What happened to Hellshire Beach?
Hellshire Beach in 2021(Photo: Jason Rimann)

Less than 15 years ago Hellshire was a white sand beach that drew Jamaicans and tourists alike for recreation, lobster, fried fish, and festival. It has now eroded so badly the livelihoods of its residents and businesses are in danger.

Causes of erosion

The dramatic erosion started between 2004 and 2008. Massive waves from Hurricane Ivan in 2004 might have damaged the coral reef offshore, but it was in the aftermath of Hurricane Dean in 2007 that the fishermen and business owners noted the most severe damage to the beach. Satellite images have confirmed that the precipitous changes happened in the aftermath of both these storms.

Several other factors caused Hellshire Beach to be especially vulnerable to erosion:

*Human activity by way of the informal growth of the community and inappropriate sewage and waste disposal have caused pollution to the local marine environment.

*Pollution of the Kingston Harbour has also contributed to poor water quality on a bigger scale.

*Rising ocean temperatures, attributed to climate change, have stressed and bleached the corals.

*More recently there has been unregulated extension of the shops closer to the shoreline, worsening the situation.

*Damage has been done to the sand dunes and seagrass beds that would have helped to hold the beach sand in place.

*Buildings and bare soil have replaced the natural tree canopy and vegetation, such as mangroves, which has negatively impacted the natural processes that also maintained the beach.

Satellite images from EOMAP show the shoreline's transformation from 1971 to the present. The images show how the vegetation, both on land and underwater, has disappeared and how the shoreline has eroded. They also show how coral reefs that were once visible from the shore, appearing to be small islands, have mostly been destroyed and are no longer visible on the images.

Defining the problem

Here are the main findings:

1) The main Hellshire Beach has lost up to 33 metres of sandy shore over 15 years.

2) Just north of the main beach, towards Fort Clarence, the shoreline has eroded up to 77 metres over a 15-year period.

3) However, while the main Hellshire Beach has been eroding, the beach at Sugarman's to the south-west had grown by up to 16 metres at one point. The Hellshire Beach has, effectively, partially migrated.

4) The seabed has lost more than 15 hectares of seagrass. This is especially apparent in front of the areas where the beach erosion is most severe.

5) The coral reefs offshore have been so greatly damaged that the reef crests that had been visible from the beach have disappeared. Corals have died and the reefs are now covered in algae.

With the shoreline in its current state, another major hurricane such as Dean or Ivan would demolish most of the existing shops facing the sea.

The demise of a community

Hellshire Beach has, for as long as many can remember, been the centre of community life. However, as the beach continues to erode, so too has the livelihood of the people who live and work there. Fewer people now come to eat lobster and fried fish or to visit the shops. Informal and unregulated development continues to this day, and with this comes uncontrolled solid waste and sewage disposal practices. This has its own issues for land ownership.

Donnette Prendergast, co-owner of the famous Prendy's on the Beach, has been going to Hellshire Beach after church since the late 1970s. She says that with most of the sandy beach gone, fewer people come in to eat and those who do don't stay as long. There's nowhere for children to build their sandcastles and no room for the beach football competitions that used to happen frequently.

She also fondly recalls the many “islands” offshore, which were actually reef crests, that have since disappeared from view.

She remembers loving to walk way out into the sea to practise the exercises from her dance classes. Her husband and so many other members of the community are too depressed to talk about the decay that has been allowed to happen.

As poverty looms, there have been reports of illicit activities in the area. An apt example of the current state of affairs is the number of young men who try to dictate where you park when you drive into the community.

The beginnings of a solution

In 2012, LIME (now Flow) commissioned Smith Warner International Ltd to develop a solution to bring back the beach. This solution has been presented to several government stakeholders, yet no action has followed. The beach erosion is evidence of the problem, and the people of Hellshire need to be at the centre of the solution. A master plan is urgently needed that considers the people's situation and how this erosion problem will shape the future of the community.

Building back a beach without addressing some of the root causes of reef degradation, such as pollution from human activity, will be detrimental. Studied carefully, the beach can be recreated by pumping sand onto the shoreline with unobtrusive reef-like structures designed and constructed to reduce waves and hold this sand in place. Innovative approaches also exist to rehabilitate the coral reefs. However, the physical interventions need to be supported by improvements to the social and ecological environments.

With a master plan completed, a staged approach needs to be established that involves immediate execution of the first steps, as opposed to waiting for funding for the entire planning.

Moving forward with action requires a government stakeholder agency to take charge of the problem.

Since the LIME study in 2012, several agencies have expressed an interest, but no single agency has assumed full responsibility. Without responsibility there will be no accountability.

Will the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) now assume responsibility given their recent efforts to clean up the sargassum in the area and monitor beach change?

The Half Moon Bay Fishermen's Co-operative (fisherfolk of Hellshire) has been vocal about the problem for years, and has taken steps to implement a small part of the proposed solution. Their effort is what is holding together the only part of the beach that's left.

It's time for the urgency of the situation to be understood at the highest level and for an agency with access to funding to lead the charge in bringing back Hellshire for the people.

Jamel D Banton is managing director of Smith Warner International Ltd. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or jamel@smithwarner.com

Hellshire Beach in 2009 (top) and 2016 (bottom)(Photos: Kamilah Taylor and Gabrielle Taylor)
Jamel Banton
Jamel Banton

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