Declining fish stocks in Jamaica and Belize are leading fishermen and resource managers to consider new fishing practices and conservation measures. One idea to help this effort came to fruition in 2008—a learning exchange between fishers from two areas heavily impacted by overfishing in each country.
“We thought the fishers could really benefit from seeing each other’s environments and learning from each other,” says Julie Stockbridge, a marine scientist with The Nature Conservancy in Belize and an organizer of the exchange.
During the exchange, the fishers shared ideas and information about what practices have worked—and haven’t worked—in their own countries.
For instance, the creation of no-take zones, marine preserves and ecotourism in Belize have helped fish stocks recover while in Jamaica new fisheries policies will improve enforcement and conservation efforts.
Through the exchange, fishers from Belize visited the Pedro Bank, Jamaica’s largest offshore bank and fishing grounds, and Treasure Beach, a large fishing community situated on the southwestern coast of mainland Jamaica. Two weeks later, Jamaican fishers went to Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Gladden Spit Marine Reserve and the villages of Placencia, Monkey River and Hopkins where both fishing and tourism are the major income generators.
Conservancy marine scientists Stockbridge and Nathalie Zenny from Jamaica—along with longtime partner Friends of Nature—organized the exchange. Their goals were to:
The two weeks of the exchange were hectic for both groups of fishers with travel, observation and dives, peppered with many conversations about the lower fish catches both groups are facing and the value of marine reserves and no-take zones.
“The Nature Conservancy’s push to form one large group to address management and protection of the Pedro Bank and involve the key stakeholders in the learning exchange is very positive and necessary,” says Lt. Aceion Prescott of the Jamaican Coast Guard.
Fishermen are spending longer hours at sea to catch fewer and smaller fish. At one site in Belize, fishers were harvesting around 1 ton of grouper each day during the spawning aggregation season in the 1970s. But by the late ’90s, they were able to retrieve only a handful of fish.
At this stage the fishermen began working with The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the government and other partners to create marine protected areas. Since then, fish populations have slowly begun to increase to a sustainable level at sites that have the most stringent regulations.
“In the beginning the fishers didn’t realize they were fishing out certain sites without allowing the next generation to develop,” Zenny says. “This has occurred throughout the coastal areas of Jamaica, and Pedro Bank is now being fished out due to the same reason.”
Jamaica’s Pedro Bank has colorful reefs surrounded by deep blue sea and is the most productive area for queen conch, of which Jamaica is the world’s leading exporter.
This frontier fishing ground is isolated, with no source of freshwater on site. Makeshift houses constructed of zinc sheets and cardboard dot the beaches. Most of the residents are from the south coast of mainland Jamaica, and they fish year-round on the bank.
But fish stocks have declined dramatically in the past decades. The Nature Conservancy is constructing a field and research station on the Pedro Bank that will serve as a base of operations to facilitate enforcement and patrolling of the area by the Fisheries Division and the Coast Guard to encourage further conservation research and monitoring. The Conservancy is also providing crucial research and technical assistance in designing a management plan for the site.
Nathalie Zenny says she is encouraged by her experience with the exchange between Jamaica and Belize.
“I do not make a living from the sea. I do not spend hours pulling fish pots on rough seas and literally risking life and limb for my livelihood,” she says. “Witnessing the conviction of both my Belizean and especially my Jamaican fishing colleagues and friends to effect change to improve the condition of the fisheries will stay with me always.”
Her colleague in Belize agrees: “At a time when life feels as though we are constantly swimming against the currents — against the inevitable squandering of our natural resources — it is refreshing to hear former and current fishers express respect for the marine environment,” says Stockbridge.
To learn more about the Conservancy's work in Jamaica, please visit nature.org/jamaica