Everton Simpson squints at the Caribbean from his motorboat, scanning the dazzling bands of colour for hints of what lies beneath. Emerald green indicates sandy bottoms. Sapphire blue lies above seagrass meadows. And deep indigo marks coral reefs. That is where he is heading. He steers the boat to an unmarked spot he knows as the “coral nursery”. Simpson started working as a “coral gardener” two years ago as part of grassroots efforts to bring Jamaica’s coral reefs back from the brink.
On the ocean floor, small coral fragments dangle from suspended ropes. Simpson and other divers tend to this underwater nursery as gardeners look after a flower bed, painstakingly plucking off snails and fireworms that feast on immature coral. When each stub grows to about the size of a human hand, Simpson collects them in his crate to individually transplant on to a reef. Even fast-growing coral species add just a few inches a year.
A few hours later, at a site called Dickie’s Reef, Simpson dives again and uses bits of fishing line to tie clusters of staghorn coral on to rocky outcroppings, a temporary binding until the coral’s limestone skeleton grows and fixes itself on to the rock. The goal is to jumpstart the natural growth of a coral reef. And, so far, it is working.
Everton Simpson untangles lines of staghorn coral at a nursery inside the White River fish sanctuary. The coral fragments dangle from ropes, like socks hung on a laundry line.
Simpson grabs a handful of staghorn harvested from a coral nursery for planting inside the the sanctuary.
Coral reefs are often called “rainforests of the sea” for the astonishing diversity of life they shelter. Just 2% of the ocean floor is filled with coral but the branching structures sustain a quarter of all marine species. Clownfish, parrotfish, groupers and snappers lay eggs and hide from predators in the reef’s nooks and crannies, and their presence draws eels, sea snakes, octopuses and even sharks. In healthy reefs, jellyfish and sea turtles are regular visitors.
With fish and coral, it is a co-dependent relationship. The fish rely on the reef structure to evade danger and lay eggs, and also eat up the coral’s rivals. When too many fish disappear, the coral suffers, and vice versa.
The delicate labour of the coral gardener is only one part of restoring a reef and for all its intricacy it is actually the most straightforward part. Convincing lifelong fishermen to curtail when and where they fish and controlling the surging waste dumped into the ocean are trickier endeavours.
Fisherman turned Oracabessa fish sanctuary warden and dive master Ian Dawson dives while spearfishing outside the sanctuary’s no-take zone.
Slowly, the comeback effort is gaining momentum. “The coral are coming back, the fish are coming back,” says Stuart Sandin, a marine biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. “It’s probably some of the most vibrant coral reefs we’ve seen in Jamaica since the 1970s. When you give nature a chance, she can repair herself. It’s not too late.”
Sandin is studying the health of coral reefs around the world as part of a research project called the 100 Island Challenge. His starting assumption was that the most populated islands would have the most degraded habitats, but what he found instead was that humans can be either a blessing or a curse, depending on how they manage resources.
Wardens and fishermen push themselves through shallow water while heading out to sea.
White River fish sanctuary wardens patrol through the reef of the sanctuary’s no-take zone.
In Jamaica, more than a dozen grassroots-run coral nurseries and fish sanctuaries have sprung up in the past decade, supported by small grants from foundations, local businesses such as hotels and scuba clinics, and the Jamaican government.
At White River, which is only about two years old and where Simpson works, the clearest proof of early success is the return of tropical fish that inhabit the reefs, as well as hungry pelicans, skimming the surface of the water to feed on them.
Jamaica’s coral reefs were once among the world’s most celebrated, with their golden branching structures and resident brightly coloured fish drawing the attention of travellers from Christopher Columbus to Ian Fleming, who wrote most of his James Bond novels on the island’s northern coast in the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1965, the country became the site of the first global research hub for coral reefs, the Discovery Bay Marine Lab, now associated with the University of the West Indies. The groundbreaking marine biologist couple Thomas and Nora Goreau completed fundamental research here, including describing the symbiotic relationship between coral and algae and pioneering the use of scuba equipment for marine studies. The same lab also provided a vantage point as the coral disappeared.
