By Desmond Brown
James Nicholas has always made a living off the sea. A fisherman in the tri-island state of Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique, he recalls the profitable business of selling his daily catch to local residents and restaurants and even exporting fish to luxury hotels in neighboring Caribbean islands.
But things have changed in recent times. Local experts are blaming conditions associated with climate change, insisting that they have led to a significant depletion of the local fishing stock.
At its peak in 2010, the fishing industry employed an estimated 4,000 of Grenada’s 90,000 inhabitants and pumped 5.2 million dollars into the economy from exports alone.
“Growing up, we had an abundance of fish around the coastal areas,” recalls Nicholas, who now serves as chairman of the Southern Fishermen Association, one of the groups representing fisher folk here. Now, “some of the species have disappeared entirely.”
“Recently I was counting maybe about eight species that are totally gone. I can’t say it is climate change because I am not a scientist; I just have to go along with what the scientists are saying,” he told Tierramérica.
One thing is certain, though. Nicholas said his members have been catching less and less fish, a decrease that is taking a financial toll on them.
Karl Hood, a former environment minister who is now minister of foreign affairs, said he believes the dwindling numbers of fish in the country’s waters are a direct result of climate change.
He pointed to a drastic reduction in “jacks”, a small fish widely used by the fishermen as bait. “Since last year, fisher folk have not been catching the jacks,” Hood said in an interview at his office at the Ministerial Complex at the Botanical Gardens on the outskirts of the capital.
“Usually around November there (are) lots of jacks but we’ve had none, so much so that the fishermen can’t get bait to go fishing. There is a drought in fishing; if you go to the fish market there is no fish.”
Due to the scarcity of jacks, Nicholas said fishermen have been forced to import sardines from the United States to use as bait, noting that the alternative would be to pack away their fishing gear and stay home.
One reason for the disappearance of fish lies in coral reefs.
Coral reefs are home to some 25 percent of all marine species, including fish, which they provide with a prime habitat for reproduction and breeding. Today these reefs are suffering a whole array of assaults, said Clare Morrall, director of the marine biology program at St. George’s University.
She pointed out that sea surface temperatures over the last few years have been much higher than normal. The result is coral bleaching, a stress condition in reef corals that involves a breakdown of the symbiotic relationship between corals and unicellular algae.
“It’s not just that you have climate change effects, that the corals may have some ability to recover from. We’ve also got increased nutrient loads from run-offs and that’s also potentially climate change-related in terms of extended periods of drought,” she said.
Erosion increases when it rains after a prolonged drought, Morrall explained. Coupled with fertilizer and sewerage, it spells disaster for the coral reefs by increasing nutrients that support macro algae on the reef.
“When you’ve taken away the fish that would normally crop and harvest and keep that algae in check, you’ve got a situation which has happened throughout the Caribbean, when you get a change from coral-dominated systems to algal-dominated systems,” she said.
“How climate change is playing into that is just another thing that the corals have to deal with.”
But fishing is only one of several industries affected by climate change, noted Hood.
A storm surge two years ago devastated the island’s signature tourist attraction, the three-kilometer-long Grand Anse Beach in the south of the country, he explained. The water at Grand Anse Beach has also become deeper – another indication of erosion, he added.
A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report stated that a 50-centimeter rise in sea level could lead to serious inundation in more than 60 percent of beaches in some areas of Grenada.
The report says half a meter, but even a smaller rise would have a serious impact, said Hood. Climate change “is a real threat to us,” he stressed.
The government official said farmers have also been hurt, as changing weather patterns brought about a serious drought two years ago, the worst that the island had seen in recent history.
“We’ve seen coconut trees dry up, citrus trees dry up. That would never happen before. And now we’re seeing so much rain that the traditional crops that you would plant and get at a certain time – you are not getting them,” he reported.
Hood has also been watching developments in Dominica, a neighboring island where heavy rains in September 2011 led to massive landslides, damaged homes and washed away vehicles and bridges. Some communities were left without pipe-borne water and electricity.
Climate change, Hood lamented, is a money problem and an issue of getting the funds required for adaptation.
With Caribbean economies only slowly turning the corner after a long and deep recession, Hood said they simply do not have the funds necessary to address the problems brought about by climate change.
But he said Grenada and its neighbors recognize that there is strength in numbers. They have formed an Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), with 39 full members and four observers from every region of the world, to bring the problems of small island states to the fore and seek financial assistance.
“We would speak with one voice… so that the bigger countries, the bigger emitters (of greenhouse gases), those who pollute the most would hear what we’re talking about and understand where we’re coming from. We are very committed to fight and to continue to fight until we begin to see some changes,” Hood said.
“All of us together must see this as something that is very, very serious because there are still some people who take this very lightly,” he added. “We face a very daunting task.”