Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The North East Marine Management Area - NEMMA

The World Bank and several other international aid donors through the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) set up a project called The OECS Protected Areas and Associated Livelihoods Project or OPAAL, and Antigua and Barbuda was one of several countries that received aid. Today was the official launch of NEMMA which is the funded project here in Antigua. As the title of this blog explains NEMMA stands for North East Marine Management Area and it stretches from Beggar's Point off Prickly Pear Island in the North all the way up to Frier's Head at Mill Reef in the East. The United Nations Environment Program describes it as follows:
NEMMA’s vision is to be a self-financing, multiple use (yachting, fishing, tourism, conservation, recreation) protected area that maintains and enhances the natural beauty and unique biodiversity of the area, both terrestrial and marine, supported by an efficient legislative framework and ongoing awareness programs.
For more on NEMMA you can read further here. I can't tell you how happy i was when i heard about the NEMMA because it was something that i have been dreaming of for most of my adult life. In fact, I met with the former Minister of Tourism many times about exactly the same concept during my tenure as president of the Antigua and Barbuda Excursions Alliance. In 2004 the funding for NEMMA was agreed upon and I think OPAAL started sending aid to Antigua for its creation. My fiance did much of the consultant work which made up the plan for NEMMA. The Environmental Awareness Group was also very happy to hear about the project especially because they already have an offshore island project within the NEMMA. The EAG pretty much saved the Antigua Racer snake which was one of the world's rarest if not the rarest snake on planet earth. The project had funding to set up the NEMMA framework and to generally set it up to be run for a year or two on its own while the NEMMA board and the NEMMA manager organize themselves to be self sufficient. It all seemed like a good idea to me and to all involved in setting it up, but there was one problem....... Government buraucracy. The project's funding was intended to be for NEMMA's creation and implementation during the period between 2004 and 2010. We are now in late 2009 and there still isn't a board set up and there still isn't a manager hired for NEMMA. At a recent meeting between excursion operators, The Fisheries Department and the Environmental Awareness Group the Fisheries officer was drilled as to why these essential things haven't happened yet. I don't think any of us understood the answer that was given. Either way today was the official launch of NEMMA. How it was that NEMMA was launched today with no governing board and no manager is anyone's guess. I sat there listening to the speeches by the officer of the OECS Secretariat, two ministers and several other government technocrats and i wondered if they knew that NEMMA was being launched officially in front of the Prime Minister the rest of us without a board or manager. I don't think that they knew. NEMMA is totally useless at this point so why was the launch today. I guess i don't have all the facts on this one and must be missing something. The passionate speech by the Chanlah Codrington, Minister of State within the Ministry of Agriculture (and fisheries), Lands, Housing and Environment was a very good one, and i felt that he understood what this was all about. Later I took Mr. Codrington and a bunch of other people from this meeting on a shortened Eco Tour of the area within NEMMA.
What was way more interesting than all of this though was what we found when Leslie and I arrived in our boat at the Parham Fisheries Complex. As some of you may know from reading my blogs regularly Japan has spend millions and millions of dollars here in Antigua and Barbuda on fisheries complexes. Read more here. Keeping in mind that NEMMA is being funded by OPAAL or the OECS Protected Areas and Associated Livelihoods Project which has an endangered turtle on their logo as seen here,

the sight of a freshly slaughtered hawksbill turtle caught my eye. OF course a slaughtered turtle would catch my eye no matter what, but seeing the bloody shell sitting there being photographed by the Japanese Fisheries delegation at the fisheries complex built for Antigua was just too much. Japan spent US $50 million dollars on Antigua and Barbuda's fishery so that we would vote alongside them when it comes to whaling and other such "fisheries" related issues. One such issue is Japan's fight for the Hawksbill turtle to be taken off the endangered species list. They would be so proud of their work here in Antigua i guess..... sadly!
Many people reading a story that told of Antiguan fishermen killing the critically endangered Hawksbill Turtles would be angry at the fishermen, but this shouldn't be the case. When i saw the turtle the fisherman called me over to chat about it.
He was ranting and said the following which i will write without the dialect; "She doesn't want me to spear fish and told me to use nets instead. I keep catching turtles and stingrays and I don't want to catch them at all. This is what happens though, and I'm not to be blamed. IT's her fault!" I asked who he was speaking about and he said "Appleton" who is the chief fisheries officer.

