Friday, September 07, 2007

Enhance tourism through reef protection NOW!

I am sure that many of you following my blogs over the past 6 months will have noticed that I bite my tongue when it comes to our island’s environmental policies. I am and have always been passionate about the Antigua and Barbuda environment because living the kind of life I do, one is part of the natural environment everyday. The only way to not go insane is to understand that change is inevitable and that the change isn’t always for the best. In fact almost all change here on the island in my lifetime has taken a negative toll on the islands’ environment. Just about eight years ago I carefully designed my eco tour in a way that the most exciting and interesting childhood experiences could be shared with visitors to the area. Just like on any other eco tour, I tried to ensure that guests learned about the North Sound’s history and ecology and how the many different relationships interact.

Of course, most of the interacting was 100% natural and positive, but there were many aspects of my tour which described the not so positive relationship between the natural world and that of mankind’s.

Anyway, since I started my eco tour I have seen so many drastic changes in the coastline around Antigua and even in The North Sound where the main part of the eco tour is based. Maiden Island was even a stop off point and a major part of my tour. Mr. Allen Stanford “purchased” Maiden Island somehow from the ALP government and proposed in his Antigua Sun news paper that he’d spend US $95 million on the construction of his home there. After spending $9 million in mangrove destruction, heavy dredging of the flats eco systems, laying infrastructure, and building a barrier “reef” to block the traditional landing of boats on the shore there, he decided that he didn’t want his home there. I wrote an article and sent it to the papers about this whole story, but it was never printed. A version of it is here. These photos were taken during the construction/destruction at maiden island. One can only expect the same or similar at antigua's largest island... Guiana Island once he gets that.

In fact, he wanted Guiana Island, Antigua’s largest off-shore island, and home to the most wonderful mangrove, flats, and reef habitat in the area. By the way, both he and the government called what he did at Maiden Island “eco friendly” and suggested that if he got Guiana Island, his US $800 million project would be of the low impact and eco friendly variety. We shall see about that I guess. Anyway, for now it’s still beautiful and interesting and a big part of our eco tour. There have been other changes too which have frustrated me greatly. Spear fishing, trap fishing and gill net fishing is more rampant now that I ever remember and in the same spots that we do our snorkeling it is common to find people doing the sorts of fishing I just spoke about. Imagine how you would feel seeing a gill net right across the very reef that you take guests to on a daily basis. After an assault of net or spear fishing it takes weeks for larger fish to come back to the area. This photo shows two spear fishermen on wednesday with large strings of speared fish trailing behind them.

