On our weekly visits to Hellshire Beach in St. Catherine during the 1980s and early 1990s, a stop at Miss May’s restaurant was a must. Her escoveitch fish was mouth-watering, her festivals melted in the mouth. We sat at the simple board tables in her restaurant shack, our feet in the cool sand, and savored our food, washing it down with a cold beer (and in the case of our young son, soda in a glass bottle).
Miss May passed away last Monday morning (June 22) at the age of 63. For me and for many Jamaicans, it seemed like the end of an era. Miss May used to cook the fish and lobsters that arrived on fishing boats, pulled right up on the beach. She had a devoted fan base, and a comfortable but businesslike aura about her. There was always great excitement when a boat arrived, mid-morning; beachgoers would peer into the bottom of the boat, pick out some fish to eat and have them weighed on the spot. From the boat straight to Miss May’s sizzling hot frying pan.
With the passing of Miss May, I asked myself, what is the future of fishing in Jamaica?
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), some 40,000 Jamaicans depend on fishing-related activities for a living – around the same number that rely on tourism. In 2017, the FAO recorded around 24,500 fishers, six per cent of them women, and 7,100 fishing boats plying Jamaican waters. Nevertheless, you might be surprised to learn that Jamaica imports most of the fish its citizens consume (around 79 percent). It may not surprise you to know that between 1997 and 2017, the FAO notes, local catches have declined from 19,000 to 25,000 tonnes annually to 16,000 tonnes in 2017. Jamaica has been “overfished” for years, and Jamaicans consume a lot of fish.
Now International Fisherman’s Day (IFD) is on the horizon. On Monday, June 29, there will be a different feel to the day in the Portland Bight Protected Area (a land area larger than the island of Barbados). This is where the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation (C-CAM) has been organizing celebrations since June, 1999. With the pandemic a reality in our lives, the annual IFD conference hosted by C-CAM is not possible. Nor are the traditional Regatta, tug-of-war and other competitions. However, information booths will be set up at Old Harbour Bay fishing beach, and also at the Jamaica Fishermen’s Co-operative office, the National Fisheries Authority and their sub-stations. There will be photo-ops and giveaways, and an opportunity for C-CAM to share information on the three fish sanctuaries that it administers, besides the island-wide Jamaica Fish Sanctuary Network that it currently chairs.
“This year it is more important than ever to celebrate the resiliency of our people through these difficult times,” observed Ingrid Parchment, C-CAM’s Executive Director. That first conference 21 years ago, organized by C-CAM and the Portland Bight Fisheries Management Council, was designed not just as a celebration, but a networking opportunity for fishers from various locations. It provides a forum for public education and awareness on good fisheries management practices: legal issues, safety and security issues, insurance, climate change and environmental concerns, new equipment and supplies, and more. A senior official from the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture & Fisheries has always been present to interact with the fishers.
“Since 2009, we have partnered with the Fisheries Division and the Jamaica Fisherman’s Co-operative Union to host IFD,” noted Parchment. “Since 2018 Food for the Poor has joined the partnership from planning through to implementation. It is now a national event attended by more than 200 fisherfolk from every parish across Jamaica.”
She is especially grateful to all the individuals and organizations that have supported, partnered, funded and provided volunteer support for the event C-CAM celebrates its 22nd anniversary this year. These have included sponsors Jamalco, New Fortress Energy, Kingston Freeport Terminal Limited, Sandals Foundation and many more; as well as in-kind contributions from Solar Buzz, COK Credit Union, Carlissa, Courts, Churches Credit Union and others. The Jamaica Constabulary Force, Marine Police, Jamaica Defense Force Coast Guard, University of the West Indies, the Heart Trust NSTA, Ministry of Health and Wellness and other institutions have also contributed their expertise over the years.
By the way, the Portland Bight Fisheries Management Council meeting is a formidable entity. Since its first meeting in Clarendon in June 1995, it has been meeting monthly. It has facilitated several exchanges locally and overseas to allow fisher folk to network and see how others utilize the fisheries in a sustainable way. This included exchanges with Haiti, Cuba, San Andreas, San Diego in the United States, and Belize.
There is much talk about the “Blue Economy,” and this year’s IFD theme is “Maximizing Fisheries Value Chains – the Core of the Blue Economy.” Hellshire Beach (now a shadow of its former self), Miss May and her family, the man who sold oysters from a bucket with hot pepper sauce, the women who cleaned the fish, were all, perhaps, a part of that Blue Economy. You could say that, for all our pleasurable weekends as consumers enjoying the fruits of the sea, it was not sustainable.
What are the challenges to our fishing industry? What are the vulnerabilities for a fledgling blue economy that aims to preserve the health of our ocean while offering the opportunity of jobs, the two goals in sync – without further exploitation?
Poor fishing practices (the use of seine nets and dynamite, for example) remain an issue; so does the poor condition of fishing beaches and the tenure thereof. Coastal developments, including dredging, threaten fishing and the landing sites for boats. Then there is, of course, the ever-present threat of “natural” disasters – hurricanes, storm surges and the other manifestations of climate change.
As we continue to battle with the COVID-19 virus and the consequent drastic economic downturn, the future of our fisheries remains in doubt. One thing is for certain – that coming out of this period, innovative and sustainable approaches to income generation and a renewed care for our ocean’s health must remain paramount. In his recent contribution to the sectoral debate in Parliament last week, Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Audley Shaw noted that J$1 billion has been allocated to help the sector recover from the shock of COVID-19 – including include fishing equipment and gear as well as refrigerated containers for storage. The focus on food security is heightened, and the Government’s investment agency JAMPRO is seeking greater foreign direct investment in agriculture and one hopes, fisheries also.
As for Ingrid Parchment and the C-CAM team, the goal is to ensure that the fishers’ voices are heard above the din, and that solutions can be found to the unprecedented challenges they face. “Resilience” is not just a popular buzzword. For the fisherfolk of Jamaica, it has always been their mantra.