Editorial | Towards sustainable fishing
The fish, we have been advised, are back. Or, at least, are on their way. "We are pleased to say that, generally, the sanctuaries are working," said Karl Aiken, of the NGO, Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation (C-CAM). "Not just out in southern Jamaica, but in the north coast, especially in the Oracabessa fish sanctuary. The fish are back, along with various other things like lobsters and crabs."
While celebrating the effort, and success, of the government agencies and NGOs like C-CAM towards rebuilding Jamaica's fish population Dr Aiken wouldn't mind too much if we held the applause, or applauded not too robustly. He appreciates, we are sure, that the gains thus far are modest and, more significantly, fragile.
Around the time of Jamaica's Independence 56 years ago, the island's fishermen, when there were fewer of them, operating closer to shore, annually caught more than 12 tonnes of fin fish. Two decades later, that figure had fallen by a third and the decline accelerated until the early 2000s. Indeed, in 2003, the approximately 4,600 tonnes of fin fish caught in Jamaica was 62 per cent less than in 1962. Last year, there was a total haul of 14,748 tonnes, up 14 per cent on 2016, but that catch included molluscs and crustaceans.
A large part of the problem was that the island's waters were being overfished, while too little protection was afforded fish habitats. By 2017, there were 24,000 registered fishers in Jamaica, over 20 per cent more than the middle of the decade. Put another way, Jamaican governments constantly increased the number of people it licensed to hunt animals existing in the wild - in this case, the island's sea -even when there were fewer of these species.
At the same time, poor management of the environment contributed to the destruction of mangroves and reefs where several of the fish chased by increasing numbers of fishermen spawn and live. The upshot: Not only were fewer fish being caught, but the average size of the catch was smaller.
NO BASIS FOR COMPLACENCY
The efforts of C-CAM and others may be leading to some recovery of fish populations, but we have no basis to be complacent. For instance, last year, for the third year in a row, the Jamaican authorities assessed the health of Jamaican coral reefs, some of them important to the spawning of commercial and other fish species, as poor. Of 27 sites reviewed, only one, the Government reported, was deemed to be in good health, and seven were fair, six categorised as critical, and 13 poor.
It is not unlikely, given the untreated sewage entering the sea as well as other failures in environmental management on land, that the health of coral reefs, as well as shoreline mangrove forests, could grow worse, to the detriment of the fish population.
In other words, there is a connection with how well we manage the environment on land and what happens in the sea, including the fishing industry. So, one can't be dealt with in isolation from the other.
At the same time, too, it is urgent that the new fisheries law, gestating for more than two decades, finally emerges from Parliament, giving birth to the promised independent authority that will have specific focus on the sustainable management of the island's fish resources.