Will we become the land of the amber fish?
IS THERE ANYTHING more Barbadian than the flying fish?
We are known the world over as the “land of the flying fish” (never mind that flying fish live in the sea). The national dish is flying fish and cou cou, and a staple in Bajan rum shops is flying fish cutters, or simply roasted on an open fire with breadfruit to accompany a game of dominoes at the beach. In almost every restaurant, you will (or used to) find flying fish on the menu.
But that’s not all. Check out our dollar coin, or the hologram in your Barbadian passport. Yes, the flying fish is part ah we.
But what about this thing called climate change? It seems it is not just changing our climate, it’s changing our fish too! Gone are the days when vendors could buy 100 flying fish for $25 or less, and one would hear their calls ringing out in the neighbourhood: “Fish! Fish! Four fuh ah dolla! Four fuh ah dolla!”
Or you could buy your fish readyboned in neat packages at “$10 fuh 10”, ready to ship out to family “over in away” too. For several years, flying fish has been really scarce and the prices have risen sharply in response. Now it is the public who is crying out in disbelief, “$30 fuh 10?” and the restaurants proclaiming that flying fish is off the menu. Off the menu in Buhbadus? Well, “try amber fish instead”, we are told. What – amberfish and cou cou?
So, what’s really happening here?
Why not ask the fishers? They are the ones who spend half their lives observing changes in the tides, seasons, wind and colour of the sea.
They know how these things are affecting the fish. Ignore them and you could miss the boat! This is why scientists are now working together with fishers to try to make some sense of why flying fish catches “real dead” with everybody “balling fuh murdah” about the fish prices.
Fishers have noticed more and more green water replacing the pretty blue water on traditional fishing grounds in recent years.
This is the result of seasonal influxes of river water coming from South American rivers, such as the Orinoco and Amazon. The green and blue waters are kind of like oil and vinegar – they don’t mix – with the warmer, less salty green water sitting on top of the cooler blue waters.
While this water might be full of nutrients, flying fish and dolphin don’t like the murky green water. Instead, they hang out at the edges where the two waters meet.
Normally, fishers would see the green water in August to September. However, climate change is playing trickster on the weather with rivers like the Amazon experiencing more flooding in recent years than before, due to unpredictable increases in heavy rainfall. Although fisherfolk were accustomed to short periods of green water during particular months, they are now facing unusual amounts that can appear anytime and last long, seriously affecting their ability to catch fish. This gradual change over the past decade or so is forcing Bajan fishers further and further afield to maintain their catches and livelihoods.
FISH VENDOR Jemma Harris of the Bridgetown Fisheries Complex, showing the amber fish, which is gaining popularity in place of flying fish. (FP)
Fishers already have to travel afar to reach their fishing grounds, with iceboats and longliners perhaps going as far as 500 kilometres away from Barbados. But now they might have to go even further to reach flying fish spawning aggregations, where they are easier to catch. Spawning aggregations are like Crop Over for flying fish; massive numbers all looking for some fun!
Getting to these flying fish “fetes”, however, has become more and more difficult. The weather plays trickster here too as a result of climate change, making strong and stormy seas much less predictable, while the windy season lasts longer and with stronger winds.
This makes the journey riskier, especially for wooden boats, and the fishing grounds out of reach for dayboats.
Changes in the direction of surface water currents, what fishers refer to as tides, mean that fishers who normally travel into the tide to get to the fishing grounds and sail back with the tide, now often find themselves struggling against the tide to come home carrying a boat full of fish.
This means more time away from home, more fuel, less money in the pocket and higher fish prices.
And now dis sargassum! Our newest natural hazard related to climate change and an increase in ocean nutrients.
Not just a smelly ugly nuisance on the beach, it is also playing tricks on fishers’ traditional catches. Since 2011, fishers have been plagued by millions of tonnes of the floating sargassum seaweed which has changed the behaviour of flying fish.
FISH VENDOR Donna Phillips showing some of the Amber fish which were on ice. (FP)
Fishers know that flying fish need floating objects on which to lay their eggs, so the traditional fishery is based on the use of screelers, which are just bundles of floating sugar cane trash or palm leaves, used to lure the schools of “feting” fish to the boat, making them easy to catch. As the floating sargassum now acts like an ocean full of screelers, flying fish don’t see the need to come to the boats anymore to spawn.
With sargassum running the flying fish away from the boat, fishers are instead catching “nuff” amber fish and turpits which are clearly enjoying the feast of flying fish eggs and larvae.
So what is all this telling us? Fishers have to travel further and against the tides, spending more on fuel . . . and don’t forget they already lost their tax waiver on fuel (although they still pay less per litre than the man in the street).
Adult spawning flying fish are no longer coming to the screelers, so many fishers have resorted to using smaller mesh gillnets to catch smaller, younger fish. Have you noticed you need two fish to fill a cutter these days?
Fishers are fighting more dangerous conditions and catching less due to climate change – causing changes to winds, sea state and rainfall patterns that result in major river floods thousands of kilometres away from Barbados. These bring more nutrients, turning the water green and fertilising massive sargassum blooms too.
All this means that the traditional flying fish season has changed, and there are often times when catches are so slow that fishers don’t even go out to sea anymore, as it is simply not worth the cost of fuel and ice. So flying fish catches are real scarce and real expensive and since flying fish used to make up over half of all fish catches, this climate change thing is causing some serious havoc with fisherfolk livelihoods.
But wait, not just fisherfolk! Climate change is touching the very heart of this nation – it could even end up changing our very identity! Will we now become “de land of the amber fish”?
• Iris Monnereau is regional project coordinator of the Climate Change Adaptation of the Eastern Caribbean Fisheries Sector Project (CC4FISH), at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, Barbados.
• Hazel Oxenford is professor in fisheries biology and management, Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies, University of the West Indies, Cave Hill.