… and some overdue housecleaning

Jamaica has a new fish sanctuary. The White River Special Fisheries Conservation Area spans 1.5 kilometers of seacoast from Hermosa Cove in St. Ann to Prospect in St. Mary. It is the first sanctuary in the Ocho Rios area, and its founders have high hopes for it.

The sanctuary’s “parents” are the White River Marine Association (a group of Ocho Rios stakeholders) and the White River Fishermen’s Association. The proud “godfather” is Inilek Wilmot of the Oracabessa Fish Sanctuary, who helped local fishers to organize their association, then convinced them that the Oracabessa model, community-driven and enforced by fishers, could also work in Ocho Rios. Financial and infrastructure support has also been contributed by local hoteliers, including the Jamaica Inn Foundation, Sandals Foundation, Couples Sans Souci and Hermosa Cove.

Jamaica’s fish sanctuaries are not very big, and they are special places. To be successful, they have to include a wide variety of habitats – places where fish of all kinds come to breed, places where baby fish can hide while they grow, and places where young fish can feed while they mature. They need mangroves and seagrass beds, shallow reefs and sand or rubble flats, and deeper canyons or drop-offs, all within a space that wardens can patrol in a few hours.

White River has started a coral replanting project to rebuild shallow reefs destroyed by pollution, overfishing and storm damage. Coral replanting has already had some success at Negril, Montego Bay, and Oracabessa. According to Dr. Andrew Ross of Seascapes Caribbean, a pioneer coral gardener, “Fish sanctuaries can help to bring the system back into balance. With more fish to keep them clear of predators and algae, both the existing corals and any new ones that we grow will have a better chance. More fish = more coral. The flip-side to this is that baby fish actually smell these corals and swim towards them, where they find safe haven amongst the branches and crevices. More coral = more fish, too.

The goal for White River – a 500% increase in fish biomass in five years – is quite possible, especially since the managers are starting from a very low base. In five years, the fast-growing fish – the parrots, grunts, and doctors – will have a crop or two of grandchildren and the slower maturing snapper and grouper babies born this year will be spawning. A 500% increase is just six fish for every one that’s there now – or three if they’re twice the size of the one that’s there now.

On the south coast, UWI’s Centre for Marine Sciences and Kingston Freeport Terminal Limited have combined forces to rescue a mangrove island from the stinking mess that is Kingston Harbour. Refuge Cay, one of the few isolated islands in the Port Royal mangrove forest, is living proof the effectiveness of mangroves as trash traps. However, it’s nearly killed itself in the process – the mangroves are starting to die, smothered by years of accumulated plastic.

The group of fishers recruited to clean up the mess has been taking 300 bags of garbage off Refuge Cay nearly every day since January 8. Cleaning the whole island is expected to take about a year. New mangroves will be planted as the cleaning progresses, and trash barriers will be established to prevent further garbage buildups.

Over the next five years, UWI and KFTL will also be working to restore the Port Royal Barrier Reef, using artificial structures as a foundation. When the project is done, the sponsors hope to accomplish three things:

  • Restore and protect fish and wildlife populations in the area;
  • Preserve and improve the mangrove area as an eco-tourism attraction, especially for bird-watchers;
  • Preserve and improve the natural storm defenses provided by the mangrove islands and the deep lagoon behind them.

Both the White River sanctuary and the rescue of Refuge Cay were brought about by Jamaicans who didn’t wait around for Government to do the job, or whine when it didn’t. Though neither group has come close to taking responsibility for the mistakes of the past, they are doing what they can to keep these sins from being repeated, they have a clear vision of a better future and they are getting their hands dirty working for it. That’s a Good Thing.