Jamaica’s Nature Conservancy: guardians of the sea

With Jamaica’s main fishing grounds under increasing pressure, the Nature Conservancy is changing the way fishermen think about sea resources

  • Briefing members of the fishing community as part of a lionfish survey. Photograph courtesy the Nature Conservancy
  • Unloading components of the Nature Conservancy's Pedro Bank field station. Photograph courtesy the Nature Conservancy
  • Southwest Cay, Pedro Bank. Photograph courtesy the Nature Conservancy

The location of one of the Nature Conservancy’s Jamaican projects has been in the news lately, and not in a good way. The buzz is that Pedro Bank, a collection of cays just off the coast of Kingston, is becoming a health hazard, the kind that requires purposeful statements from government ministers, two-inch newspaper headlines, and helicopter visits from bureaucrats, full court press in tow. And while the white-hot glare of attention may have easily cast a shade on the work of the Conservancy, the environmental guardians still soldier on.

As one of the world’s leading conservation organisations, the Nature Conservancy is focused on facing down environmental threats in thirty countries. Support for the Conservancy’s global work comes largely from individual and corporate donations, enabling projects such as deforestation turnaround in the Brazilian Amazon, and support for the development of China’s national conservation plan. In addition to its Jamaica operations, the Conservancy’s Caribbean footprint includes the Eastern Caribbean, the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, and the US and British Virgin Islands.

But let’s get back to Jamaica, where Pedro Bank is the current hot topic. Distinguished as the nesting and breeding habitat for the Caribbean’s largest remaining colony of Masked Boobies — a species of large seabird — and the world’s largest exporter of Queen Conch, Pedro Bank is one of Jamaica’s most significant fishing grounds, home to a large community of fishermen, many of whom live there six months out of the year. Left unchecked, the needs and habits of the Pedro Bank fishers may inevitably be on a collision course with the sustainability of the bank. And so for nearly seven years the Conservancy has trained its sights on the problems and the solutions.

First there is education, helping the fishing community understand concepts like fishing pressure (that is, over-fishing of fish populations) and sustainable harvesting, even while empowering them with the ideas and tools to make changes. “We are co-managing — with the government of Jamaica — the South West Cay Fish Sanctuary on the Pedro Bank, Jamaica’s very first offshore marine protected area,” says Donna Blake, the Conservancy’s country manager. There is also enforcement support, with the Conservancy helping to train sanctuary wardens. But still the issue of health conditions on the Pedro Bank hit the news, proving that in conservation your work is never done.

The Conservancy’s work of nurturing sustainable fishing has already gained traction in other major fishing areas across Jamaica. In Treasure Beach, a small town on the south coast much loved by celebrities for its laid-back vibe, the Conservancy supported the establishment of a fishing sanctuary by a local charity, Breds. “The Nature Conservancy provided funding to establish boundary markers at the Galleon Fishing Sanctuary. These markers were designed and constructed by Treasure Beach fishermen,” says Jason Henzell, general manager of Jake’s Hotel and Spa, and chairman of Breds. “TNC led an exchange of Jamaican fishers to Belize which was extremely successful. Due to this exchange, the documentary Massa God Fish Can Done was filmed.” Henzell is hopeful that the Conservancy will assign a marine biologist to establish a baseline study and create a five-year road map that will establish what success looks like. This, he says, will encourage existing sanctuaries to expand and new ones to be established.

So how well have Jamaicans connected the dots between environmentalism and sustainability? “There is still the misconstrued view that as a ‘developing’ country we cannot afford to protect and sustainably use our resources and still achieve growth,” explains Blake. “Fortunately, through awareness programmes and environmental disasters, Jamaicans have increased their knowledge and understanding about the need and imperative to do both: be environmentally savvy and wisely use what we are endowed with.”

Jamaicans like to say it takes cash to care, a holdover soundbite from a 1980s political campaign, and perhaps no organisation understands that as well as the Conservancy. Its core activities in the region have been executed through the Caribbean Challenge Initiative. “At its 2008 launch in Germany, TNC committed to investing US$20 million into the Caribbean,” says Philip Kramer, the Conservancy’s Caribbean programme director. “$8 million of that was for the Caribbean Biodiversity Fund, $12 million was in capacity and projects to support the Caribbean Challenge Initiative goals. After four years, we are on track to meet the $12 million by the end of year five, and making progress on the Caribbean Biodiversity Fund, which has just been formally created. On top of that, we have leveraged and mobilised well over $50 million in public funds towards the goals of the Caribbean Challenge Initiative.”

The Caribbean Challenge Initiative has established a tough wish list: by 2020, at least twenty per cent of the Caribbean’s near-shore coastal and marine environment is to be conserved in effectively managed protected area systems; by 2015, a new financial architecture to sustainably finance protected area systems and related conservation efforts must be capitalised and fully operational; and by the same year, ecosystem-based adaptation goals should be included in national plans and demonstration projects underway. The Caribbean Challenge Initative also seeks to ensure that sustainable fisheries and marine protected area goals are included in national plans and declarations, and that the management of protected areas is improved by adopting tourism sustainability principles.

But goals agreed upon in cushy air-conditioned offices are often lost in translation or execution in the world beyond the office walls. And this is where the Nature Conservancy has a winsome reputation — one in which a hands-on approach to conservation also serves to inspire community action. Take the story of the Rio Grande Valley community, snug between the Blue Mountains and the John Crow Mountains. At a time when river poisoning was depleting fish stocks and damaging the health of the river, the Conservancy sought to inform residents about the inherent dangers, and at the same time started a conversation about biodiversity and environmental laws. That project ended in 2008, but even today, voluntary community wardens continue their patrols, keeping a watch for compliance with fishing laws.

The weight and rewards of the Conservancy’s mandate are not lost on its team members. “The first time I went to Pedro Bank, I travelled by helicopter,” recounts Blake. “Landing on Middle Cay, I observed several young Masked Booby birds being blown by the helicopter-created wind, squawking and clearly feisty. These are young birds, not more than one or two pounds, and only a few inches off the ground. They rocked and adjusted their feet and held firm against the strong wind, holding their position beside their nests in a clear show of defence of their territory. It was clear to me that Pedro Bank’s Middle Cay was and is their home, and has been for thousands of years,” she continues.

“By the strength and sense of territory it became clearer to me, more than ever before, that we are duty-bound to work in harmony with and protect the birds, plants, fish, and other animals which co-habit planet Earth.” To this we say, soldier on.


Learn more: Find out more about the Nature Conservancy at www.tnc.org, and about Jamaica fisheries sustainability by viewing the documentary Massa God Fish Can Done on YouTube


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