West End is known as the “capitol” of Grand Bahama yet it is under siege by known assailants who look like any normal person you might find walking the streets. If you have taken a trip to the settlement recently you will notice the shoreline and roadways leading into the community is lined with trash thrown from the cars of persons who have no heart for the earth that God has given us to care for. You may also notice that there are many motor scooters and self-drive vehicles filled with tourists looking for interesting places to stop, chat with locals, and perhaps leave a few dollars in the local economy. You may be visiting West End for a “value deal” on conch and fish from local fishermen. Whenever a major holiday occurs swells of Grand Bahamians head west in search of seafood which is starting to take a downward spiral turn in availability of our natural resources. Overfishing is an area of concern that will be highlighted further in this story.
The premise behind the observations noted above is to drive home a very salient point every Bahamian should heed. The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism has invested heavily to attract the growing number of Canadian and U.S visitors to Grand Bahama Island. When these visitors arrive they have spent months or years planning their vacations. If Grand Bahama is lucky enough to be selected among the thousands of places one could choose to vacation they should expect to see a clean environment and feel safe traveling throughout the island.
Our island has been through a lot of challenges stemming from natural disasters to man made decisions that darken the lights of business opportunities and destruction of our natural resources. We all know that the bible says – “If there is no vision, the people perish.” One can clearly see everywhere you go that trash, debris and bulk waste is a constant issue across the entire island. We are reminded by signs placed in strategic locations by the Grand Bahama Port Authority to “KEEP GRAND BAHAMA CLEAN” or “FIND A BIN AND PUT IT IN.”
Most people do care about their environment but there are many that do not care and it is perplexing trying to figure out why anyone would drop their trash where they stand or throw it out of a moving car without a care in the world as to who will have to pick up that trash later. There seems to be an attitude of ambivalence among a sub-sector of society who believes that somewhere in the Bahamas Constitution they were granted an inalienable right to throw trash anywhere or anytime they please – with no fear of fines or punishment. There never is a good reason for anyone to think that polluting the environment on land or in the sea is acceptable, or believe it is someone else’s problem and that it will not harm anyone. There ought to be more signs posted across Grand Bahama Island that a heavy fine would be imposed for persons caught littering. If Grand Bahamas’ tourism marketing image or brand definition is based on a pictures or videos of pristine places in brochures, on social media, web sites and television commercials that showcase our island treasures shouldn’t our communities reflect the same appearance?
Another vexing issue impacting West End is the affect overfishing of conch and net hauling of fish. If one were to examine the enormous mounds of conch shells over 70% of the shells have no flare, are immature and non-reproductive. The local fishermen will state that these smaller conch “pygmy” or samba conchs generally do not grow to the size of Queen Conch – this is true. The samba conch is small and looks mature upon closer examination. This is not a widely found species yet it is harvested, sold as Queen Conch and one can clearly see that it is not the same. The well-known strombus gigas or Queen Conch is being overfished according to Community Conch who conducted the June 2014 ‘Surveys of Queen Conch Populations and Reproductive Biology on the Little Bahama Bank” for the Bahamas Department of Marine Resources and Bahamas National Trust. According to the survey report it stated, “Conch populations of the Little Bahama Bank are typical of overexploited populations now widespread in the Bahamas. It is clear that current management and regulations are not adequate to sustain conch resources in the Bahamas.”
Some of the suggestions that were made to ensure a healthy supply of conch for future consumption include: 1. Establish a network of Marine Protect Areas (MPA’s), fishery cooperatives and a sustainable fishery certification program; 2. Protect the southern populations from international poaching; 3. Update regulations to reflect the need for a minimum lip thickness at harvest, the hazard to the conch populations when hookah (compressed air) is used and the importance of a seasonal closure; 4. Develop area specific management plans for each major conch resource with harvest quotas; 5. Evaluate the impact of ending export; 6. Research population connectivity using molecular genetics and the impact of discarding knocked conch in active fishing grounds.
It is obvious from the Community Conch survey that a red flag has been raised warning fishermen that one day conch will disappear from current fishing zones around Memory Rock, Sandy Cay and Wood Cay where the numbers are steadily declining. Thousands of conchs have been knocked and drop on the fishing grounds where the conchs were harvested. This is a practice that must stop and regulations established for all conch to be brought ashore for a “midden” measurement.
