More destructive fishing methods and growing unemployment have led to greater and greater pressure upon Jamaica’s fish stocks, and it is now the most over-fished country in the entire Caribbean. In 2009, the Jamaican government agreed to create nine marine sanctuaries around the country, where fishing would be banned so stocks could regenerate.
With the financial support of Virgin Holidays, The Travel Foundation the Sandals Foundation and Bluefields Bay Villas, the Bluefields Bay Fishermen’s Friendly Society has been able to manufacture marker-buoys which will clearly demarcate this 3,000-hectare reserve.
The next step will be to raise the cash for a boat and crew-member to patrol the sanctuary and enforce the no-fishing policy. Luckily, president of the society Wolde Kristos has the support of almost the entire Bluefields fishing community, which means the project is much more likely to succeed than if the sanctuary had been imposed without local support.
Dr Owen Day, of not-for-proft organisation Caribsave, says that a film made in 2009 has played a key role in educating Jamaican people on and changing their attitudes about the fishing crisis. In Massa God Fish Can Done, the Nature Conservancy took 10 Jamaican fishermen to Belize to show the level of regeneration that has been achieved at Belize’s Hol Chan, which became Belize’s first marine reserve in 1987. You can watch it here:
I already had an understanding of how dynamite fishing, spear-fishing, and use of finer nets can affect fish populations, but I was interested to hear the impact that the fashion for serving fish with heads and tails on can have: “Plate-sized fish are juvenile fish,” says Howard Bromfield of the Jamaican Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. “Snappers that would be 20-inches long are now being caught at 8-inches. That’s still a juvenile. Fishermen are robbing themselves of bigger fish, heavier weight, more money.”
Wolde and Dr Day both insist upon the importance of being able to monitor the sanctuary’s progress over the coming years. “Governments around the Caribbean are starting to realise that sanctuaries are a solution, but we need success stories. Bluefields Bay could be a great success story,” says Owen.
Conservation volunteering bodies like Coral Cay Conservation may come and carry out scuba surveys, but Owen is investigating some exciting video technology being developed by Edinburgh University. The Fish4knowledge programme uses algorithms to log the size and identify the species of fish which swim past the camera lens: far more effective than recording by the naked eye.
The fishermen at Bluefields are also taking a resourceful approach to the lionfish problem, which is acute here as in many other parts of the Caribbean. The invasive lionfish was introduced accidentally in 1992 and is wiping out reef fish throughout the region. At Bluefields, the lionfish are being caught and sold to a local resort to be served as part of an educational dining experience. “The fishermen get paid for the fish, and to remove the poisonous spines and prepare the fish. Then I give the guests a talk about the lionfish crisis; the guests are always fascinated, and the fish actually tastes quite good,” says Patrick Marti, a Peace Corps volunteer who’s spent two years at Bluefields Bay.
Wolde Kristos’s vision for the sanctuary includes the creation of tourism-related jobs within the sanctuary, such as snorkelling tours, diving, and glass-bottomed boats. He’s even considering an underwater sculpture park, like those that have been so successful in Grenada and Cancun. But in true Wolde style, he plans to put a different spin on the idea by creating a ‘reggae theme park’, with statues of famous faces from Jamaica’s musical heritage. And instead of bringing in an international sculptor, he would look to use local artists and manufacturers – another way of supporting the local community and helping to ensure their support for the marine sanctuary project.
“There are various stakeholders in what we do,” he explains. “Tourism is one stakeholder, the general community is another. We have to find a mechanism for everyone to benefit – but it’s not a dream. We are making it work.”