Turning the tide
“It was like a desert underwater,” says photographer David Phillip of the moment he first dived in Jamaica’s coral reefs. “It was so stark. There were no fish, no coral, nothing. But then we swam on to where they were farming the coral and there it was – a bit of hope.”
Jamaica’s beautiful coral reefs began turning into an underwater desert in 1980 when the island was hit by Hurricane Allen, one of the most powerful storms the Caribbean has ever experienced. The storm battered the reefs with waves reaching up to 40 feet. While coral can recover from such an impact, in Jamaica it didn’t get a chance. Years of overfishing meant that there weren’t enough fish to eat the fast-growing algae and seaweed that came to dominate the reefs, denying new coral a foothold to recover and covering and choking much of what was left.
This green tide, combined with the waste from the island’s growing human population and rising global sea temperatures, meant the corals’ riotous colour and teeming life were gradually snuffed out. Having once been at the forefront of coral research, Jamaica saw foreign scientists leaving their stations, apparently conceding defeat. But not everyone was ready to surrender the underwater kingdom that had helped sustain the island for generations.
“This is a story about people who refused to give up,” says photographer David Goldman, who has been documenting the work to save Jamaica’s coral alongside David Phillip. “They’re not, for the most part, marine biologists or foreign scientists. They are locals who couldn’t accept that their grandchildren would not get to witness the beauty of the coral. They’re the ones turning things around. Now Jamaica has become a model for the rest of the world.”
The defence of Jamaica’s coral started not with a line in the sand, but a line of buoys in the sea. Over the past decade a defensive ring of 18 fish sanctuaries – protected no-fishing zones designed to let tropical fish stocks recover – has been established. But without somebody to enforce the new borders the zones would be useless, and while the authorities approved of the sanctuaries’ establishment, it soon became clear that they wouldn’t be patrolling the areas. “The police do not want to get involved,” says Goldman. “It’s left to the volunteers to be the sanctuaries’ wardens.”
It can be a risky business. On one of the early patrols, Jerlene Layne, manager of the Boscobel Marine Sanctuary, near the city of Stewart Town on Jamaica’s north coast, was hospitalised after being attacked by a man she caught fishing illegally. Now fully recovered, Layne continues to spread the message and stand up to those who break the rules. “She is a force of nature,” says Goldman admiringly. “She really believes in what she’s doing, and she doesn’t mess around. She’ll stand up to the toughest of them.”
Slowly the message appears to be getting through and fishermen are realising that replenishing the fish stocks is not only good for the coral, but also good for business. “As fish in the sanctuaries are safe to reach maturity, they are reproducing more,” says Goldman. The numbers are striking: a one-pound snapper produces 36,000 eggs per spawn, while a fully grown six-pound snapper produces three million. “Fishermen are finding that their hauls are slowly getting better because of the no-fishing zones,” says Goldman.
Damian Brown is one of those Layne needs to convince. A father of four in his mid-thirties, Brown is a free-diving spear fisherman who lives in Stewart Town. “Damian is an interesting character,” says Goldman. “He learnt to swim when his father threw him in the water. He sank to the bottom and had to figure it out quickly. He now goes fishing off the same steps that he was thrown off.”
Brown says the sanctuaries increase the risks for those who rely on fishing for their income. He argues that the borders extend too far from the shore, forcing divers like him, who don’t use a tank, to go dangerously deep to spear their prey. He believes breaking the rules keeps him safe. “Damian has been caught twice fishing in the sanctuary,” says Goldman. “If he gets caught a third time, it would likely mean imprisonment.”
Goldman witnessed a stand-off between Brown and Layne on a street in Stewart Town. “It was really interesting,” he says. “[Layne] was very frank and grilled Brown about the importance of the sanctuary. He explained about [having to fish to feed] his family. They had this banter back and forth and said, ‘We’ll talk about it over some rum.’ It was very Jamaican.”
It’s an approach that seems to have worked. “Brown has now scaled back the illegal fishing,” says Goldman. “He does a mix of construction jobs and legal spearfishing in order to make ends meet. It’s tough, but he’s a tough guy.”
Other fisherman have resorted to spearfishing at night, a practice which is illegal both inside and outside the sanctuary. Goldman again witnessed both sides, photographing the wardens’ night patrols and joining an illicit after-dark fishing expedition. “I followed the fishermen into the water and the only light is from the small flashlights they had,” he recalls. “I didn’t have any lights on me because I didn’t want to affect the image. To be there, underwater in the pitch black, was very eerie, but very beautiful at the same time. A couple of times I accidentally let the fishermen get a bit too far away, then had to rush to catch back up.”
He had good reason to stick with the group. “Shortly before we went out somebody was killed by a shark,” he says. “Damian himself had been attacked by a barracuda [while night fishing] and had to go to hospital. It’s quite dangerous.”
One of the newest defence forces to form is in Ocho Rios, a small fishing community some 40 miles east of Stewart Town. The creation of the White River fish sanctuary in 2017 was driven by two fishermen, Lipton Bailey and Everton Simpson, who realised that it was their own profession that was hastening the reefs’ destruction. They joined together with local hotel owner Belinda Morrow and other small business owners and set about making amends. The two-mile-long sanctuary covers 372 acres of coral reefs and seagrass meadows, but the White River team don’t just want to protect what’s left – they want to help new coral to grow.
As long as the living corals that produce them are allowed to thrive, reefs can be regrown. But in the wild smaller, weaker specimens can easily be killed off by pollution, temperature change or parasites such as snails and fireworms. A coral nursery offers a safe haven. Gardeners find the perfect spot underwater with the optimum amount of sunlight and the ideal temperature and here they attach small fragments of living coral taken from the wild to lines and tree-like structures. They then tend their crops, helping them to grow.
The White River coral garden is one of the most impressive in Jamaica, and Bailey and Simpson put in hours of their time there each day. “It is such meticulous work,” says David Phillip, who documented the men in action. “You need to tend to the coral. Cleaning it, removing snails, making sure it has everything it needs.” The result looks like an underwater kingdom getting set for Christmas, with delicate coral ‘decorations’ strung from lines and trees. “It really is beautiful,” says Phillip. The techniques of coral “gardening” were pioneered in Jamaica and now nurseries can be found across the world, including in the waters off Korolevu-i-wai in Fiji, the Florida Reef Tract and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
With a year or two of care the coral seedlings will be strong enough to be transported back to the wild. “Then the race is on,” says Phillip. “Once they have cut the coral from the nurseries, they have a short period of time to get to the planting site.” The White River nursery is feeding a damaged reef within the sanctuary. Once at the site, the divers have to rethread the harvested coral onto lines draped over a cleaned area of rocky reef. The hope is that it will take root and thrive. The work must be quick, but careful – too much contact with people will kill the fledgling coral. “Imagine trying to thread a needle, while riding a rollercoaster,” says Phillip. “The currents are buffeting you this way and that, you’ve got goggles on and you know the clock is ticking. What they do is incredible.”
For all of the victories, progress is slow – even the fastest-growing coral species add just a few inches a year. But Goldman says there are signs that it is working. “You can see more tropical fish, more pelicans feeding off them, more life.” White River’s initial goal is a 500 percent increase in the size and number of fish in five years. Even at these ambitious rates it will take decades, maybe centuries, for Jamaica’s reefs to return to their former glory.
Phillip says that the impact above water can be seen already. “It’s great to see a community come together and really make a difference,” he says. “They were on the brink of devastating the reefs. Reaching the point of no return. The character and resolve to rebuild from that, even if it takes years, decades, is inspiring. It showed that the choices we make have consequences – and sometimes those consequences can be breathtaking.”
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