(by Dr. Callum Roberts)
Recent reports in the local press have drawn attention to controversy surrounding the future of marine reserves in the Soufriere Marine Management Area (SMMA). Marine reserves are areas which have been closed to fishing. They lie at the heart of the bold and timely effort to manage St. Lucia’s valuable coastal reefs which the SMMA represents.
Recent events turn on the attempt by 15 Soufriere pot fishermen to reopen several of the reserves to fishing. The press have called this a “battle” between the SMMA and fishermen suggesting a conflict of interests between parties. What has been overlooked is that the SMMA and its marine reserves were set up to help those fishermen.
The primary purpose of marine reserves is to help rehabilitate Soufriere’s fishing industry. At the time the SMMA was established fish stocks were at an all-time low and among the most severely over fished in the Caribbean. The large and valuable snappers and groupers which once filled fish pots were long gone. They had been replaced by small and less desirable fish, each of which would hardly fill a sandwich. Pots were catching so few fish it was barely worth hauling them.
Closing areas to fishing seems like an illogical way of helping fishermen, but that is exactly what reserves are designed to do. Reserves provide a refuge in which easily caught fishes can grow large enough to reproduce. Before the SMMA was created such fish was caught long before they reached maturity. The offspring of fish protected in reserves are carried to fishing grounds by ocean currents, so refilling the pots of fishermen.
As fish stocks in reserves grow they benefit fishermen in a second way: spillover. Fish move from the more crowded reserve into fishing grounds nearby where they can be caught. Throughout the world, wherever reserves have been created, fishermen enjoy higher catches close to reserve boundaries. In Soufriere some of the best catches are made close to the Anse Chastanet reserve, an area which has been closed to fishing for several years.
Reserves represent money in the bank for St. Lucia’s fishing industry. Fishermen harvest the interest which flows from them and as fish stocks grow, so do the interest payments. Such benefits do not come immediately but take time to accumulate as fish stocks grow. In the first few years following reserve creation times get harder. This is why pot fishermen want reserves re-opened now. But if reserves are respected then a few years from now the fishing industry will become healthier than it has been for decades.
Already the improvements are beginning to show. Together with the Department of Fisheries my team of scientists have been monitoring Soufriere fish stocks since 1994. Since the SMMA was created there has been a marked jump in fish stocks which in the next years will translate into bigger catches. Open the reserves now and those benefits will never come.
Times are still hard for Soufriere’s fishermen but the SMMA and its reserves offer a better future. If there is a battle it is a fight to put the fishing industry back on its feet. Don’t forget that the SMMA is the fishermen’s ally not their enemy!
Dr. Callum M. Roberts, University of York, UK. Co-editor of a book entitled “Reef Fisheries” (1996) and a coral reef scientist with ten years of experience studying fisheries and marine reserves.