Wed | Jul 8, 2020

Marine conservation methods paying dividends in Oracabessa Bay

Published:Monday | March 2, 2020 | 12:15 AM
A hawksbill sea turtle hatchling, part of the success story of a programme which now sees more turtles being hatched n the Oracabessa Bay beach than any other in the island.
A hawksbill sea turtle hatchling, part of the success story of a programme which now sees more turtles being hatched n the Oracabessa Bay beach than any other in the island.

On Jamaica’s north coast, Oracabessa Bay’s biodiversity sustains its natural beauty and bounty, in addition to a sustainable source of income for those who learn how to dwell in harmony with nature. Ahead of tomorrow’s World Wildlife Day, Oracabessa Bay sits as a nesting site for the endangered hawksbill sea turtle, endangered Acrapora corals, and seafood supplies destined for local markets.

Over the years, indiscriminate fishing has significantly reduced fish stocks, severely impacting the income of fishers and threatening the bay’s tourism product, while land-based pollution continues to kill coral reefs, a crucial part of the defence infrastructure and seafood basket of coastal territories.

Baseline studies conducted in 2011 by the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) found coral reefs declared 91 per cent ‘degraded’ – effectively curtailing source material for the regeneration of beaches ow fish numbers and small fish size, averaging just 7.4 centimetres in length; fast-growing algae which often overwhelms coral had overtaken about 80 per cent of the coral reefs; and that virtually all sea turtles and their eggs were being poached on the prime nesting beach and sold on the black market, where they are prized as an aphrodisiac.

This was ground zero for the Oracabessa Bay Fishing Sanctuary (OBFS), established in 2010 when the St Mary’s Fishermen Co-operative joined forces with the Oracabessa Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation founded by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell.

Joining forces with these groups, Oracabessa Bay residents, fishers, marine biologists and hotel owners united in a common purpose not only to restore corals, fish stock and sea turtles, but also to establish sustainable livelihoods and a community capable of living in harmony with nature.

Working to support this vision, between 2011 and 2013 the UNDP-implemented Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme (GEF SGP) disbursed grant funds of US$46,260 (J$6.3 million) for a project with co-financing of US$146,844 (J$20 million) for a total of US$193,104, to preserve the marine ecosystem in the 74-hectare sanctuary and to increase biodiversity and species populations, including those of sea turtles and corals.

Gains being realised

Hyacinth Douglas, national coordinator of the GEF SGP in Jamaica, says the funds were used to expand three undersea coral garden nurseries with 2,000 pieces of coral; train fishers as coral gardeners; purchase a patrol boat to support enforcement; rehabilitate 13,000 square metres of a nesting beach for hawksbill sea turtles; and build organisational capacity in IT, financing and marketing.

With a relatively small investment into strategic entry points of the sanctuary’s work, driven by a shared community vision, big wins were recorded as far back as 2013 and are continuing on an upward trajectory.

Recent checks indicate further improvements in the state of the sanctuary’s biodiversity. Living coral cover increased three and a half times between 2011 and 2018; fish biomass, which is the weight of fish per area of the sanctuary, increased 74 times the 2011 figure; and average fish size moved from 7.4 centimetres to 20.9 centimetres – nearly tripling. Less than half of the coral reefs are now covered with algae, compared to nearly 80 per in 2011. Corals are now getting more breathing room to grow, and more parrotfish are eating the algae.

“We are seeing more fish,” fisher and sanctuary warden Leighton Withworth confirms.

“The fish was low before. Since we founded the sanctuary, when we fish on the outside of the sanctuary, it’s good – bigger fish, more fish,” he said, adding that sales were also good. “We don’t have hand to sell most of the times.”

Lenford daCosta, a fisher and coral gardener, agrees: “I see a lot of improvement in the increase of the fish population.”

He credits this to the coral reef restoration work.

Much work to do

While the situation is improving at OBFS, coral reef health and biodiversity is still a major challenge nationally.

Coral reef health is generally considered to be poor in Jamaica, declining by two per cent since 2017, according to the latest Status Report on Coral Reef Health 2018. The report warns that herbivore fish numbers – like surgeonfish and parrotfish that eat coral-harming algae – as well as commercial fish numbers are both at critical levels, declining an average 22 per cent. Meanwhile, harmful algae cover on reefs is still too high, rising six per cent since 2017.

Unsurprisingly, no reef site evaluated across Jamaica scored ‘good’ or ‘very good’ in this latest coral reef health index. Across 28 sites evaluated, five protected areas were ranked as fair, among them an area within the OBFS (Commander Reef), another at Boscobel in St Mary, two in Ocho Rios, and one in Westmoreland. All other reef sites were ranked as poor or critical.

Fishers need healthy reefs to sustain their livelihoods and to contribute to the nation’s food security, so the current state of Jamaica’s reefs challenges the sustainability of the industry. Along Jamaica’s 1,022 kilometres of coastline, 15, 000 to 20,000 fishers ply coral reef-related fisheries, Food and Agriculture Organization country report 2019 indicates. Jamaica’s fisheries overall, including reef-related fisheries, contribute directly and indirectly to the livelihoods of more than 100,000 people islandwide, or nearly five per cent of the population.

A hawksbill comeback

Before starting his sea turtle conservation programme, Mervyn Tennant, a retired high-school principal from Britain now living in Oracabessa Bay, would witness the devastating work of poachers. More devastation came because of debris dumped in a nearby river. This caused sand to pile up, creating lakes which would disturb nests, killing off the turtles. Clearing the beach had become an absolute necessity to save future populations.

“With the tractor we bought [using the GEF SGP money], we could push the sand back to the back of the beach so we get a better slope that would not collect water. “Without this, we would have lost 50 per cent of our nests,” he estimates.

“It made a significant difference to what we do … . We now have more turtles hatch on this beach than anywhere else in Jamaica. Last year, we had 21,110 go back [into the sea].”

To date, the conservation programme has supported the release of 220,000 sea turtle hatchlings into the sea.

The ongoing debris-removal programme has led to the creation of a new revenue stream for the OBFS. Repurposed as compost, it is sold to landscapers and farmers.

Unity made a big difference

For GEF SGP’s Hyacinth Douglas, the high point of the GEF SGP grant project is unity.

“This is a real community-run and community-owned initiative. It has escalated in such a way that it has impacted the lives of local communities. It has impacted policies. It has attracted government and international partners. A second high point would be the level of interest in protecting the livelihoods of the local community by establishment and protection of a fish sanctuary and the preservation of the habitats and survival of species like the hawksbill turtle,” she said.

Travis Graham, executive director of the Oracabessa Bay Foundation, would like to see the momentum continue for all fish sanctuaries across Jamaica. He is calling on the government to talk through solutions and alternatives to the closure of the conch industry. A cess imposed on this conch industry is used to provide subventions to fish sanctuaries.

“We urge the Government to work along us so together we can find a solution to ensure the sanctuaries around Jamaica are protected, that they develop as they should, leading to the development of other industries,” he said.