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A Conservation Project in Jamaica Puts Community First
With its sunny weather, white sandy beaches, and bright music, Jamaica is famous as a source of inspiration. The small country is an old and enduring muse for tourists and artists alike, including writer Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond series.
But since the mid ’90s, Jamaica and other unique islands in the Caribbean region, according to a meta-study by Current Biology, have been facing the loss of one of their most critical resources: fish. And it will take a blue economy, like the one developing along Jamaica’s northeast coast, to keep this muse alive.
Not far from the buzzing tourist center of Ocho Rios is a stunning, sequestered coastal spot accessible only by driving 25 minutes along off-road trails: the Oracabessa Fish Sanctuary. It has crystal-clear waters that reveal emerald-hued depths, and a shoreline decorated by colorful boats, small yachts, and fish pots. With waters like these, one would assume Oracabessa to be a great fishing spot. But a sign on the docks boldly warns, No Fishing.
“I’ve been a registered fisherman since 1975, and I’ve seen the depletion,” says Captain Murray, a vessel operator and warden at the Oracabessa Fish Sanctuary. “We saw the need to put something in place, because if you have a farm and you’re always harvesting without replacing new seedlings, it will run down.”
The Importance of Fish
Often, environmental conservation comes across as a philosophy, or a political or moral conviction. The human element—the fact that people are relying on these same ecosystems for survival—is generally overlooked. But a large part of the magic and beauty that remains in Oracabessa is the result of efforts by local fishers.
Rural communities along Jamaica’s coasts rely on fish. They generate employment by selling and reselling fish, crafting and repairing fishing equipment, serving as fishing crew, and assisting with other fishing traditions. And in the face of soaring food prices, they can fish for dinner.
But environmental stewardship asks for sacrifice. The endorsement and buy-in of critical stakeholders, like fishers, can make or break a conservation project. And in Jamaica, fishers tend to be independent.
“To have any kind of success, you have to centralize and organize,” says Captain Murray. “Fishers don’t want to do that, because they may believe that it might cost them more.”
And so fishers were invited to the table as the conservation project took shape.
“For one thing, we allowed the fishers to decide the boundaries of the sanctuary so they actually chose how much they gave up,” says Travis Graham, a board member of the Oracabessa Fish Sanctuary. Second, he says, “All of our wardens are fishermen. We’ve created a source of employment for them through that role, so they understand that they benefit in more than one way. The commitment comes from that.”
In short, the group was able to create a feedback loop where nature helps support those who nurture it. For a decade now, Oracabessa Bay’s GoldenEye hotel and James Bond beachfronts have been home to the area’s 185-acre resident fish sanctuary. As unofficial evidence of their success, massive tarpons float gracefully beneath the dock of the sanctuary’s office.
Thanks to a dive shop and frequent tourist customers from the GoldenEye hotel, Oracabessa’s Sanctuary has enough money coming in to support the wardens and captains who patrol the borders. Although much of the land is privately owned by the hotels, the sanctuary itself is open to the public in areas where the beaches are public, like the James Bond Beach.
With a roster of 18 people—fishers, captains, coral gardeners, supervisors, managers, and board members—the staff manages and maintains the resources and a series of programs. This sanctuary is always buzzing with activity: educational school tours, maintaining and upgrading the budding coral gardens, and the newly installed sea urchin nursery. The sanctuary has met its ambition of planting 18,000 corals annually and releasing more than 20,000 sea turtles each year.
Oracabessa continues to expand, as it looks to add more conservation education programs and a sea urchin nursery to raise more of the animals that are so essential to reef health.
Thanks to the Oracabessa fish sanctuary and those of its ilk, the abundance of fish island-wide has increased more than fivefold between 2013 and 2020, according to Jamaica’s National Environment and Planning Agency’s island-wide reef survey. Coupled with reports from fishers of increased fish on the outskirts of the sanctuary, NEPA’s reef survey indicates a slow but strong rehabilitation taking place.
A Model for Success
A sister sanctuary in White River, situated just half an hour up the road, has adopted a similar model of operation. Following Oracabessa’s example, this sanctuary operates under a partnership between fishing entities and the tourist sector.
“It’s community-based, so 50% of all our operations and decision-making is in the hands of the White River Fisherman Association, and the other 50% is contributed by White River Marine Association,” says Reanne McKenzie, general manager of the White River Fish Sanctuary.
The sanctuary itself is housed on protected land in the Ocho Rios Marine Park. “We have a three-pronged mandate for the sanctuary, which is protect, restore and engage,” McKenzie says. To protect, fishers patrol the sanctuary. To restore, they raise two different kind of coral at two different sites. To engage, they educate nearby communities and primary schools. “It’s important they have this appreciation of the environment from a young age,” McKenzie says.
With the Ian Fleming Airport in Boscobel—just 20 minutes from the White River Fish Sanctuary—now open to commercial flights, the entire northeast coast may soon experience an increase in tourist activity. This could increase the viability of White River, Oracabessa, and other future community sanctuaries.
As White River’s sanctuary enters its fourth year of operation, the organization has an enthusiastic stream of volunteers, including a local student and two foreign students as well as a reliable staff of fishers and wardens. The sanctuary is in the process of conducting its first biomass survey, and it hopes to expand its coral programs and eventually the boundaries of the sanctuary itself.
“We really want to get to a point where we have so much of the community and surrounding areas sold on this conservation idea that we won’t really have a need to police waters,” McKenzie says.
CORRECTION: This article was updated at 1:12 p.m. PT on September 1, 2022, to correct the size of the sanctuary and Taylor Graham’s job title, as well as to clarify the accessibility of Oracabessa. Read our corrections policy here.
Gladstone H Taylor is an author/journalist living and operating out of the creative industries of Kingston, Jamaica. He has been writing professionally for over eight years. He’s reported on the environment, culture, music, film, and tech through platforms such as Mongabay, The Fader, Sole DxB, Bandcamp, The Face Magazine, RollingStone, Afropunk, Syfy Wire, and PopDust, to name a few. He is a member of Covering Climate Now and Uproot Project. He can be reached at [email protected]