Fish Conservation in Jamaica's Wild West

“With the help of these fishers, Pedro Bank will not be a basket case but rather a basket of plenty.”

Natalie Zenny

By Nathalie Zenny

Basket Case or Bread Basket?

Several years ago, a well-known marine scientist referred to Jamaica as the "basket case of the Caribbean." As Jamaican marine conservationists, I and many of my colleagues took issue with this label.

Jamaica has the unsavory reputation of being the most overfished country in the Caribbean. In fact, a 2010 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.

Another World

Known as “Jamaica’s Wild West” or “the Republic of Pedro,” the Pedro Bank is literally a frontier outpost roughly 50 miles south of mainland Jamaica. Politically, the area is another world, with a law unto 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 or 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 to support themselves and their families. 

A Movie Brings a Meeting of the Minds

So along I came to Pedro Bank, having previously lived a very different Jamaican reality—as a young woman from the more affluent part of Kingston, privileged, well-educated. Needless to say, the men and I each had preconceptions about one another. 

Heart in mouth, I garnered my courage for the first meeting with them. We got a good turnout, maybe 70-80 people. But the crowd was defensive, distrustful, quiet. So we tried a different approach, armed with an old white sheet strung across a building in the dark of the night—reminiscent of the film Cinema Paradiso and the outdoor village cinema. People gathered round, sitting on the ground, on buckets, fishpots or whatever was handy. We played a 15-minute documentary about fish spawning in Belize. 

Images of snappers and groupers swarming in circles, the females releasing white clouds of eggs, so many thousands of fish that you cannot distinguish one from the other eclipse the screen. And the crowd went wild. There was laughter, roars and expletives galore. I had thoughts of front-page newspaper headlines, “Belizean waters invaded by droves of Jamaican fishermen!” And I was amazed because it is as if a cloud had lifted and people started talking, shouting and telling us what they thought. 

Hope for Pedro Bank

At the end of the meeting, a few men approached me quietly and disclosed that they agreed; 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. Yes, yes, yes. Since then, some of these very same fishermen are men I work with. 

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

What continues to give me hope? Just as I have seen my own development and personal growth, I 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 and Grenada that they must protect what they have 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 that 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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