The Fisheries department has increasingly stepped up its fight to ban spear fishing around Antigua and has suggested gill net fishing as an alternative. Even the smartest of fisheries officers seem to think that there isn't anything wrong with gill nets contrary to the position of most other countries around the world. Read my blog on gill netting if you have the chance some day here. Like the photo on that blog, this turtle today seen here was killed in a gill net. The turtles simply can't hold their breath for as long as it takes for the fishermen to come back and check their nets. Without any regulation on the setting of these nets we see them in every cove inlet and bay around Antigua and I estimate that between 200 and 500 turtles are killed yearly on Antigua and Barbuda as a bycatch. We'll never know this for sure though because it's illegal to kill small turtles at any time of the year and illegal to kill any size turtles in the summer months up until August 31st. A fisheries officer came down while we were speaking with the fisherman and told him not to bring the turtles back to shore. The fisherman asked what he was supposed to do with the dead turtles he finds in his nets. He said he had killed 5 of them in the past month and 12 rays. This is just one guy setting his net several times a week. There are others who set them twice a day and six times a week. It is my opinion that the killing of many of these turtles shouldn't be blamed on the fishermen. The blam rests with the fisheries department and their lack of proper management. The chief fisheries officer told a reporter from the Daily Observer that she didn't think that there was anything wrong with gill nets and from the sounds of things is promoting the use of nets to fishermen. There are other very good fishing methods that they could use which are more profitable and more sustainable. Of course apart from the irony of me being part of this crazy situation, I then had to sit and listen to all these speeches about NEMMA and protection of the area. During one of the speeches the endangered turtles were passionately spoken about by the minister. Of course neither he nor the rest of the delegation (with the exception of the Japanese) had seen the freshly slaughtered turtles. While Rome burns we sat there and enjoyed the nice lunch put on by the Fisheries Department.
For the sake of the marine environment, I can only hope and pray that the ministers and the fisheries officers get to work and hire a manager ASAP to get NEMMA properly launched in a more significant way than just speeches.

Biggest Shark i have ever seen!

What was going to be just a regular dry Tuesday afternoon of office work and powerboat design dramatically changed when I received a text from Greg the helicopter pilot. Greg always gives us interesting sightings via text or phone call and keeps us up to date with turtle nests, whale spottings and other fun stuff he spots on Caribbean Helicopter tours. Yesterday it was "Whale shark 12 miles SW Cades...tuna too". I had planned on going to see my mom after lunch and then to meet up with Stevie and Gareth for some golf at the end of the day, but I knew it was still calm and the idea of getting some good shots of this thing sparked my interest. Xtreme was sitting on its boat lift with no work to do, so I called Roddy my main adventure partner. He is also on Greg's "interesting things" texting list had also received the info. Roddy is one of Antigua's main photographers and video guys and runs as well as his photo biz. His main photo and video passion is stuff in the water and like me, he wants to show people the other side of Antigua. "LETS GO", he urged. If you read the blog from a few days ago, then you know we had just been on wild goose chase looking for Suzie the turtle over in Barbuda. By the way, she has now swum around Barbuda according to the tracking software. I wasn't sure that powering off half way to Montserrat was a smart idea. That kind of run isn't cheap and we could end up only seeing blue water and a few flying fish. Greg texted me again saying he'd seen it on two Montserrat trips and that he figured the tuna were a meter long. Ok that was it. I texted a few people who I thought could possibly come with us on short notice. Of course I forgot many people who I should have texted, but within 40 minutes six of us were accelerating out of Jolly Harbour on a course 13 miles to our south-west.
It was choppier than I thought it was but the skies were sunny and clear. When we were a mile away from the GPS point that Greg had sent me I spotted some Frigate birds off to the East and made the decision to go to them instead of the position Greg had given me. As all fishermen know, frigate birds feeding in the Atlantic mean that large fish are chasing small fish out of the water. Frigates can't get wet and will swoop down and pick fish right out of the air as the larger fish chase them. These amazing birds will follow big predator fish for hours sometimes waiting for them to find a school of flying fish or other small prey. As soon as the feeding starts you see the frigates dive down to just above the surface. As we approached the birds they were swooping down which told us there was action below. When we saw the big splashes from the tuna we slowed down and Roddy got geared up to go over the side with his camera gear. Keep in mind that we are half way between Montserrat and Antigua where the water is 780 meters (2,559 feet) deep, you are part of an active food chain when you enter the water. When you enter the water in a feeding frenzy.... you are taking some chances that 99.9999999999999999999999999 % of the Antigua and Barbuda population wouldn't dream of even in their worst nightmares. They are not Roddy Grimes-Graeme though. He's done this kind of thing from my boat many times and some of the best shark footage we have seen has been when we were fishing for tuna once with him. We had hooked a shark and Roddy just jumped over with his video camera and filmed it swimming up to get released and then it slowly swimming away into the abyss.
Just as we got into the frenzied area we spotted the shark. Wow, this thing was big and looked to be about thirty feet long with the typically wide head and very tapered body.

