Parrotfish dilemma

Environmentalists encourage preservation, but some fisherfolk resisting

BY KIMBERLEY HIBBERT
Observer staff reporter
hibbertk@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, April 08, 2018

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DESPITE efforts by environmentalists encouraging Jamaicans to save the parrotfish because of its contribution to preserving the island's marine environment and beaches, some fisherfolk are unyielding.

In fact, a visit to popular fishing villages in St Catherine on Easter Monday revealed that though there has been sustained public education on why parrotfish should not be consumed or drawn from the sea, a number Jamaicans have missed the point and continue to make big demands on the product.

As a result, the livelihood of fisherfolk becomes largely dependent on the product, putting a strain on the efforts of the various campaigns.

One campaign, the Save the parrotfish, Save Our Islands, is working overtime to increase awareness of the decreasing parrotfish population and its many implications on the marine environment.

The campaign's overarching aim is to introduce improved management systems, either by implementing a closed season, adding parrotfish to the protected species list, or the introduction of stricter sanctions for catching undersized fish.

Since its launch, the Save the parrotfish, Save Our Islands campaign has conducted public awareness activities, consultations with fisherfolk and other stakeholders, a social media campaign, a national jingle competition in association with Rainforest Seafoods Limited, and on-resort promotions and competitions.

But the appeals seem to have fallen on deaf ears in some fishing communities.

“Everything finish and parrot was the first to go,” argued Claudia Maragh, a vendor at the Dyke Road Fishing Village. “We are aware they are lobbying for a ban, but if they put a ban, the fish industry is going to go down. It is the main fish. One and two people will come and say you know you shouldn't be selling the parrotfish but majority of Jamaicans are demanding it. It is our main source of income.”

However, Maragh supports the call for a closed season.

Lisa Williams shared similar sentiments and further put forward that should a ban come in place, there will be a bigger issue as her fellow fisherfolk will protest.

Arguing that a plausible solution should be found, Williams suggested the introduction of a closed season, or pond fishing with the parrotfish, or sanctions for catching the smaller ones.

“Everybody has to come together and hold a meeting. If there is no plausible solution we will demonstrate. Educate us more about this. Bring in charges for catching the undersized ones, but you can't just say no parrotfish. If you do that, it is going to cause one big fuss. Call together the licensed vendors and talk it through, because at the end of the day they have to protect their business,” Williams said.

At the New Forum Fishing Village, Ricardo “Ricky 27” Weetom's mindset was no different and he declared, “I cannot support that ban if it should come into effect.”

“Most people in Jamaica want either parrotfish or snapper. If I get a catch now, majority of what comes in is parrotfish. It is an easy catch. If I stop sell that, my life mash up,” he said.

But, interestingly, Weetom said the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) as well as environmental groups have had conversations with some fisherfolk, including himself, but he still doesn't see eye to eye with them.

“I can't agree with what they are lobbying for. parrot fish make a lot of people eat and is it a lot of people eat. If you ban that, better you ban the eating of fish,” he said.

At Port Henderson Fishing Village, the attitude towards saving the parrotfish was no different

“If it ban it will affect our lives greatly. Right now if 100 pounds of fish come in, 97 pounds are parrotfish. Better you tell me stop sell fish and stop collect money for fishing licence because everybody business mash up,” Rohan McCarty said. “We respect the nurseries they set up and no one fishes there, but you can't ban parrotfish.”

Another fisherman, Rovell Morris, challenged the lobbyists to do research around the breeding season for parrot fish as this, he said, would put things into perspective.

“You have to split justice. We can't kill out the breed of fishes. If they can do research to tell us when the fish is pregnant and then we don't catch those, it would help, because if you kill a pregnant fish you kill a lot of fishes in the process,” he said.

A diver, Nathan Boothe, also weighed in and discounted statements that parrotfish are the sole sea creatures that excrete sand and build coral reefs. He also said the main destruction of reefs come from developments near the coastline and pollution.

