Study eyes tourism threat to sustainable fisheries in Caribbean

A spiny lobster in the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary. Photo courtesy NOAA.
A spiny lobster in the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary. Photo courtesy NOAA.

Under-reporting of catches documented by nonprofit research group

Staff Report

The marine environment around some Caribbean islands is still threatened by unsustainable fishing, according to a new study that documents the under-reporting of catches in the Turks and Caicos Islands. According to the research, catches on the islands were 86 percent higher than what was reported to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, a finding with troubling implication for sustainable fisheries efforts.

The research team from the nonprofit Sea Around Us program says urgent policy action is needed to ensure the future sustainability of the fishing industry in this archipelago nation. The findings were published in open-access journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

According to lead researcher Aylin Ulman, the big problem is that the reported catch only includes seafood caught for export, but not what’s consumed locally, and a growing tourism industry is taking an increasingly big bite from the catch.

Fishing has historically been the main industry in the Turks and Caicos Islands and in some areas up to 75 percent of locals are involved in the fishing industry. The rise in tourism is creating more demand for locally caught seafood and is placing increasing pressure on local marine life.

The islands operate small-scale fisheries for queen conch, Caribbean spiny lobster, and finfish as the three main targets. The local government is required to report all catches to the Food and Agricultural Organization to be able to trade with signatory nations of CITES. The international trade of wild animals must be shown to not threaten the survival of local stocks.

“The Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs has done a great job of monitoring fish sold to the country’s fish plants,” said Ulman. “However, it seems they have not always had enough staff to monitor seafood being sold or given to locals and tourists, whether that be at the dock, in shops, or in restaurants.”

For a better estimate of the amount of seafood caught around the islands, the authors assessed all catches between 1950 and 2012. More accurate records of catches for export, artisanal, and subsistence fisheries were identified from Turks and Caicos Islands Government reports. A recent and thorough seafood consumption survey from 2013 involving locals and tourists was additionally used to estimate the previously unreported local consumption of seafood.

The reconstructed data also included evaluations of recreational catches and illegal poaching. Using these data and mathematical models, Ulman and her team have made the most accurate estimates to-date of seafood consumption by residents and tourists on the islands.

Reported catches have been used to put regulations in place for sustainable catch limits. However, these limits have been unsustainable, leading to the over-exploitation of marine life.

In fact, local consumption of conch is close to the total number allowed to be caught under these ‘sustainable’ limits, and this is without taking into account the number of conch that are exported, which is almost equal to local consumption. As a result of this study, the authors hope that future catch limits will be based on total seafood catches from all fishery sectors.

Tracking local seafood consumption on a regular basis would help ensure more sustainable fisheries management, Ulman said. Only then can officials determine whether it’s even possible to continue the export of key species like conch and lobster.

New legislation is needed to reduce seafood catches so that stocks are being fished within safe limits, and this study adds new weight to the urgency of this issue. The Turks and Caicos Islands Government have recommended a stop to the export of conch for up to five years to allow populations to recover, but they have been delayed in implementing this.

“While the results of this research may seem like bad news, we are quick to emphasize that this new data may actually present an opportunity,” said co-author Edward Hind; “The staff at DEMA now have the knowledge to set catch limits that really will work. If the government supports the Turks and Caicos Islands fisheries scientists in collecting better catch data, then the country can have healthy fisheries for decades to come”.

The under-reporting of fisheries catches is common in other regions and neighboring island nations. Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica are facing the same the problems and urgent action is required to avoid further over-exploitation of marine life.

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