Peter Gayle has been a marine biologist at Discovery Bay since 1985. From the yard outside his office, he points towards the reef crest about 300 metres (985ft) away, a thin brown line splashed with white waves. “Before 1980, Jamaica had healthy coral,” he says. Then several disasters struck.
The first calamity was 1980’s Hurricane Allen, one of the most powerful cyclones in recorded history. “Its 40ft waves crashed against the shore and basically chewed up the reef,” Gayle says. Coral can grow back after natural disasters but only when given a chance to recover, which it never got.
The same decade, a mysterious epidemic killed more than 95% of black sea urchins in the Caribbean, while overfishing ravaged fish populations. And surging waste from the island’s growing human population, which nearly doubled between 1960 and 2010, released chemicals and nutrients into the water that spur faster algae growth. The result: seaweed and algae took over.
“There was a tipping point in the 1980s, when it switched from being a coral-dominated system to being an algae-dominated system,” Gayle says. “Scientists call it a ‘phase shift’.”
That seemed like the end of the story until an unlikely alliance started to tip the ecosystem back in the other direction, with help from residents such as Simpson and his fellow fisherman Lipton Bailey.
The fishing community of White River revolves around a small boat-docking area about a quarter of a mile from where the river flows into the Caribbean Sea. One early morning, as purple dawn light filters into the sky, Simpson and Bailey step on to a 28ft motorboat called the Interceptor.
Both men have lived and fished their whole lives in the community. Recently, they have come to believe that they need to protect the coral reefs that attract tropical fish, while setting limits on fishing to ensure the sea is not emptied too quickly.
Fisherman Oswald Coombs is encircled by tarpon as he cleans his catch on the beach in the fishing village of Oracabessa Bay, Jamaica.
In the White River area, the solution was to create a protected area, a “fish sanctuary”, for immature fish to grow and reach reproductive age before they are caught.
Two years ago, the fishermen joined with local businesses, including hotel owners, to form a marine association and negotiate the boundaries for a no-fishing zone stretching two miles along the coast. A simple line in the water is hardly a deterrent; however, to make the boundary meaningful, it must be enforced. Today, the local fishermen, including Simpson and Bailey, take turns patrolling the boundary in the Interceptor.
On this morning, the men steer the boat just outside a row of orange buoys marked “no fishing”. ‘‘We are looking for violators,” Bailey says, his eyes trained on the rocky coast. “Sometimes you find spearmen. They think they’re smart. We try to beat them at their game.”
Nicholas Bingham (l), grabs his speargun while leaving the home of Gary Gooden (r), as they prepare to go night spearfishing, which is banned, in Stewart Town, Jamaica. Bingham and Gooden say they have to resort to illegal night spearfishing to make up for lost wages from the sanctuary’s restrictions.
Bingham spearfishes at night in Stewart Town, Jamaica.
The White River fish sanctuary warden Mark Lobban shines a spotlight on the protected reef while patrolling the no-take zone.
Most of the older and more established fishermen, who own boats and set out lines and wire cages, have come to accept the no-fishing zone. Besides, the risk of having their equipment confiscated is too great. But not everyone is on board. Some younger men hunt with lightweight spearguns, swimming out to sea and firing at close-range. These men, some of them poor and with few options, are the most likely trespassers.
The patrols carry no weapons, so they must master the art of persuasion. “Let them understand this. It’s not a ‘you’ thing or a ‘me’ thing. This isn’t personal,” Bailey says of past encounters with violators.
These are sometimes risky efforts. Two years ago, Jerlene Layne, a manager at nearby Boscobel fish sanctuary, ended up in hospital with a bruised leg after being attacked by a man she had reprimanded for fishing illegally. “He used a stick to hit my leg because I was doing my job, telling him he cannot fish in the protected area,” she says.
