Changes to global fisheries subsidies could level the playing field for traditional coastline communities

This story first appeared in Mongabay.

by Gladstone Taylor

  • Community fishers struggle to hold their own against heavily-subsidized foreign fleets. Fisheries subsidies have long given wealthy nations an edge over Small Island Developing States (SIDS) like Jamaica that are rich in fishing traditions and natural resources.
  • In places like the multigenerational fishing village of Manchioneal, Jamaica, artisanal fishers say they simply can’t compete with heavily-subsidized foreign fleets working in depleted waters.
  • But decisions made by the WTO this year on subsidies could lead to more sustainable and equitable fisheries around the world, in turn leading to better food security and more fish.
  • This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

MANCHIONEAL, Jamaica — Nestled deep in the northeast coast of Jamaica, hidden in the thick fertile forests of Portland parish, sits the multigenerational fishing community of Manchioneal. Families have been continually fishing these tropical waters since at least the 1950s, preserving and passing down artisanal fishing traditions. The community’s work and lifestyle, which includes earning their catch many miles offshore, has persisted even in the face of foreign competition bolstered by subsidies.

Trips taken by Manchioneal fishers can last anywhere between two and four days, depending on the weather and the fisher’s discretion. Fishing is one of this community’s main sources of income, responsible for at least 35% of employment in the community, according to available information.

Though their fishing traditions remain intact, the risks and costs are high. Today, the very survival of Manchioneal’s fishing community has been put in peril by the uneven playing field influenced by global subsidies to fisheries.

Globally, experts estimate that governments allocate about $35.4 billion annually in fishing subsidies. These funds are meant to support fisheries industries, which some governments acknowledge as drivers of both economic growth and food security.

But approximately $22.2 billion of those subsidies are geared toward capacity-enhancing, according to one 2019 analysis. For a large-scale fishing fleet, that includes things like marketing, tax exemptions, fishing access agreements, boat construction, fishing port development, and more. Since these fleets already have the means and equipment, the additional support exponentially increases their ability to fish for longer periods of time and go farther out into international waters. Rural fisher community development programs also benefit from subsidies, but artisanal fishers like those in Manchioneal say the reality is that they remain threatened by the sheer level of competition.

“I’ve seen them [Jamaica’s National Fisheries Authority] bring a few lines and some hooks once I think,” said 20-year veteran fisherman Cato Smith in an interview. “But I didn’t receive any and whatever they gave wasn’t much compared to how often we spend for upkeep.”

Weighted hooks and fishing line. Image courtesy of Gladstone Taylor.
Fishing gaff made of pipe. The survival of Manchioneal’s fishing community has been put in peril by the uneven playing field influenced by global subsidies to fisheries, which includes the quality of fishing equipment. Image courtesy of Gladstone Taylor.

For every $1 in fishing subsidies spent in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) like Jamaica, industrialized nations spend $7, according to research by the Sea Around Us project at the University of British Columbia’s fisheries center.

Independent, nonaligned Jamaican fishers, in particular, don’t benefit from any fishing subsidies. This adds another layer of competition with heavily subsidized foreign fleets, both in international waters adjacent to Jamaica and in Jamaica’s own waters.

In general, foreign fleets are also able to operate far longer at sea than artisanal fishers, drastically increasing overfishing within those waters. That leaves unsubsidized fishers like Smith unable to venture out far enough to supply the island’s domestic demand for fish.

“The demand is always there, so to get enough fish we have to go far out,” Smith said.

Overfishing is a global issue that has the potential to destabilize food systems worldwide, posing a real threat to food security and trade relations. There has been some movement to create more protections, though it’s still in the early stages.

On July 15 this year, WTO member states, including Jamaica, met for marathon discussions on a draft text asking members to strictly prohibit illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The draft text not only calls for an end to subsidies for IUU fisheries, but also an end to all subsidies for overfished stocks.

“No Member shall grant or maintain subsidies for fishing or fishing related activities regarding an overfished stock,” it states.

The agreement was initially brought forward in 2001 in response to an increase in overfishing at the turn of the new millennium, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. The task set by the WTO was clear: minimize or eliminate subsidies in overfished waters.

Talks are scheduled to conclude with a final agreed-upon document by the end of the year.

Traditional fishers in Jamaica. Image via PxHere (Public domain).

A persistent tradition

For many who live in coastal communities like Manchioneal, seafood is the main source of protein. Fisheries also provide employment for many young people in general in Jamaica, some of whom have fallen through the cracks of the education system because of lack of financial support.

According to the agriculture ministry’s draft fisheries policy, the fisheries industry contributes to direct and indirect employment of more than 40,000 people and contributes to the local economy of many fishing communities. It also makes an indirect contribution to the livelihoods of more than 200,000 people.

The community of Manchioneal gets its name from the fruit-bearing manchineel (Hippomane mancinella) trees that grow along the area’s coastline. The tree species is known for its wide-set branch network, love of water, and production of what many call beach apples, which are ironically toxic.

But it’s the shape of the harbor that makes the town truly special.

The harbor is perched between two arches of land on either side with a belt of mountains overlooking the small opening of about 600 meters (nearly 2,000 feet) that leads out to the Caribbean Sea.

An 18th-century cannon is still perched on a hill overlooking Manchioneal Bay to this day. The harbor and its cannons made for an impressive defensive fortress, which made the site highly valuable to the British during the 1600s when they first colonized Jamaica.

18th century British Cannon on a hill in Muirton Boy’s Home, overlooking Manchioneal Bay. Image courtesy of Gladstone Taylor.

Sylvester Robinson, a fisherman and net maker in Manchioneal, says the area has long been a fishing community.

“I started originally in Port Antonio in the ’60s, and I didn’t really know much about it, but I had some friends who were fishers,” Robinson said in an interview. “At first, I was working at the bakery, and during the week I would take bread for my fisher friends. What I found out was: if I brought them bread in the week, I could get a fish from each of them on the weekend. I really liked that.”

In the past, that was how many people got involved in fishing: they knew a friend who knew a friend, who had a boat.

“One day I saw a man making nets, and to me it looked interesting, so I would visit him after work,” Robinson said. “I would watch him making nets, and ask him questions, until I started to go out to sea with him. At that time, we used paddle boats, with long oars. