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Cinema Paradiso in Jamaica's Wild West

“Belizean waters invaded by droves of Jamaican fishermen!”

Natalie Zenny

Several years ago a well-known marine scientist referred to Jamaica as the "basket case of the Caribbean." As a Jamaican marine conservationist, I, and many of my colleagues, took issue with this comment. Perhaps to some extent, he was justified in his statement given that Jamaica has the unsavoury reputation of being the most overfished country in the Caribbean. (A recent regional assessment indicated that over 90 percent of the country’s coral reefs are under threat).

But my work with the men of Pedro Bank, who some believe could be Jamaica’s last generation of fishers to make their living from the sea, gives me great hope. Jamaica is not a lost cause. Pedro Bank, the site where I work, is not a lost cause.

Known as “Jamaica’s Wild West” or “the Republic of Pedro,” the Pedro Bank is literally a frontier outpost 60 miles south of mainland Jamaica. Politically, the area has been forgotten and in many ways, it is another world, with a law onto itself.

There is no fresh water, except for that which is brought by boat or any rainwater one is lucky enough to catch. There is hardly any shade save a few coconut trees and the community’s houses are zinc and cardboard shacks. There are no toilet facilities and sanitation is poor.

The community is not a community in the traditional sense of the word. There are no families, children, health centers, schools. It is mostly 20 to 45-year-old men from the South Coast of Jamaica with the occasional few from the North Coast. These men have either been fishing most of their lives or have turned to fishing out of desperation simply because there are limited job options in the country and they need to support themselves and their families.

So along I come to Pedro Bank… two years ago… a very different Jamaican reality. A young woman from the more affluent part of Kingston, privileged, well-educated…..on both sides, we have our preconceptions about one another.

Heart in mouth, I screw up my courage for the first meeting with them. We get a good turn-out, maybe 70-80 people. But the crowd is defensive, distrustful, quiet. I speak, explain why we’re there, the work we’re doing, the work we want to do, that we’d like their help. People begin to leave.

So we take out an old white sheet and string it across a building in the dark of the night. Recollections from the film Cinema Paradiso and the outdoor village cinema; people gathered round, sitting on the ground, on a bucket, a fishpot, whatever is there. We play a 15-minute documentary about fish spawning in Belize.

Snappers and groupers swarming in circles, the females releasing white clouds of eggs, so many thousands of fish that you cannot distinguish one from another. And the crowd goes wild. Laughter, roars, expletives galore. I have images of front page newspaper headlines “Belizean waters invaded by droves of Jamaican fishermen!” And I am amazed because it is as if a cloud has lifted and people are talking, shouting, telling us what they think.

And at the end of the meeting, a few men approach me quietly and disclose that they agree….they have seen changes on the Bank, yes, the fish are less, yes, they don’t catch the same type of fish they used to, yes, they are struggling and there is a problem. Since then, some of these very same fishermen are men I work with:

Winston Kerr, otherwise known as Shuksman, is in his early forties and has been fishing for more than 20 years. He is from Montego Bay originally but now lives in Old Harbour on the south coast. Renoff Nembhard aka Rennie, Ryan, Chris, Mr. Vanny, Fisher, Mocho …there are others.

I am hopeful because I work with these men, and just as I have seen my own development and personal growth, I have and continue to witness theirs. Shuksman has stepped into a leadership role. He participated in a fish spawning workshop in the Bahamas in 2005 and warned his fellow fishermen from the Bahamas, Belize, Grenada…warned them to protect what they had or they may find themselves struggling as he does.

As he landed in Jamaica, he came off the plane and called me. “Nathalie you should have seen the fish! The size! The numbers! We have to do something on Pedro! We need a marine park!”

It is this which gives me great hope. And little bit by little bit, with the experience and the help of these fisher colleagues and others, I am convinced that Pedro Bank will not be a basket case but rather a basket of plenty for future generations.

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