JaRistotle’s Jottings | Fishful thinking
The Sunday Gleaner was awash with news pertaining to an immediate ban on the harvesting of conch which has been imposed by the Ministry of Agriculture; that ban to run for one year until January 2020. As sudden as the ban was, it really did not surprise me that such a knee-jerk reaction had been implemented. Despite countless indications over many years, warning of the pending demise of not just our conch fisheries, but also other fisheries stocks, including lobsters, our gatekeepers in the Ministry of Agriculture and the Fisheries Division have been pussyfooting all this time: they are ultimately responsible for this predicament.
According to the Gleaner reports, “overfishing by licensed local industrial players has been identified as the main contributory factor”. Add to this routine, poaching by foreigners and fishing by unlicensed local fishermen, and we begin to understand the dilemma of our fisheries.
While we have been imposing closed seasons on both conch and lobsters over the last few decades, it appears that our gatekeepers routinely ignore whatever empirical analyses were done to gauge the sustainability of those closed seasons and ongoing harvesting practices. As a result, the industry has hardly been afforded sufficient controls for sustainable management.
Not being too acquainted with the ins and outs of the fishing industry, I made some enquiries with individuals who have been engaged in both fishing and enforcement in our marine areas. In summary, they painted a picture of neglect, a severe lack of capability on the part of the marine police and the coast guard, and an absence of these law enforcement agencies in most fishing villages island-wide. Fishermen come and go as they please, as do all sorts of rogues involved in anything but fishing.
According to my sources, the Morant Cays, and more-so the Pedro Cays, are suffering from decades of poor administration. One person previously involved in operations at the Pedro Cays reported that he found close to 2,000 fishermen operating there some 10 years ago. Sanitary conveniences were inadequate as evidenced by the stench, living conditions were primitive, and sex workers operated under conditions not fit for public description.
My sources went on to outline concerns regarding the small mesh used to make fish-pots, which traps juvenile fish and accelerates the depletion of stocks. They highlighted problems with ghost fish-pots which, having been set, were lost and continue to trap fish into perpetuity. They spoke of fishermen who operated as divers, putting themselves at serious risk having never undergone formal training, with dozens being killed, seriously injured or maimed for life.
If these portrayals are anything to go by, then we are likely to have more problems than just the depletion of the conch stock. Not only are all other stocks under threat, but the unsanitary conditions at the cays spell for potential health issues for the fishermen and those who consume their catches.
Whereas I realize that most constituencies in Jamaica lay along the coast, and that fishermen are significant breadwinners who can influence the balance of votes, it would be foolhardy to continue to ignore the plight of our fishing industry for political expediency. We may be approaching or have passed the assimilation point, the point of no return, but it is never too late for a shower of rain.
We need to widen the ban beyond conch to other endangered stocks, and to concurrently implement other critical actions to protect and preserve our marine resources; ban diving by untrained individuals; limit the numbers of fishermen who may operate at the cays at any given time; increase the mesh size used in making fish-pots.
To do otherwise and expect that our plight will not worsen is fishful thinking.