The argument often heard among local fishermen when the subject of sustainable fishery best practices are mentioned to hedge off a possible forced government moratorium is – “man we gotta eat, we gotta feed our families” which is the direct result of a lack of education about the effects that their own actions are causing to the environment and degradation of their livelihoods.
Many years ago one could purchase conch for a dollar to a dollar fifty for a fully grown mature reproductive conch. Today one can purchase undersize conch with many measuring less than 5 inches in length for two dollars and a decent size conch for two dollars and fifty cents. Restaurant owners can play an important role and stop purchasing undersized conch from fishermen and wholesale buyers. When the conch moratorium goes in affect and it is going to happen one day the noise in the marketplace will rise and a revolt will manifest across the Bahamas demanding the government not legislate a closed season for conch. If local fishermen don’t make the tough decisions today to voluntarily develop sustainable fisheries they will have no choice but to accept a government moratorium.
We have a closed lobster and grouper season that was put into law by the government to allow time for reproduction of the species and this law may have saved these fish from being entirely decimated. There is a strong demand nationally and overseas for the export of conch. A conch season could very well be necessary in the Bahamas if we don’t make tough decisions today so that we are able to enjoy conch in the future.
The fact some fishermen are using nets to haul fish is by far one of the most egregious acts committed on the fishing grounds throughout the Bahama Islands. Dragging nets on the bottom of the sea destroys vital marine coral and essential cleaner fish that maintain a healthy reef eco-system. Hauling diminishes the opportunity for hand line fishers to make a living or provide food for their families. What happens when the day arrives and there is little or no fish to catch? Who will be responsible for allowing this to happen? Will the government or the fishermen be the ones to blame?
When snapper season occurs during the summer months boats begin their annual raid of any reef system or spawning location of these popular fish. Once the reefs are decimated of all marine life a dead zone is created leaving a lifeless section in the sea. The snapper population has dropped dramatically near shore and it appears the fish has moved to safer and deeper waters off shore. Sadly, the snappers are being raided from the reefs in alarming numbers and it is greatly affecting the livelihoods of fishermen who use hand lines. Hauling of other spawning fish include predator species like barracudas are showing signs of pressure. Stiff competition from larger well equipped fishing boats, the need to earn a living no matter the price and the impact of overfishing on the environment is causing irreversible harm to an already fragile eco-system.
It is essential for communities like West End to create sustainable fishing grounds to allow everyone the opportunity to fish. The “all for me baby” attitude is not only selfish but dangerous to the environment. Birds and other predator fish including barracudas and sharks are impacted as their foraging habits change and so does their natural ability to survive.
The immediate and growing threat of lionfish and their impact on juvenile reef fish populations in West End have yet to be fully determined by scientists. Monitoring by scuba divers and marine biologists of lionfish pressure on reefs in Florida and other sites in the Bahamas indicate they are reproducing faster, eating more fish and getting larger in size. Despite the fear and reluctance among many fishermen because of the poisonous spines there is a deterrent to harvest this new food source. There are a number of lionfish kits complete with first aid kits can be purchased to safely capture the fish as well as instructions on cooking these invasive species. The meat is delicious and it easy to spear these slow moving fish from reefs where they are normally found. Lionfish can be the new “conch” if the fishermen would request more information and to be educated about this very lucrative food source. Restaurants in Florida and along the East Coast have added Lionfish as a menu item. There are a few dining establishment in Nassau where the Lionfish is served as an appetizer or entree.
Feast or famine of our ocean resources is a decision that all Bahamians must consciously make to determine if there will be a future for conch, lobster, grouper and other fish species that are a vital part of our survival. Creating sustainable fisheries has to be given priority on Grand Bahama as well as other populated islands in the Bahamas. Keeping our island and community clean is an integral part of maintaining and regulating proper placement of waste. We have run out of excuses why we can’t or shouldn’t explore regulations to protect our environment and fisheries. Now is the time to take steps to guard all of our natural resources.
Keith G. Cooper, Founder
West End Eco-Fishing Camp Association