Friday, October 09, 2015

Mitigating Climate Change in Antigua and Barbuda

While out on our boat tours I love to tell the story about how the artifacts of an Amerindian settlement disappeared one day back in September 1995. This archaeological settlement along Barbuda's south coast had been there since the earliest inhabitants lived there 1500 years ago, and in one day all evidence of that site washed away in the monster of a storm called Luis. The purpose of the story is to explain to my guests just how strong that hurricane was and to give an idea about how climate is changing. There are various climate change factors which contributed to the damage Antigua and Barbuda received in Hurricane Luis and each year we are finding out more about this thing we call Climate Change. Stronger than normal hurricanes are not the only thing we need to worry about with this new reality. 

According to scientists, the measurable signs of climate change are varied. Sea level rises which account for 6.7 inches over the past 100 years and the rate over the past ten years being nearly double that of a hundred years before are probably the biggest concern for small island states. Global temperatures rising is another symptom of climate change, and since 1880 the ten hottest years as measured by NASA occurred over the past 12 years. Coupled with the air temperature is also a global sea temperature rise. Another symptom is shrinking of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice sheets. NASA satellite imagery show a significant decline in ice coverage for these areas since 2002. The same is happening in the Arctic as well according to NASA's satellite imagery. The world's glaciers are also retreating at alarming rates. Ocean acidification is another measurable factor of climate change which is increasing and having a huge impact on all creatures using calcium carbonate like for example, the world's corals. This summer there were several studies showing oceanic current changes and highly ususual changes in Atlantic water temperatures. The US Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says that the oceans have a interconnected collection of water currents which they describe as the Global Conveyor belt. They say that there is scientific evidence that with higher rainfall amounts in the North Atlantic and the melting of the sea ice and glaciers, there will be a much higher influx of fresh water into the sea which ultimately would lead to less cold salty (denser) water sinking. Normally this cold dense salty water sinks and flows south forming the main starting point of the Conveyer Belt's "streams". Scientists are extremely worried that this could have drastic and very immediate implications for the world's weather which is intricately linked to oceanic circulation. All in all the evidence is now becoming irrefutable and whatever you may think is the cause, the effect has major implications for us here in little Antigua and Barbuda. I have seen the changes happening and the most noticeable has been to do with the corals and those species, systems and industries that rely on healthy coral reefs. 

My team takes guests by boat on sightseeing and snorkeling excursions around our island's coastline. We have been doing it as a business each week since 1999 and for fun for much longer than that. My brothers and cousins grew up often spending more time on boats and on the sea than we did on land and the changes we have seen have been dramatic. The reefs which were vast fertile forests of corals are now ruins which look like messy piles of stones and rocks with scattered bits of soft corals and the rare piece of hard coral. It's difficult to explain to people what it looked like before the big die offs in the 90s, and it's probably better that they didn't know what it was like. It was a real magical wonderland and now there are only a few places on the planet that look like what it did all those years ago. Intricately linked with Climate Change and the health of coral reefs is fishing and in our case unmanaged fishing. Herbivore species of fish like parrot fish (chub), surgeon fish (doctor fish) and others help keep reefs healthy by feeding on algae which grows on dead corals while producing huge amount of sand in the process. Corals need sunlight to survive and when algae covers reefs they quickly perish. Climate change factors like stronger hurricanes, coral bleaching, ocean acidification as well as other stressors for corals are mitigated when there is a healthy population of herbivore fish preventing algae from taking over the live corals left on the reefs. Unfortunately, some of the species most often targeted by inshore fishers are these same reef cleaning species. There are some islands nearby that have Marine Protected Areas teaming with fish and have coral reefs which appear more healthy than our own. The main difference is that these particular areas are carefully managed with enforced fishing regulations. Sadly for a number of reasons our MPA sites are not yet carefully managed. Our government's Fisheries Department has fought hard to protect these species in recent times with new regulations and even closed seasons for parrotfish, but with only a tiny budget to do the actual work on the water, they have had a difficult task. When we guide guests through our reefs we often get comments about the scarcity of fish seen and as hard as it is to hear their comments we know that it's true. A few years back I took some of my team to the Tobago Cays which is a MPA in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. As we pulled up to an anchorage we were met by wardens who gave us a warm welcome and provided us with info about the park. We were asked to pay a small fee and were encouraged to enjoy snorkeling. My team were blown away with how beautiful the reef was and especially with the large numbers of fish, lobster, turtles and conch we saw. Corals seemed healthy compared to anything we had back home and it was a joy to be there. That lesson of what a well managed Marine Protected Area could look like stuck with my team and the example is seen over and over around the world where special areas are well looked after. Climate Change is a reality we can't avoid but looking after our reefs significantly lowers the impact of climate change on them and by extension on us all.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Killing sharks and eating their meat is more dangerous than swimming with them.