Layne believes her work would be safer with more formal support from the police, but she is not going to stop. “Public mindsets can change,” she says. “If I back down on this, what kind of message does that send? You have to stand for something.”
She has pressed charges in court against repeat trespassers, typically resulting in a fine and the confiscation of equipment.
One such violator is Damian Brown, 33, who lives in a coastal neighbourhood called Stewart Town. Sitting outside on a concrete staircase near his modest home, Brown says fishing is his only option for work and he believes the sanctuary boundaries extend too far.
Jerlene Layne (l), manager of the Boscobel marine sanctuary, talks with fisherman Damian Brown, a repeat violator of the no-take zone, while patrolling through the community in Stewart Town.
Spear fisherman Rick Walker, 35, sells his catch to a buyer at a fish market in White River.
Back at the White River docking area, Rick Walker, a 35-year-old spear fisherman, is cleaning his motorboat. He remembers the early opposition to the fish sanctuary, when many people said they were trying to stop their livelihood.
Two years later, Walker, who is not involved in running the sanctuary but supports its boundary, says he can see the benefits. “It’s easier to catch snapper and barracuda,” he says. “At least my great-grandkids will get to see some fish.”
When Columbus landed in Jamaica he sailed into Oracabessa Bay, which is today a 20-minute drive from the mouth of the White River. Oracabessa Bay fish sanctuary was the first of the grassroots-led efforts to revive Jamaica’s coral reefs. Its sanctuary was legally incorporated in 2010 and its approach of enlisting local fishermen as patrols became a model for other regions.
“The fishermen are mostly on board and happy, that’s the distinction. That’s why it’s working,” says the sanctuary manager, Inilek Wilmot.
David Murray, the head of the Oracabessa Fishers’ Association, notes that Jamaica‘s 60,000 fishermen operate without a safety net. “Fishing is like gambling, it’s a game. Sometimes you catch something, sometimes you don’t,” he says. When fish populations began to collapse two decades ago, something had to change.
Morris Gause, Nigel Simpson and Andre Ramator peer over the end of a dock to look at fish in the Oracabessa fish sanctuary.
Murray now works as a warden in the Oracabessa sanctuary, while continuing to fish outside its boundary. He also spends time explaining the concept to neighbours.
“It’s people work, it’s a process to get people to agree on a sanctuary boundary,” he says. “It’s a tough job to tell a man who’s been fishing all his life that he can’t fish here.”
But once it became clear that a no-fishing zone actually helped nearby fish populations rebound, it became easier to build support. The number of fish in the sanctuary has doubled between 2011 and 2017, and the individual fish have grown larger, nearly tripling in length on average, according to annual surveys by Jamaica’s national environment and planning agency. And that boosts catches in surrounding areas. After word got out about Oracabessa, other regions wanted advice.
Oracabessa fish sanctuary’s warden and dive master, Ian Dawson, looks for fish while spearfishing outside the sanctuary’s no-take zone. ‘I do fishing for a living. Right now I’m raising fish in the sanctuary. If you don’t put in, you can’t take out, simple.’
“We have the data to show success but even more important than data is word of mouth,” says Wilmot, who oversaw training to help start the fish sanctuary at White River.
Morrow, a lifelong water sports enthusiast often seen paddle-boarding with her dog, Shadow, runs the White River Marine Association. She attends fishers’ meetings and raises small grants from the Jamaican government and other foundations to support equipment purchases and coral replanting campaigns.
“We all depend on the ocean,” Morrow says, sitting in a small office decorated with nautical maps in the 70-year-old Jamaica Inn. “If we don’t have a good healthy reef and a good healthy marine environment, we will lose too much. Too much of the country relies on the sea.”
This Associated Press feature was produced in partnership with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s department of science education. It’s part of a weekly series by AP, What Can Be Saved?, which chronicles the ordinary people and scientists fighting for change against enormous odds.
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