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Lifeline for Portland coast

BY KIMONE THOMPSON Associate editor -- features thompsonk@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, March 12, 2014    

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LIKE he has been doing for years, Portland fisherman Dennis Nichols swam out into the famous Blue Lagoon Sunday morning hoping to spear a catch. But by the time he had reached San San Bay, half a mile later, he had nothing to show for his troubles.

"Mi swim all the way an when mi reach yah so, mi nuh shoot one fish," he said, pointing to San San Bay. "Dat mean say di environment really gone bad."

In years gone by, the same journey would have netted an "unlimited" number of fish, according to Nichols, who has been fishing for more than 50 years.

"Mi used to walk out on the reef at San San with sea eggs and catch parrot. In the space of half-an-hour I would be catching five, six big parrot; one a dem can weigh two-and-a-half, three pounds. Dem deh someting yuh nuh see again. Neva see again. Right now ah just di likkle sprat dem man ah ketch," he said, adding that some barracuda are to be found past Alligator Head point.

Other fishermen from the area tell similar stories.

Moyston Forsythe, for example, said he recently spent an hour diving but only managed to catch three fish, from five attempts.

"The other day I go out diving and ah di first mi dive fi so long and ah only five time mi fire my gun," he told the Jamaica Observer.

The men said the area, which was once teeming with a variety of fish species and previously described as a "vibrant fishing area with several commercial species", is in an advanced state of degradation and can no longer support their livelihood because of the depletion of the fish stock.

But somebody is doing something about it.

On Sunday, art collector Baronness Francesca von Habsburg and her art foundation Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA 21) opened Alligator Head Marine Lab on her property in the eastern parish. The lab, which will conduct research dedicated to the conservation and sustainable development of Portland's marine life, will be manned by staff from the University of the West Indies, Mona — in Dr Karl Aiken, Professor Dale Webber, Dr Mona Webber and Dr Dayne Buddo.

Von Habsburg has committed $24.5 million for five years to the programme, which has seven areas of focus — lionfish control, plankton communities, coastal water quality, fish nursery establishment, reef herbivore research, reef community monitoring, and the establishment of coral nurseries.

A critical piece of the work — which is expected to mitigate the threats posed by over-exploitation, overfishing, habitat loss, unsustainable building practices, climate change, and pollution from sewage, pesticides, herbicides — will be the creation of special protected areas so that juvenile fish can mature.

The primary area of interest, according to the researchers, is between Frenchman's Cove and Dragon Bay, with Alligator Head Reef in the centre. The secondary area of interest includes Turtle Harbour, Blue Lagoon and Drapers Harbour.

The baronness said her decision to partner with UWI came from her personal experience as a diver and snorkeler.

"My mother taught me to snorkel on the reef at Alligator Head in the early '60s. I watched how hundreds of fish came to eat from a sea urchin that she balanced upon her hand. I was awestruck!

"[But] over the years I have watched diseases killing off the corals, how Hurricane Gilbert smashed the reef to pieces, how overfishing took its toll, and how fewer and fewer turtles, manatees, leopards and mantra rays have made their way into the bay. Conch shells literally disappeared from the shallows as well. The whole reef and bay of San San, right over to Blue Lagoon has been left devastated," she said.

Dr Buddo, a marine biologist and research director at Alligator Head Marine Lab, also spoke to witnessing the degradation first-hand.

"Portland is one of the most beautiful natural marine environments in Jamaica, but as the years have gone by, I have seen first-hand that it is degrading and is in need of restoration and rehabilitation," Buddo said.

It's a welcome intervention for the fishermen, who say they have been forced to take up various odd jobs to make up for the income lost to fishing.

"Is the best thing that happen to fisherman right now in this area because we have no fish to shoot. One time gone when mi bruk mi coulda go tek up mi gun and go shot and come back come sell an' mek a $1,500 put inna mi pocket. Not again. Not again," Forsythe lamented.

Added Nichols: "Ah long time dem shoulda tek up di ting in hand cause Government nah do nutten fi wi. Mi nah just jump up and say mi deh behind it 100 per cent, but naturally, but mi deh behind it... A whole heap ah people livelihood ah guh go weh still enuh [but] until dem cut out di night divers dem, 'cause dem ah one ah di man dem weh ah kill out di reef. If dem don't do that, wi great granpickney dem nah go see nuh fish."

"Is a good thing they come wid. Di feedback from di fisherman dem [is that] they love it," Forsythe interjected.

Portland Environment Protection Association (PEPA) and Reef Check Dominican Republic are partnering with von Habsburg and UWI on the project which, according to von Habsburg, is a "fact-finding exercise, a learning opportunity and, most of all, a potential lifeline to the area for the residents, fishermen, children, visitors and local politicians [as] it will affect us all in a positive way".

For PEPA president Machel Donegan, the project couldn't have come at a more critical juncture.

"If (the degradation) continues unchecked, we won't be able to boast about Portland anymore," he warned.

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