White River, Jamaica: Protect, Restore, Engage

Anniversaries are happy occasions, and I wish I had been there to celebrate the Fifth Anniversary of the White River Fish Sanctuary (WRFS) in Ocho Rios, St. Ann, on February 8. I heard it was a joyous affair, with the theme “Protect, Restore, Engage.” It was as much a celebration of the future as a reflection of the past. Scroll through their dynamic, colourful website to reach the part that begins “There’s hope”!

Nevertheless, these things don’t happen overnight, and work with community members and stakeholders (Engage”) started more than five years ago – before the official launch, as Chair of the White River Marine Association (WRMA) Belinda Morrow observed. So, you could say that the February 8 celebration was a recognition of “five years plus” – hard work, teamwork. It was all gaining momentum when I visited the sanctuary myself in 2019, along with Voices for Climate Change, for what turned out to be an adventurous day on and off the water in Ocho Rios. The WRMA received a grant from the Environmental Foundation of Jamaica back in 2017, providing support for its five-year plan.

Three Wardens (left to right) Lipton Bailey, Noel Francis, and Delroy Earle, gave a welcome and a vote of thanks in one. They are former fishermen, dedicated to the work of the WRFS. (Photo: WRFS)

Back to 2023, and the 372-acre White River Fish Sanctuary is building on its work and looking to the future. As you can see from these photos, this anniversary celebration may not have been a lavish champagne-filled affair – but the laughter and optimism, with an underlying serious intent, tell the story. Three Wardens – Lipton Bailey, Noel Francis, and Delroy Earle – welcomed everyone and paid tribute to the many sponsors: the Jamaica Inn Foundation, Sandals Foundation, Couples Resorts, Hermosa Cove have provided fantastic support, in addition to the Special Climate Change Adaptation Fund, Jamaica Conservation Partners (C.B. Facey Foundation), and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), among others. Special thanks are due to all the private sector partners that recognised the vision and came on board.

What has the Sanctuary been busy doing in the past five years (not a long period, by any stretch of the imagination)? Well, an extraordinary amount, in my view. Two coral nurseries have been established, and 5,000 pieces of Staghorn coral planted out successfully. Why is Staghorn important, apart from being beautifully spiky, like a deer’s antlers? It was once one of the most common in the Caribbean, until it was affected by disease during the 1980s. While climate change and warming waters remain a great threat to corals, land-based pollution and unsustainable fishing are also major factors that the WRFS is seeking to address. That is all about “Restore” – and there’s a lot of work to be done.

By the way, did you know the Staghorn Coral can live for hundreds of years? Keep in mind that corals are living things!

In the past five years, more than eight underwater clean-ups have taken place. There is a programme in place to protect the nesting sites of our endangered Hawksbill Turtles. Apart from the protecting and restoring aspects of the work, engaging with the community – in particular, the fisherfolk – has brought an eleven-person strong corps of Wardens into being. They patrol the Sanctuary for 18 hours per day, seven days a week. In partnership with the Ocho Rios Marine Police, fishers breaching the “no-take” zone are apprehended. Community members have been trained in SCUBA certification, to help with the coral planting. A whole range of research and educational activities have taken place. All of this is, of course, ongoing.

Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis). (Photo: NOAA Fisheries); and the coral nursery at WRFS.

Building strong, long-lasting relationships with communities in environmental programmes can be a challenging and time-consuming task, as the keynote speaker at the anniversary event, Christopher Corbin, pointed out. Mr. Corbin is Senior Coordination Officer at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Caribbean Environment Programme and Cartagena Convention Secretariat based in Kingston. He congratulated the many partners and supporters who came together to make this happen:

What we have seen here and what you are celebrating reflects that collective effort and you really should be proud…Within the community here, you know how important it is to keep the White River and the coastal surroundings and our sea free of pollution, free of overfishing – so we can have livelihoods moving forward. And that is why I think this celebration here today is so important. It really shows how much we can achieve when we work together.

