Port Antonio, Portland is one of Jamaica’s great jewels and when you enter its boundaries you will be struck by its beauty. One might find themselves marveling at the enchanting sea of green trees hugging the road as you drive, with golden rays of the evening sun bouncing playfully on leaves covered in the mist of fresh rain. The crashing of the sea, the smell of salt, and the feel of misty breeze against your skin are sure indications you’ve arrived.
Still, this coastal city isn’t just looks and no substance. It has a strong, significant history in the tapestry of the island’s biography. This fair city was once the birthplace of the Banana trade in 1881 when Venezuelan Captain Lorenzo Baker began trading this tropical fruit for the first time in places like New York. His campaign transformed Port Antonia into a darling of a port city. Now the city, though beautiful as ever, has a coastline with depleting reef health and fish stock like many on the island and the Caribbean.
In mid-May of this year, a group of CARICOM countries met in Guyana to discuss reducing regional food imports as a part of the region’s ‘25% by 2025’ vision. Special attention was brought to the state of the region’s fisheries by Guyana’s President, Dr Mohamed Irfaan Ali who pointed out that “the state of marine fisheries stock continues to decline with the portion of fish stock being within biological sustainable levels decreasing from 90 per cent in 1974 to 65.8 per cent in 2017.”
Depleting fish stocks, and rising sea surface temperatures and sea levels are some of the major struggles that my research along Jamaica’s northeast coastline has revealed. Though climate conversations often feature these issues, what feels often present is the impact on human life. A singular truth seems to shine throughout my investigations of the coastal areas in places like St Ann, St Mary, and Portland; Fishers might very well be a dying breed.
Many fishers encounter piracy, increasingly erratic and intense weather due to climate change, and sometimes deadly competition from heavily-equipped foreign fleets. Now as the war in Ukraine rages on and fuel prices continue to spike, fishers will struggle to keep their boat in operation. Very often fishers go out to sea and do not return. Jamaica in particular is among the many islands in the region where fishers in coastal communities continue to express concerns for their craft and its waning ability to provide a living. With fewer fish in the Caribbean waters, there is a looming supply chain freeze. The likelihood of a food shortage on the horizon seems more possible now.
This shortage may be triggering a change in the fishing tradition that leans toward stewardship and farming. As the resources of the water continue to deplete, stakeholders like fishers must now look at alternative ways they can cultivate a source of food and income from the ocean. The only way to secure such a source, thanks to the effects of climate change, is by nurturing and restoring our own small pockets of the ocean. Seaweed farming has huge potential for the caribbean and we can see early adapters like Belize on their journey to transform the fisheries sector.
Young environmental scientists at Kee Farms have touted the regenerative potential of this type of aquaculture and its ability to help restore local reefs, since its developmental stages in 2021. With much support from Jamaican academia and business interests, Kee Farms was finally established in Port Antonio with the help of the Alligator Head Foundation as a local sponsor. Kee Farm is also implementing an expansion for the project from farming into a network. With this expansion model, the Foundation will be able to train and assist local fishers. In addition, fishers will be provided with an alternative source of income. This in turn widens the reach of the concept and therefore, its effects.
Kee Farms’ Co-founder and Operations Manager Dean Morris insists that Jamaica has a bright future in seaweed farming, saying that “seaweed is big business. Right now, it’s at $16.12 billion a year and the only reason it’s not higher is because the demand outweighs the supply right now. So it’s going to grow by about 60% in the next ten years. Seaweed is pretty much useful in almost anything that you need a binding agent for.”
The potential applications of this plant seem endless. But it appears Jamaica and other islands like it in the region might be suited for a blossoming industry, “Eighty percent of the Caribbean waters can be used to grow seaweed because we’re not in shipping lanes or anything like that”, Morris adds.
Currently, in the pilot phase of an oyster project that runs parallel to the seaweed initiative, Kee Farms hopes to not just grow and sell ocean life but also to restore the water and reef health while doing it. Morris explains that “one of our better ideas as well that we’ve just started is doing some work with the billion-dollar Oyster project. Which has an Oyster Reef Setup in the New York harbor. If you think Kingston Harbor is nasty, New York harbor is worse. But they’re using the Oyster reefs to clean it.
Kee Farms research revealed that one oyster can clean 50 gallons of water per day which is astonishing in terms of scalability because an oyster is fairly small. The information garnered from Kee Farms’ research and first-hand experience on the market is shared among the locals, fishers and the Alligator Head Foundation. This is a huge aim of the farm and its network plans, but it’s also a great arrangement between environment-based ventures with a similar goal of climate change mitigation in mind
“I’ve been fishing on this port for about 25 years. I got into fishing when I was young, just being a coastline boy,” says Calrick Kettle who is a senior warden at the Alligator Head Foundation, and artisanal fisher. “Anything that had to do with the water I wanted to be in it. Eventually, you’re around the fishers on the beach, but you start to see the fish they are catching and the money they can make. But that was then” shared Kettle as he shifted in his chair. One of the points that Kettle wasn’t hesitant to reiterate was that nowadays, young men in coastal settlements do not look up to fishermen as ‘sufficient’ breadwinners.
“What we used to catch and what we can catch now are very different. Being able to see that there are fewer fish in the sea and then seeing the Alligator head foundation come into the space and share this knowledge about climate change just made everything click. When they began to present solutions and ways we could help to bring back the fish I knew I wanted to be a part of it”, Kettle added.
Kee Farms and Alligator Head Foundation’s marine lab and sanctuary face difficulties and similar perils as other farmers, such as predial larceny. Still, Kettle believes his job as a warden patrolling the boundaries and deterring thieves isn’t as difficult as it could be. He said that “because of what we do here I find my job to be smooth. Our approach, rather than to enforce the rules, is to educate. Not to say we don’t enforce it because we do work with the coast guard and patrol regularly. But I realize that once people understand what you’re doing and how it can bring the fish back, they tend to work with the program.”
These alternative options for fisherfolks restore the reef health and fish stock of their coastline. Alternative options are slowly taking a foothold, especially in CARICOM countries like Belize. Though it entails many challenges, the science and economics behind it are sound and require an unwavering commitment to fight and mitigate the effects of climate change.
This story was originally published by Backayard with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture of Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.