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Climate change – One more assault on fisheries



Anse la Raye Fish Fry on a Friday night in St. Lucia and Oistins weekly Fish Fest in Barbados – abundant fish of all kinds: snapper, king fish, flying fish, mahi mahi, shrimp, conch, lobster…grilled, stewed, fried…savoured, relished, enjoyed.{{more}}

These celebrations of abundance from the sea are the destinations of tourists and locals alike. Throughout the Caribbean, communities like Anse la Raye and Oistins depend upon the sea. Fishing is essential to our food supply, supports the livelihoods of many, and contributes to our culture. The annual yield of lobsters from the shelves and banks of the Caribbean islands has a retail value in restaurants of approximately US$40 million. Yet Caribbean fisheries are under threat.

The marine environment is subjected to many threats, foremost among them:

l Pollution from land-based activities

l Habitat loss

l Invasive species infestations;

l Over-harvesting of fisheries; and

l Climate change

These threats, individually or combined, result in severe impacts on the biological production of the world’s oceans.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization, (FAO) capture of fish from the sea has declined or remained leveled since 2000. Local fishermen find that the size of their catch is steadily dwindling. Consumers buying fish can attest to its scarcity and rising cost.

Caribbean fisheries are threatened by the same factors which affect global fisheries. Capture fisheries for 2001 for the Western Central Atlantic region, of which the Caribbean Sea is a part, were 1.7 million metric tones; minor when compared to global production figures of 92.4 million metric tonnes. All the major commercially important species and groups of species in the region are reported to be fully developed or over-exploited. Conch, for example, has been listed as endangered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

In a recent paper on political organization and socio-economics of fishing communities in Trinidad and Tobago, Belize and Grenada, scientists pointed out that in the small-scale artisanal fisheries of Caribbean countries, the problem of collapsing fish stocks is extremely serious when one considers the relative dependence on fishing in coastal communities and its importance to the islands’ economies.

The problems are myriad. The Caribbean islands are surrounded by warm-water coral reefs. Corals, in addition to being beautiful living animals, are of vital importance to coastal fisheries. They have a narrow range of tolerance to water temperature, salinity, ultra violet radiation, cloudy water and nutrient levels. Even minor pollution can severely impact coral reefs and their ability to support thousands of fish species and other marine life. During the El Nino event of 1982/1983, sea surface temperatures in the Caribbean exceeded 29 degrees Centigrade, which led to extensive bleaching of coral reefs throughout the Caribbean. In Jamaica the coral reef system experienced several stresses including coral reef bleaching which eventually led to total destruction of the country’s coral reefs, with resulting losses in food production, tourism and the economy.

Coral reefs, along with sea grass beds and mangrove swamps, are important as nurseries or shelters for various fish species but they are being damaged as more and more land is cleared for development.

The threat of climate change with its many impacts is now increasingly recognized as another assault upon world fisheries. The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the expert group assessing the latest scientific, technical and socio-economic data on the risk of human-induced climate change, states that the warming of the Earth’s climate system is unequivocal. Increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea levels are all evidence of this.

Climate change will have many impacts upon the sea: rising surface water temperatures and significant sea level rise; changes in the wave climate, circulation, ice cover, fresh water run-off, salinity, oxygen levels and water acidity.

Just one of these effects, sea level rise, will result in a reduced amount of light reaching coral reefs and sea grass beds. Decreased stocks of fish would be one of the consequences of their destruction, as many fish species live and feed in and around the reefs.

Climate change, therefore, will add to the stresses which our fisheries are already subjected to from unchecked coastal development, pollution, over-harvesting, disease and infestations by invasive species. In the midst of all this, heavy exploitation and depletion of fish stocks continues.

Saving fisheries means being careful not to over-harvest, reducing pollution from our land-based activities, managing our water resources responsibly, and pursuing development which is sustainable. Leaving a smaller carbon footprint i.e. using less energy, will help us save energy and money and play a responsible part in reducing climate change.

Learning more about the different factors which impact upon our fisheries and about the effects of our activities is a necessary first step towards making sure that the abundant fish which we enjoy today can also be enjoyed by our children and grandchildren in the future.

Written by Donna Spencer of the Integrating Watershed and Coastal Areas Management in the Caribbean Project (GEF-IWCAM) and Herold Gopaul of the Caribbean Environmental Health Institute (CEHI).