COMPLAINING that they have been neglected by the authorities, fishermen at Hellshire Fishing Beach in St Catherine have taken maintenance of the popular recreational spot into their own hands.
Christopher Brown, chairman of the Half-moon Bay Fishermen Co-operative Society Limited, said if it wasn't for the fishermen's efforts, the beach — flocked by hundreds of people weekly — would be an instant turn-off to patrons.
"Is like they (authorities) don't count Hellshire. They don't take us into consideration, and Hellshire is probably the most popular beach in Jamaica," Brown told the Jamaica Observer last Thursday.
"This is our little livelihood, so we have to protect it. Every minute we beg assistance to deal with certain things, but is like our complaints just not going anywhere," he continued, noting that some of the issues have been plaguing operations at the beach for years.
Among the problems Brown listed is constant beach erosion, which, he claimed, resulted from the destruction of the beach's natural coral reef. The reef, which would normally break the waves coming onshore, is constantly being destroyed by sewage and garbage released into the sea, said Brown.
Also affecting operations is the flooding of designated parking spots whenever there is rain, he continued. This frustrates customers who are forced to drive around the beach seeking alternative parking.
"These are some of the main challenges that we have over here, and we have been doing our best do deal with them," said Brown proudly.
When the Observer visited the beach on Thursday, truckloads of used asphalt were seen dumped at the entrance and on other sections of the property.
The material was requested from workers repairing the nearby Hellshire main road, said Brown. It will be used to cover potholes, as well as to spread over sandy parking areas that become flooded whenever there is rainfall, he said.
Huge boulders were also observed strewn on the beachfront. These, according to Brown, were sourced for free from a nearby worksite and transported to the beach by trucks. They are being dumped in sections of the water to minimise the onslaught of the waves on the beach, he explained.
Brown said fishermen pay the truck operators to deliver the rocks with money collected from patrons on public holidays. The initiative has already cost the fishermen $150,000.
"We collect like a $50 from people when they visit the beach. The last time we collected money like that was on Emancipation Day," he said, noting that the latest 'boulder-dumping' operation was the second such initiative undertaken by them since 1992.
On Thursday, a fisherman who identified himself only as 'Sette', and who operates a restaurant at the western end of the beach, said he was happy that his customers would finally have a place to park their motor cars.
"I'm sorry that you didn't come here when the place flood; the whole of this part is normally under water," he said, pointing to an area outside his restaurant. "Water come right up to the front of my place and nobody (patrons) don't want to come around here at those times. So this (asphalt) will really help to control the water," he theorised.
But while the fishermen are proud of their initiative, environmentalist Peter Espeut, former director of the Caribbean Coastal Area Foundation (CCAF), explained that their practice was not only illegal, but also disastrous to the beach environment.
"They are not supposed to dump material on the beach. What they are trying to do is raise the level, and the asphalt will leak away into the sea," he said. "What you are doing when you dump asphalt on a sandy beach is changing the character of the beach. And according to the law, any alteration to a beach should only be done with a permit from the Natural Resources Conservation Authority. They don't have that permit," he said, adding that the sand dunes on Hellshire Beach are also very expensive and should not be disturbed.
Additionally, Espeut said that the erosion of Hellshire Beach was a natural occurrence due to global warming, and thus the fishermen's efforts would prove useless in the long term.
"Sure the coral reefs are dying, and yes that will have some things to do with beach erosion, but it is also (caused by) sea-level rise. The fact of the matter is that with global warming the level of the sea is rising, and so everywhere in the world that is by a beach is going to see beach erosion, and the sea level is going to get higher," he said.
Espeut, describing Hellshire Beach as "a mess", said the most serious issue affecting the beach is that of people living and operating restaurants there. Because of that, he said, the beach is consistently being polluted by bodily and cooking waste. Also contributing to the problem, he said, is the huge volume of pollutants coming from the Kingston Harbour.
According to Espeut, efforts to rectify these problems during his time at the CCAF bore little fruit.
In the meantime, Brandon Hay, scientific research officer at the CCAF, said he was unaware of the fishermen's practices, but also noted the laws governing the alteration of beaches.
"The law is clear, if you are going to do any form of encroachment on the beach then certainly you have to have a permit from NEPA (National Environment and Planning Agency) to do so. I don't know if that process has been followed," he said, noting that the CCAF, in recent months, met with the fishermen at Hellshire to discuss the various geological problems affecting them.
Several solutions were considered, he said. However, dumping rocks into the sea was not one of them.
"If you put the rocks into the sea and you put them in the incorrect places, you are going to change the current systems along the coast... The rocks may capture some of the sand in some areas, but it may also contribute to the loss of sand in other areas," he explained.
He said that much engineering and environmental factors must be contemplated before such activities can be undertaken.
As for the dumping of the asphalt, Hay said: "I don't know exactly where they are putting the asphalt or how much they are putting there, but building a road on the sandy foundation, in terms of creating a hard foundation to drive on, is one thing."
"If you are putting it in the sandy areas to try to raise the levels then that will depend on exactly where that is being done and whether or not they have a permit do that," he said, noting that he was not aware whether the fishermen had a permit.
When the Observer asked Stephen Shaw, manager of communications and customer service at the National Works Agency (NWA), about the dumping of the asphalt on the beach he said he had no knowledge of it.
"I personally don't know anything about it, but that is something that we will have to check into because we don't just dump material anywhere. Certainly, you will need permits to do that," he said.
In the meantime, Shaw said that the work on the Hellshire main road was budgeted at $100 million, and that it is scheduled to be completed by December.
He said the repairs will be undertaken in stages, starting with the most affected sections, until the entire stretch is rehabilitated.
The Hellshire main road is one of the roadways in Portmore that Mayor George Lee has been clamouring for the NWA to repair. On Friday, Lee expressed much gratitude for the attention now being placed on the road, and said he hopes the Government will move speedily to address other deteriorating roads in the municipality.
Lee said he also was unaware of the dumping of the asphalt on the beach by the fishermen.