The last bastion of hope for our fisheries’ survival has gotten much-needed attention over the last 12 months. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) over the past four years has been working assiduously to bring fisheries management up to date on Pedro Bank with kind support of the Fisheries Division, The Jamaica Defence Force (JDF), other NGOs and academia.
Pedro Bank and Cays are located approximately 80 km south of mainland Jamaica. This region represents the best marine ecosystem in Jamaica, with fairly healthy coral reefs and one of the best sanctuaries for seabirds, including the masked booby. The Cays are important regionally as one of the largest conch-producing areas.
During the heights of the Spanish reign in the Caribbean, the “Baja de la Vibora,” as the Pedro Bank was known, was one of the most treacherous routes, costing numerous lives, cargo and vessels. The treasure trove of historical artifacts yet to be discovered will likely add to the marine heritage that Jamaica has to offer.
The Bank was known to have an extensive fringing coral reef system with vast areas of the beautiful, reef-building Elkhorn Coral. Although coral cover has been reduced drastically around the mainland to less than 70% in the 1990s through human activity and natural disasters (coral bleaching and hurricanes), there appears to be hope on the horizon, as indicated by the recent Living Oceans Foundation (LOF) expedition in 2012. The remoteness of the Bank has stymied the decline, but there is still cause for concern. The intensive fishing activity, as well as the residential status of fishermen on the Cays without proper management, represents the single largest threat to its survival. The LOF expedition chronicled a lack of large fishes, with several reef species not being accounted for, including species of grouper and snapper. The latter a staple fish in the Jamaican diet. In other instances another staple fish, the parrotfish, were largely observed to be small in size, coupled with a severe shift to mostly female fish. This represents a serious shift in the species’ diversity and distribution on the Bank. These impacts could have significant repercussions if management efforts are not applied consistently.
Exploitation of the Bank has increased in recent years because of an increase in the number of fishermen and the harvesting of fish and other marine stocks in the region. It is Jamaica’s prime fishing ground, with the exportation of the Queen Conch a major contributor to the country’s GDP to the tune of approximately US$3M per year, according to the Statistical Institute of Jamaica.
TNC over the years has devoted a lot of time and resources into preserving this piece of paradise for the Jamaican people. The construction of a research station has proved critical in assisting with research and social management. To date, a management plan has been drafted that, it is hoped, will serve as a platform for critical action on the Cays. In May 2012, the SW Cay Fish Sanctuary was declared, and in early 2013 a draft management plan was submitted. Many of the achievements to date have been accomplished with financial assistance from the Caribbean Large Marine Project managed by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
In late 2012, the Bank was highlighted in a negative manner through the large piles of garbage, rundown shacks, heavy fishing density and the lack of a functioning sewage treatment system. This expose drove the government to pay closer attention to what was occurring on the Cays and take proactive steps to reduce the socioeconomic problem that stands to put a significant damper on the significant economic resources of the Cays. Despite the government’s actions, there is much left to be done. NGO groups such as JET still do not believe much has been done and have vigorously articulated their position through words and actions. In part, they helped to conduct a beach cleanup exercise on the Middle Cay and bring attention to the sewage and solid waste problems being experienced. Since 2013, JET has continued the work on Pedro Cays largely through continued enforcement action of the fish sanctuary as well as continued education of the fisherfolk community on the Cays. It is interesting to note that the fisherfolk are aware of the issues and have taken steps to assist in the management of the Cays and Bank in order to ensure their own economic survival. There is much to be done, as overfishing is a very real and constant threat, as is invasion of the fishing grounds by fishermen from other countries.
The recipe is there for healthy management. All that is left is for all interest groups to actively pursue the solutions that will lend to the continued survival of the Cays and Bank and, by extension, the livelihoods of more than 1,000 members of the fisherfolk community of Jamaica.