Someone said it had the shape of a massive tadpole. It didn't take a second for Roddy to jump in. The photo above shows one of the Frigate birds and directly below is Roddy in the bottom left side of the image. The land way in the distance is Antigua. "Holy sh%$, you have to see this", he yelled back.
The way this particular feeding frenzy was working was that at the very bottom of the visible food chain was a huge school of krill and I could see the reddish pink colour from time to time in the middle of the chaos. Feeding on the krill was the guy we all came to see. The Whale Shark is one of nature's most amazing species and the biggest fish in the ocean. Like the even bigger whales that migrate through our waters, these big animals don't eat fish at all and only feed on these tiny plankton like creatures.

Yesterday it wasn't just a 30 foot shark that was feeding on the krill, there were also huge schools of two inch long fish which would stay deep when we got close according to Roddy. Feeding on them were the wild schools of black fin tuna that were averaging about five to ten pounds. Also feeding on the small fish and on some of the black fin tuna were the much bigger yellowfin tuna which probably were up to two hundred pounds. Also feeding on both sizes of tuna were the other larger predators like blue marlin and pelagic sharks. Roddy didn't see any bill fish but did see one carnivore which he thinks was a Dusky Shark.
It swam right up to him looking at him with his left eye and then his right and he slowly waved his tail from side to side coming as close as only a few feet before slowly turning back down into the blue. When Roddy, said to come over to him I knew he had seen a "real" shark, because Roddy never needs the boat to be close. Shortly after that all went quiet.

We searched for another 45 minutes for the exciting food chain but couldn't spot a thing. Just after we gave up and started powering back to Antigua, my sister pointed behind us at the huge plume of an ash cloud erupting from Montserrat's volcano. The eruption was pretty big and as I looked back at it I saw a frigate diving out of the sky from way up. With that I made a sharp turn to go back for a second look. This time I jumped over when we luckily found the whale shark. It's two huge remora fish stuck to it's sides added to the amazing wonder that I saw below me. Unlike Roddy, I wasn't going far from the boat. In fact, Mykl said not to as there wasn't anyone else to drive the boat. lol I know why she didn't want me going far and she didn't have to worry. Roddy took some more photo and video before we finally made the trip back home. Roddy had missed some similar adventures in recent years and was so happy to have done this. It was the second time I had seen this kind of thing, but well worth the trip. We can only hope that Greg doesn't lose our numbers!

This very quickly done video was provided by Roddy of to show some of the action. Thanks Roddy for keeping the memory alive!