Recently the Daily Observer newspaper YET AGAIN published a photo of a large dead mother tiger shark. This one had just been landed in Jolly Harbour by some local fishers. I can't remember exactly but the caption was something like "this wonderful delicacy will be eaten by many lucky residents." Each year sharks come inshore to give birth to their live babies. The puppy sharks as many call them spend their early years close to shore where they are able to hide from predators and feed on other small marine creatures. This has been going on for millions of years before the first indigenous people travelled here from south America. Their numbers now are dwindling thanks to mankind. Shark conservation is extremely important and something taken seriously in many places around the world..just this week a video of people saving a stranded great white shark in the USA went viral.
I am writing this on behalf of the Antigua Conservation Society (ACS) in the hope that the Antigua Observer will stop printing such unfortunate pieces which ultimately cause damage to a species which is under pressure from over fishing and habitat change. What is even more important than that is the ACS hopes to educate The Observer Media Group and the people of Antigua and Barbuda on the very serious dangers of eating sharks and other large marine predators.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the USA has done extensive studies on shark meat and strongly advise the following people to avoid consuming it.
  • Women Who Might Become Pregnant
  • Women Who are Pregnant
  • Nursing Mothers
  • Young Children
The reason for this food warning is mercury and methylmercury which are toxic to humans. According to the Environmental Protection Agency: "Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and can also be released into the air through industrial pollution. Mercury falls from the air and can accumulate in streams and oceans and is turned into methylmercury in the water. It is this type of mercury that can be harmful to your unborn baby and young child. Fish absorb the methylmercury as they feed in these waters and so it builds up in them. It builds up more in some types of fish and shellfish than others, depending on what the fish eat, which is why the levels vary. Nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of methylmercury. However, larger fish that have lived longer have the highest levels of methylmercury because they've had more time to accumulate it. These large fish (swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish) pose the greatest risk. Other types of fish and shellfish may be eaten in the amounts recommended by FDA and EPA."

Methylmercury causes central nervous system and spinal cord damage in humans. Symptoms of this damage can be:

  • Blindness
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Deafness
  • Growth problems
  • Intellectual disability
  • Lung function impairment
  • Small head (microcephaly)

  • The Antigua Conservation Society is very concerned with calling tiger shark meat a delicacy. Do more research. Even healthy adults are advised to eat small portions of shark meat once or twice a week at the most.
    As I mentioned, tiger sharks face many pressures. According to Wikipedia: "The tiger shark is captured and killed for its fins, flesh, and liver. It is caught regularly in target and nontarget fisheries. Several populations have declined where they have been heavily fished. Continued demand for fins may result in further declines in the future. Tiger sharks are considered a near threatened species due to excessive finning and fishing by humans according to International Union for Conservation of Nature.[2]
    While shark fin has very few nutrients, shark liver has a high concentration of vitamin A which is used in the production of vitamin oils. In addition, the tiger shark is captured and killed for its distinct skin, as well as by big-game fishers.[5]
    In 2010, Greenpeace International added the tiger shark to its seafood red list, which is a list of fish commonly sold around the world, and which have a very high risk of being sourced from unsustainable fisheries."
    Many Antiguans like watching whale wars on TV. What they don't know is that the Sea Shepherd gang have faught even harder for shark protection. To find out why click this quote from their website:
    "Sharks keep our largest and most important ecosystem healthy. Our existence, in part, is dependent upon theirs. Sharks have sat atop the oceans’ food chain, keeping our seas healthy for 450 million years. They are a critical component in an ecosystem that provides 1/3 of our world with food, produces more oxygen than all the rainforests combined, removes half of the atmosphere’s manmade carbon dioxide (greenhouse gas), and controls our planet’s temperature and weather."