Spear fishing is supposed to be illegal and net fishing inside or on top of a reef is supposed to be illegal, but it happens every single day around Antigua. Bird Island is the most visited by tourists of all off shore islands and these sorts of fishing practices go on without any government regulation. In fact, as long as you don’t rip up any coral you can lay any amount of gill net. Gill nets are the ones with tiny holes which are able to catch anything. Turtles, dolphins and even whales have been known to be caught around the world in gill nets which is why most of the world has incredibly strict laws regarding such nets and the rules are enforced. Most other Caribbean islands ban all types of gill nets with the exception of surface gill nets used to catch bait fish like ballyhoo.
People often wonder why I don’t run the eco tour, and there are many reasons why, but one of them is that I have a hard time being out there seeing the negative changes slowly happen. Even on the Xtreme tour we see this sort of thing happen too. There are countless areas around Antigua that have been changed within the past 2 years and while out on the tour we see many things that make our stomachs turn. Illegal sand mining from the beaches is another practice that frustrates the heck out of me and my crew and it still happens. The crazy thing is that sometimes sand is actually taken by the Public Works Authority as it was after waves from Hurricane Dean pushed the sand up on to the land next to Darkwood Beach. Government trucks took all this sand and instead of pushing it back on the beach they took it away to be used in construction. This happened after hurricane Luis and Georges when thousands of tons of sand were trucked away. People now sit and try to figure out why the beaches there are having such terrible erosion. I wonder why they wonder.
Anyway there is some good news to all this gloom and doom. Thankfully the old farts that are doing such an awful job of running the environmental aspects our tourism, environment, and fisheries divisions area being helped by a few bright young people. I’ll give you an example. On Wednesday, we were out on a private charter with people who wanted to do some good snorkeling. We got to Green Island and found that there were very few large fish at our regular snorkeling site. A short walk with the guests to the top of a lookout spot there are we saw the problem. Three spear fishermen with dozens and dozens of speared fish (mostly parrots) attached to lines behind them. Anyway, this is nothing new so on we went to my favorite snorkeling spot when the waters are clear. Pillars of Hercules at the entrance of Nelson’s dockyard is within the National Park and there are several dive and snorkeling moorings there so that you don’t have to anchor. Anchored there was a small fishing boat and in the water were several spear fishermen swimming in between the moorings. This is the most visited dive site on Antigua and our Xtreme tour stops there to show tourists fish every day.
Recently there have been net fishermen there monthly setting nets along the dive site. After seeing the guys at Green, I guess the sight of these guys harvesting fish in this particular area upset me even more. I spoke with one of the dive operators who was on his way to the mooring there and the Ministry of Environment was called. We wouldn’t waste time calling the Ministry of Tourism or the National Parks Authority because those organizations wouldn’t be able to do anything at the moment. Ministry of Environment told us to call the fisheries department…..same old story of nothing getting done. …..or not. The well spoken man who answered the phone apparently said that they would launch their boat and investigate as soon as possible. Their boat!!!???!! I was surprised to hear this and very impressed. Imagine that only now in 2007 the fisheries department has gotten a boat. This boat was not provided because of foreward thinking form the government, but actually was part of a international grant. Thank god people outside of Antigua and Barbuda care that much. Of course there are people within the fisheries ministry and here in Antigua who have been urging the Gov to set fisheries up with a boat. Finally it has arrived and is in use! Apparently, the boat did arrive 2 hours later as it’s quite far from St. Johns, and inspected the boat. The boat had gill nets too and told the fisheries boat that they were not spear fishing but in fact only setting nets (across the dive and snorkeling site). Since nets are legal, the boat turned around and sped back to st. Johns without doing a complete of the fishing boat or inspecting the speared fish. I guess one could be upset and frustrated with the outcome of this story, but to me it’s a giant step in the right direction and one that will send a clear message to fishermen. Our fisheries department has new blood inside it and they want to make a difference. The only way for a fishery to survive in this day and age is through careful management and enforcement of regulations. Up until now there has been almost no management or enforcement, but I have a feeling that this may slowly begin to change. Next time I hope that the fisheries boat will check to see the net’s hole size and check the fish for holes too! Nets don’t cause holes in fish. Also, it would be nice for Ms. Appleton who is in control of the Fisheries dept. to read up more on gill nets and how damaging they are. It is her opinion that they do no damage at all and she is unaware that they are banned in many islands all over the Caribbean. This photo shows an extemely endangered hawksbill turtle that was killed as happens very very often here in Antigua inside gill nets. The little turtles can not escape when they meet the nets. On my tours we have freed live turtles from nets like this one and seen many that didn't make it. This photo was taken by my sister Fran, who by the way has just started working with the Environment Ministry. Another positive step for sure. I just hope she can be more patient than i am being.
It is hard to fathom why Ms. Appleton, the person in charge of fisheries here in Antigua, can not see how the rampant and unregulated use of net fishing is a problem. She thinks and says its fine and dandy. This type of net: is being used extensively here in our waters at depths of up to 70 feet. An interesting report on gill net fishing can be found here. Other islands nearby have had proper scientific studies done on gill net fishing and the world wide concensus is that gill net fishing is extremely harmful in shallow waters. A complicated but scientific report on St. vincent's fishery can be found here. The tall and short of it is that unless something is done both the fishery and the tourism industry will continue to face problems.
I hope also that I can get Ms. Hodge from National Parks to help get something done to protect the Pillars of Hercules site. Let’s not forget the Hon. Mr. Lovell minister of Environment as you would think that he would be interested in speaking with the relevant people about helping to protect a few key areas for Antigua’s visiting snorkelers and divers. For that matter we should think that our Prime Minister Hon. Baldwin Spencer would be interested in protecting a few tiny areas as fishing free zones so that our tourism product could be enhanced without a big investment. That’s the thing that I can never understand. It doesn’t cost much to protect the few key snorkeling and dive sites, but no Gov. Official wants to do anything about it. What a difference it would make for our tourists and tour operators. Maybe there would even come a day when video and photos of Antigua’s reefs could be used in promoting our country instead of using video and pics form St. Lucia and the like…..
If you are in contact with people “in high places” please urge them to do something to help protect our key tourist snorkeling and dive sites. It won’t take much and it will help all involved in the long run…even the fishermen since anyone who knows about fishing and regulations knows that almost always its the fishermen who benefit most in the long run.


Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

check the first video here

This site is all about how nobody can remember what the sea used to be like so they dont realise how messed up it is now. You could make many such statements about Antigua as well! The major changes here really accelerated after Hurricane Luis in 1995 and now that these problems are really compounding each other it is harder and harder to see a recovery or a good outcome. Perhaps the saddest thing of all is that we are happily endangering our main economic engine, tropical beach tourism, by overfishing, sand mining, bad construction habits and mangrove destruction. Reefs are the key to our shoreline, they create sand by taking calcium carbonate from seawater and hosting the parrotfish and other animals that chew it into our pure white sand. When reefs decline so does sand production. Reefs also protect existing beaches from wave action. most of the reefs Eli and I grew up with, diving and fishing on, are now a few feet deeper than they used to be because so much coral has died. This means more wave action and erosion for nearly all beaches in Antigua. The same beaches people still take sand from for construction! It doesnt have to be this way though. Less than 200 miles away, the BVI's have an exemplary approach to their marine environment. They would be a great example for us.

365 said...

thanks for posting roddy. we need to help people understand more about what's going on. what about starting a video to show people in clearer terms. could do a great one.

Anonymous said...

Sadly though.. this prob is not limited to Antigua. We have the same problem here in Dominica, ofcourse in varying degrees. But it's the same basic principle.We market ourselves largely as "The Nature Isle of the Caribbean", but in our quest to become economically stable, have trampled our forests, destroyed our coast lines, and slowly sedimented our reefs and rivers! One man said something some time ago that stuck with me... " we should develop our country by conserving it's resources!" Initially, it sounds like an irony, but as i thought of it, i realized how much sense it made. Unfortnately, people like us who are passionate about keeping things in the environment as pristine as possible are the minority.

Eli, have u tried sending your article to all the print media outlets on the island, or personally contact a journalist who would appreciate your stance? Dominica, as small as it is has 3 nationally circulating news papers. The environmentally concerned folks here are able to raise many red flags that way.. or even by calling the morning talk shows. Some of them mobilized themselves by forming an NGO, thus giving themselves a voice in matters of concern. You'd be amazed to find that once the public is aware of whats happening the amount of support and change that might be generated. Good luck with everything!

Anonymous said...

Government officials should be tried for atrocities against humanity. Maybe for premeditated murder too? Government officials around the world continue to delay corredtive measures by claiming they need more time for research. There has been research for over 40 years. As a diver of over 25 years I will testify to the murder of our oceans. They are afraid to clamp down on the fisherman because he won't vote for us if we take away his livelyhood, because the people need to eat fish, and by the time the fish are gone so will these political leaders be long dead and buried leaving their legacy of death and destruction for their children to try and figure out. Peeing in to the oceans today is important to keep the economic machine running. Eveyone figures to rape the planet today to live large today because the murder they do now will not show for many years to come. It's time to hold government leaders responsible and accountable for their campagin promises. I dare these leaders to go diving and see whats going on down below. To view the photos taken over the years of reefs today and those of day gone by. This fight it not about one reef, but if it must be fought one reef at a time then bring it on! It's time for people to vote on the future. No matter what country you are in make the enviornment an issue. Make it one that lets those running for office know you vote goes to the one that will actually do something! I vote John Fuller for PM, oops we can't do that yet. But it's the thought that counts. How about making him Minister of Sea?
All kidding aside, I'm voting for the one that will actually do something about the oceans, and I'm starting with my own home Antigua!

Anonymous said...

Eli, as often as I've heard you talk about these issues when we visit you, this blog entry makes me both angry and want to cry. As a visitor, what can I do to help?

We read up quite extensively on the islands on our itineraries each year, and there are several islands that have active marine ecology programs that include designating various areas for specific use, including recreation, fishing and research. Seems like a good approach. Do you think something like that would work in Antigua?

365 said...

good comments! Yes Jodi, i think it would work. There has been talk of it, but the guys at the top are not that concerned. Its like ther person said in an earlier comment. We need to hold them responsible now and historically. Let our future generations know that the reason things are not better is because of the ALP and UPP administrations of the between the 90s and today.

Anonymous said...

There should be a cabinet-level (or what ever high level government positions exist in Antigua) position in charge of environment that could oversee ecological issues and efforts.

On the other hand, I look at the development on our coastlines and barrier islands, and the commercial activities permitted in our national parks and sensitive marine environments, and I despair about our environmental future, too.

Anonymous said...

So how are we going to hold the feet to the fire as one may say ?

Keep politics out of fisheries etc, without serious stakeholder active participation "they" will screw it up.

At least if others were involved the "blame" and responsibility would be spread.