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.