    Before anyone jumps up and down saying something like "sharks need to be killed because they are dangerous", please ponder these facts:
    655,000 people killed each year by mosquitos
    2,900 people are killed by hippos
    130 people killed across the U.S. by deer
    53 people die each year in the U.S by bees
    35 are killed each year in the U.S. by dogs
    20 killed by horses in the U.S. each year
    25 by cows!
    Globally 6 people are killed each year by sharks.

    The Antigua Conservation Society thinks that the brave fishers that catch sharks should be encouraged to target other sustainably caught species that provide good safe protein for the people of Antigua and Barbuda.

    Thursday, June 25, 2015

    Fish Aggregating Devices in Antigua and Barbuda - a can of worms.

    Since 2006/7 I have been fishing on and writing about Fish Aggregating Devices or FADs here in Antigua. What is a FAD? If "fish aggregating device" doesn't explain it well enough, then just imagine a FAD as an artificial reef anchored out or in some instances floating in deep water where a massive food chain is attracted artificially for the purpose of exploitation. I suppose "exploitation" isn't a nice word for some and they would rather hear something else like FADs attract fish so that fishers can catch more fish. That too!

    Anyway, at the end of the day a FAD aggregates fish which means it brings together fish that would have normally been spread out across a larger section of open ocean. FAD fishing in our exclusive economic zone (EEZ) has been primarlily done by fishers from the islands of Guadeloupe, La Désirade and from Saint-Barthélemy (St. Barts). In the French islands they call them DCPs. Do a youtube search for "Pêche sur DCP" and have a look at some of the vids. Some of them could very well be in our warters!
    We don't know how many of their FADs are in our waters or how many fishers from these islands fish in our exclusive economic zone (EEZ) each week. Suffice to say that the very small number of our local fishers who fish offshore see many foreign FADs and their fishermen each week. Click here for an old blog post about illegal FAD fishing. In many cases the foreign fishers attempt to chase our local fishers away from these FADs. I wrote about that here back in 2011 when it happened to me. I know many local fishers who have been threatened. Some have had their equipment destroyed by these foreign fishers. I remember a boat called MiniBite reported that during an Antigua Sport Fishing Event a Guadeloupe boat deliberately ran over their lines cutting all. This past weekend a friend called Stevie was threatened by foreign fishers when he approached one of their FADs just 20 miles from shore. Fishing on FADs when you know what you are doing, gives you a better chance of catching certain fish like several species of tuna, marlin, mahi mahi, rainbow runner and even wahoo. Conservative estimates suggest that there are hundreds of thousands of pounds of these species being caught by foreign fishers within our EEZ each year. It very well may be over a million pounds a year depending on which local commercial fisher you speak with. I am convinced it's over a million pounds of fish a year. In those islands where fish sells for more than it does here, the dollar amount is probably close to twenty million EC dollars a year. And that number is probably growing while the amount of the same species being caught in the traditional fishing grounds by long time local fishers diminishes every year. After speaking with some of the French fishers about their FADs in our waters they argue that they are permitted to fish where they are because the waters are not Antigua and Barbuda "Territorial Waters". They are correct that most of their FADs are not within our Territorial Waters but they are wrong thinking that they are legal to fish there because they seem not to understand what the Exclusive Economic Zone is. For a good definition of all these things click on this link (especially if you are a fisherman from one of our neighboring islands). 
    Most commercial fishers blame FADs for the decline in stocks on the "edge" (continental drop off) and offshore banks (sea mounts) saying that historical migratory routes are being changed by all the offshore FADs which are being set as close as 5 miles off our shelf and as far as 70 miles off shore. Of course, FADs may be being set further but our local fishers are not venturing that far off yet. Recently I visited a FAD anchored in 15,000 feet of water. The amount of rope needed for that would probably be three times that!

