangrove Snapper; the vendor called them “Makka Back.”

The mystery fish.
The mystery fish.

We noted with concern that there were large parrotfish for sale, resplendent in their rich blues and scarlets. This is a concern because this fish (albeit delicious to eat, but I will never eat one again!) performs valuable services for our environment. The fish clean coral reefs by eating the algae that grows on them, and excrete the substance that creates our fine (and endangered) white sand beaches. One large parrotfish can engender hundreds of pounds of sand in its lifetime. Environmentalists have been lobbying for a ban on parrotfish for some time; but local fishermen strongly object to the idea. Ingrid surmised that these large parrots may have been fished further away, perhaps at the Pedro Cays; a scientific assessment of the PBPA’s coral reefs last year noted very few large fish in the area.

Here I must give a quick “shout out” to the island of Barbuda in the eastern Caribbean, where the government passed legislation a year ago giving complete protection to parrotfish, and establishing one third of its coastal area as marine reserves. It’s now illegal there to catch parrotfish. Jamaican Government, it’s not too late…

An egret meditates, while Brown Pelicans ponder their next move at Old Harbour Bay. Beyond the mangroves in the background are Goat Islands, which are still threatened by the development of a mega shipping port.
An egret meditates, while Brown Pelicans ponder their next move at Old Harbour Bay. Beyond the mangroves in the background is the fish sanctuary adjoining Goat Islands – still threatened by the development of a mega shipping port.

We drove into the fishing village to visit the home of community activist Paulette Coley (I am not sure if she would describe herself that way). There were no paved roads here; only tracks that become muddy and flood easily when it rains. This area is very low-lying. Ms. Coley came and sat on the verandah; we were afraid we were interrupting her breakfast preparations, but she didn’t seem to mind. A man in the yard was mending a fishing net, his hands moving swiftly. Tiny kittens played and hid behind Ms. Coley’s chair, and a small, wide-eyed boy came out to see us.

Ms. Coley was planning a children’s treat, before the start of the school year; but, she lamented, no one had any money or goods to contribute to it, as they were all trying to find money for “back to school.” Ingrid suggested going into the town and asking businesspeople for contributions for food and drinks.

How was the community doing? Ms. Coley explained that it was somewhat divided politically, with a Jamaica Labour Party Member of Parliament (Everald Warmington) and a People’s National Party local councilor, who lives in Old Harbour. “We are not united,” she said. “Politics plays a dominant role, and some people are left out.” 

Paulette Coley (left) discussing community matters with Ingrid Parchment of C-CAM.
Paulette Coley (left) discussing community matters with environmentalist Ingrid Parchment of C-CAM, who conducts a great deal of this kind of outreach as part of her work.

Was this a slight exaggeration, though? When the conversation turned to the African tradition of burru drumming, which takes place at Christmas time in the community, it seemed to me from Ms. Coley’s description of the excitement surrounding the event that it brought the community together in a meaningful and positive way. “It is followed by a big party,” said Ms. Coley, “Everyone gets together.” In Old Harbour Bay, the event moves from house to house; the drummers, accompanied by a large crowd of residents, will come to your gate and call out your name. The group will likely mention certain things about the occupants of the house – whether positive or negative – that have taken place during the year. Some people consider burru drumming “demonic,” noted Ms. Coley, because of its association with spirit possession. But it is as popular as ever in the community.

This wonderful photograph shows Count Ossie playing the tall burru drums, while the legendary American jazz musician/composer Duke Ellington (far right) looks on. The Rastafarian movement adopted the burru drum into their nyabinghi rhythms and practices.
This wonderful photograph shows Count Ossie (left) playing the tall burru drums, while the legendary American jazz musician/composer Duke Ellington (far right, in white) enjoys the music. The Rastafarian movement adopted the burru drum into their nyabinghi rhythms and practices. (Photo from Paul Bradshaw’s blog Ancient to Future).

Fishing is a complex business these days. I lost track of a conversation about Hondurans and Jamaicans, illegal activities, court cases, boat registration and more. I recalled an unpleasant incident in 2011 when the captain of a Honduran fishing boat was shot dead. From time to time, accusations fly. Nothing is quite what it seems, in Jamaica – but one thing is certain: Jamaica’s laws need to be tightened to deal with this state of affairs. A bill to amend the 1976 Fisheries Act is still dawdling in the Jamaican Parliament, I understand.

We said goodbye to Paulette Coley after buying cold drinks and crackers from her tiny corner shop; but not before admiring her husband’s mobile sound system, built on bicycle wheels. It’s hard to describe the complex design, but it even boasted a small solar panel for extra power. I would love to see and hear it in action. Perhaps at the burru celebrations, come Christmas time…

The sound system even has a gear stick, side mirror and several impressive sets of speakers.
The sound system has a gear stick, side mirror and several impressive sets of speakers. As well as a lot of wires!

By the way, the Old Harbour Bay fish market is not more than about a half hour’s drive outside Kingston, if you take the highway. If you go down there at around eight or nine in the morning, you can take your pick of fresh fish! It’s recommended.

For more information on the work of the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation (C-CAM) in the PBPA, please visit their website at http://www.ccam.org.jm. You can also find them on Facebook and on Twitter @ccamfngo. 


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