Christopher Corbin

The guest speaker provided the Caribbean perspective. Over a million Caribbean people live near and work near the coast, and benefit directly from the sea. This relationship is valued (conservatively) at over US$4.7 billion, he noted. As in many other parts of the world where there is this dependency on the ocean, the “Protect” part of the WRFS mantra is not only to nurture the stressed-out seagrass beds and coral reefs and the creatures that depend on them. It is also about protecting people: fishers and all who depend on that industry; those who work in tourism (White River is right in the middle of one of Jamaica’s most popular tourism hubs); their children; their children’s children.

By the way, both Mr. Corbin and Reanne McKenzie, Manager of the White River Fish Sanctuary, were participants in the recent town hall and expo on deep sea mining. We are all working together for our ocean.

Dr. Gavin Bellamy in an ocean-coloured shirt. (Photo: WRFS)

So, Protection is for the health of the environment, and the people who live in and depend on it. Engagement, Mr. Corbin noted, is about building trust and establishing “a common goal and vision.” It’s definitely about more than talking to school kids, I would agree. As for Restoration, we are currently in the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. Visit the highlighted link to learn more – it is rich with information (and inspiration).

As Mr. Corbin spoke about the impact of what is happening further inland, and how it affects the coast, this reminded us of the Planning Institute of Jamaica’s (PIOJ) Hills to Ocean (H2O) project, which the WRMA is also involved with. The PIOJ’s Camille Wildman has a work plan that includes the assessment of the health and distribution of seagrass beds (which are, by the way, a tremendous “carbon sink”); installing a smart buoy to measure climate change impacts; and providing technical assistance and training opportunities of various kinds, to include the services of a rural sociologist.

Dr. Gavin Bellamy, CEO of the National Fisheries Association, was over the moon. On his first visit “I took over 1,000 pictures!” he declared. He praised White River as an example to other communities, in terms of environmental awareness and the improvement in the fisheries (the fish have already increased in size – biomass – and numbers). He was also happy to announce that two more fisheries sanctuaries will be legally established this year. He believes White River will “ignite” other fishing communities, because “it is their community and it is their livelihood, and if they collaborate with you they will benefit.” He envisions a supportive network of fish sanctuaries, new and established.

Representing the Tourism Enhancement Fund, Nalford Hyde was also looking to the future and sustainability – not only for the tourism industry but for the strengthening of our ecosystems:

It is through initiatives like this and through partnerships like this that we can take a stand and take back and protect our environment, for us and our children in the future.

Nalford Hyde

Belinda Morrow has a lot of plans in mind, and now the WRFS needs to work on its Strategic Plan. The area where the fishers market and sell their fish needs improvement. Looking at what is happening upstream (the H2O) and improving the river’s water quality are important considerations to take on board. Obtaining a glass bottom boat and organising snorkelling and diving tours to generate income – and encourage an appreciation of the marine environment – are also goals. Possible partnerships with tertiary institutions to offer courses, both at home and abroad, may also bring in revenue. And of course: “We realise that we can’t run this thing without money,” she added, so financial security is absolutely critical. Donors, jump in!

Community activities – learning, and cleaning up. (Photo: WRFS)

PS. On a political note, Mr. Corbin and UNEP are counting on the Government of Jamaica formally signing onto the Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW) Protocol of the Cartagena Convention on Biodiversity – this year. I first learned (and wrote) about the SPAW Protocol at a UNEP press briefing in Kingston nine years ago (thankfully, Jamaica has since signed onto another protocol mentioned in that article, that of Land-based Sources of Pollution (the LBS Protocol). However, it has been thirty years since UNEP has been working with the Government to get the SPAW Protocol signed. It entered into force 22 years ago! Years ago, I asked the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation why Jamaica had not signed it, and received the “We’ll get back to you” response. Read more about its importance (especially for Marine Protected Areas) here

Now, Minister Matthew Samuda has promised that Jamaica will sign this important document (not just a piece of paper, but with tangible benefits for the country) within the first six months of this year. So, we are now in the second month. Over to you, Minister Samuda! Please, keep your promise.

It’s all for the future: the health of our wonderful Caribbean Sea, and all those who depend on it. May I offer a virtual “Vote of Thanks” to all who put their hearts, minds, and energies into the White River Fish Sanctuary.

One of my favourite memories of White River Fish Sanctuary in 2017, as we set out to take a look at the coral gardens. (My photo)

One thought on “White River, Jamaica: Protect, Restore, Engage

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.