    "If You Can Beat Them, Then You Join Them!" This has been the attitude of more and more local fishers who have given up on our government's ability to understand or to deal with the problem of foreign FADs within Antigua and Barbuda Exclusive Economic Zone. Some local fishers spend huge amounts of money and time searching for, finding and then fishing on these foreign FADs whenever the owners are not around and some have invested tens of thousands of dollars into building and setting their own FADS. Recently over the past few years the Government of Antigua and Barbuda has received resources from Japan to set FADs of their own. Instead of fixing existing FAD problems within our EEZ, this move by Japan and our government could be creating more problems associated with FADs. As is usually the case with underfunded government departments that are run without effective and well informed leadership (think Ministerial level here), policy and management decisions have made a mess of an already disorganized situation. Why do I say this? Let me explain. A few years ago thanks to the sustained efforts by some of us, new fisheries regulations were passed taking stagnating Fisheries management out of the 1980s. All fishers had to register properly for the first time with the government Fisheries office and get licenses. The commercially licensed fishers all had to provide various contact details and other info including the type of fishing that they were engaged in. I only fished pelagic species of fish and mentioned that I fished FADs. Anyway, many others did the same. Recently when our government got the FAD making bits and pieces from Japan, a small number of fishers were contacted to ask them for help in constructing and setting these FADs. I only know about this because I am friends with several of them. I don't know how many government FADs were set or what was the extent of the Japanese FAD funding received here in Antigua and Barbuda because there seems to be tight secrecy about this funding and the FADs. Only certain fishers were invited to help make the FADS and only certain fishers were given the positions of these Government FADs. When I asked my friends why this was they tell me that it was felt that only people who helped make and set them should be permitted to fish them. When I pointed out that it was strange that only certain Antigua and Barbuda commercially registered fishers (many who are non nationals) were told about the opportunity to help build and set these FADs, I was told that they felt that the people invited were viewed as FAD fishermen by Fisheries.
    There have been several meetings at the Government Fisheries base where catering was prepared and discussion on FAD policy took place. Again, only certain Fishers were contacted about these meetings despite Fisheries having contact info for all of the commercially registered fishers who registered as fishing for the species found on FADs.
    Since these FADs were set off shore, they have been spotted and fished by other commercial fishers. In fact, one very calm day I found three of them while out looking for mahi mahi south of Antigua. I have been told that certain fishers who helped construct these Japenese sponsored, Antigua and Barbuda owned FADs are furious that other locally licensed fishers are now fishing on them. It appears that the FAD conflict is now not just between foreign fishers and our local fishers but now between local fishers too. This is madness and is caused by poor decision making, policy and planning at the Government level. At the end of the day our nation should be attempting to alleviate the pressure put on our inshore fishery and environments by encouraging fishers to fish off shore for pelagic species which can be fished more sustainably. Fishers displaced by no fishing zones within Marine Protected Areas such as NEMMA and the Cades Reef and Cades Bay Marine Reserve as well as the growing number of inshore fishers who simply can't catch enough to feed themselves, should be educated about pelagic fishing and be encouraged to fish FADs if we are indeed going to be setting them.
    But there are many other problems arising. One of the worst problems about FAD fishing is that it is felt that with the huge number of FADs being set in the Atlantic 20 to 70 miles from our shore, the fish are simply not coming to the traditional fishing grounds. I mentioned this but to be specific the area known as South Bank was once teaming with four or five different species of tuna and mahi mahi (dolphin fish). These days you are lucky to see any. The same species are being caught less than ten miles away on FADs. Similar stories from long time fishermen are told all around the island. Recently FADs set by the government close to an area called "The Bubbies" are catching large wahoo. This is unusual for FADs and the many charter fishers that have traditionally fished the area have noticed a dramatic decline in their wahoo catch recently. The small blackfin tuna that congregated around that area have vanished. Blackfin are the main prey of the big pelagic species typically caught on FADs like Blue Marlin, Yellowfin tuna and Albacore. They congregate around FADs in large schools. Sometimes you arrive at a FAD only because you see a massive flock of birds feeding around Blackfin tuna which are tearing up the water while feasting on smaller prey. This was a sight seen at many spots around our twin island's continental shelf until recently. Pelagic species now have an artificial "shelf" made up of a ring of secretly placed FADs right around our islands. The foreign French fishers are making the most of it while we do nothing about it. Instead of using foreign Japanese fisheries grants (given to us in exchange for our whaling/fisheries vote on the international stage) to do something about the monstrous problem of foreign FADs in our waters, our government is building FADs of thier own and setting them between our shelf and the foreign FADs much further offshore. Even if you don't fish, I am sure you can imagine which FADs will be more effective at aggregating mahi mahi, tuna and other species that are migrating through the region. The ones way offshore or the ones closer?
    Notice I haven't mentioned any sustainability issues. Greenpeace and other international marine conservation organizations are categorically against FADs mainly because of by-catch issues associated with large scale commercial fishing on FADs. So far we only know of small scale fishing by independent operators, but with total lack of concern, enforcement or management of fishing offshore there is a possibility of large commercial operations fishing FADS within our 200 mile EEZ. These large commercial FAD fishers use nets around FADs to scoop up everything that aggregates there while searching for one or two particular species. The rest is discarded dead as by-catch. Imagine what this would do to our fishery.
    Blue species are targeted while the white species are discarded as by-catch.