“Other fish do the same thing; you cut open doctor fish and you see sand, you cut open snapper, you see sand,” he said. “If you go out on a boat now and check the reef, you see that pollution mash up the entire thing. The little we catch has nothing to do with the destruction of the coral reefs. The garbage has literally stacked up on the reef like it is growing from it.”

However, the director of fisheries in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Dr Andre Kong, explained that there is no promotion for a ban and emphasised that it is proper management systems that need to be put in place.

“There has to be a far more comprehensive approach. We are looking at fish sanctuaries, no-fishing zones, regulation for protecting the large fish, gear regulation, among other things. An outright ban is not the answer as it will create social and economic problems for the most marginalised — fishermen,” Kong said.

“It's not the fishermen alone. We are talking about pollution, development on the coastline; every time you flush your toilet you contribute. We need to also realise that correlation is not causation. Here the fish herbivore population is degrading and so is the coral reef, but in other areas like Florida you have a lot of parrotfish, but the reefs are still degrading. There are other factors in place like emissions, warm sea temperatures, among other things,” he said.

Jamaica Environment Trust CEO Suzanne Stanley said there has been much dialogue with fisherfolk about saving the parrotfish and the importance of the specie.

Stanley, however, said the absence of legislation makes the efforts more difficult.

“Because there is no official government regulation, it is difficult to say 'don't catch this fish', and there is no sanction. There have been campaigns over the years — and they've been good while they last — that help to generate interest, build support, but the education has to be ongoing. It is about people being aware of the important role of the parrotfish. It is a keystone species for many of our Caribbean coral reefs, it helps to generate sand when it picks the algae off the corals — cleaning the reef and resulting in the white sand beaches we have. It's a very, very important fish,” she said.

“Some say only eat the big ones, but the truth is we shouldn't be eating any size as the big ones eat more of the algae and we need the small ones to mature as well. Along with the campaigns, there needs to be regulation coming from Government.”

The problem, however, is not unique to Jamaica and, just last week, a supermarket chain in the Dominican Republic launched an awareness campaign about the importance of not eating the parrotfish.

The fish, that plays an estimable part in the process of sand formation, is widely eaten across the region and environmentalists have voiced concern about the dwindling population. Parrotfish feed on seaweed from coral reefs and grind it as part of the digestion process before defecating it in the form of sand. Just one parrotfish can produce up to 220 pounds of sand every year.

The supermarket chain said that during the Easter season they want to take the message even further because it is the time of year when a lot of fish is traditionally eaten and large numbers of people go to the beach.

Using the #LasPlayasHablan (the beaches speak) hashtag, the initiative is aimed at raising awareness about the importance of protecting this fish species by encouraging everyone to be concerned about the environment, and to unite for a cause aimed at conserving the sand that makes up the country's beaches.

Last year May, Sandals Resorts International and The University of the West Indies entered into a partnership agreement, headed by marine biologist Dr Dayne Buddo, to produce “convincing data” over an 18-month period, to support calls for parrot fish management systems in Jamaica.

The data collection includes islandwide in-water surveys to retrieve information on the diversity, density, abundance and biomass of the parrotfish species, in addition to visits to fishing beaches to study the characteristics of the parrotfish being caught. A socio-economic assessment for fishing communities, many of which depend on the parrotfish to sustain their livelihoods, will also be conducted.

The agreement also includes community intervention and public education aspects through collaboration with private and public sector entities, including the Fisheries Division of the Agriculture Ministry and NEPA.

However, those efforts are competing with an ingrained culture, as demonstrated by one fish customer who opted not to be named.

He said that while he understands the messages environmentalists are trying to bring across, the parrotfish simply tastes good.

However, he proposed that in order to prevent him from purchasing the fish and to get fishermen to stop catching it, big fines are necessary.

“Unless you slap me with a hefty fine to catch it, sell it, or buy it, I will not stop buying it and neither will my fellow countrymen. Legislators will have to be serious about this too. It can't be a $500 fine that I can pay and walk away, do it again and repeat the process,” he said.

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