    This Video shows a bit more about Western Pacific Fads and one organization's controversial goal of banning FADs globally. Without thinking much about it I can agree with a ban on net fishing around FADs as clearly it's a bad idea. 

    The implications of turning our backs on a problem that exists are very serious for the people of Antigua and Barbuda. We need to be able to feed ourselves in the future. Food security is essential and while history repeats itself over and over the lessons are often ignored. This problem of illegal FAd fishing has decimated fish stocks of many underfunded and under organized third world nations. I have always felt that Japanese aid is horrifically immoral and this latest funding for FADs continues on their policy of throwing money at us without caring about our long term sustainability. They should be using their free cash gifts to fund studies which would help us understand our fisheries strengths, opportunities, weaknesses and threats. It is abundantly clear that they don't care and the sad part is that despite this being clear, we take the money that ultimately hurts us.

    Since writing the section above, i have spoken with the Fisheries officer who's in charge of FAD construction and deployment here in Antigua and Barbuda.
    I think he was unaware of some of the concerns that many commercial fishers have with FAD fishing. He says that the Japanese funding for FADs is a regional thing and that the reason he only decided to use a small number of fishers with the initial FAD program was that he felt it would be better to get the program started with a smaller group than with a larger one. I pointed out that the process of deciding who to invite clearly was unusual. Some of the fishers were not even nationalized! He agreed with my sentiment that a more inclusive approach was needed and that policy needed to be directed by a larger group than the small group of commercial fishers currently involved in the FAD program. In certain areas FAD fishing is heavily regulated to ensure food security and sustainable fishing. Take for example Hawaii where I am informed that the only FADs that are permitted are government set FADs. There are a finite number of FADs set and these FADs are carefully monitored. Any other FADs set are deemed illegal. A growing number of places don't permit FAD fishing at certain times of the year and some don't permit FAD fishing at all. These nations recognize the danger of FADs if fished without proper management. We here don't have the capability or interest in controlling FAD fishing which has been going on here mostly illegally for a decade already.
    The government of Antigua and Barbuda spends very little of its budget on their Fisheries division, and seems to let the small department get steered or influenced by Japanese policy in many respects. The status quo seems to be centered more on catching more, rather than on the often touted concept of "sustainable use". Japan spends millions of dollars on Antigua and Barbuda fisheries so that they get their whaling/fisheries vote sorted out but none of that seems to be spent on figuring out how to fish sustainably. Antigua and Barbuda's fishers on the whole, are poor people who could be doing much better if the resources they targeted were managed more sensibly or in a sustainable manner. Policy and planning are crucial and I think Japan will ultimately benefit from their manipulation of our Government's Fisheries body. Very little proper study is done to see what species can and should be targeted and very little is spent on educating local fishers on sustainable practices. This FAD situation needs to be looked at, not just by Japanese influenced Government technicians or a small self serving group of fishers but by people and groups looking out for the country of Antigua and Barbuda and it's future.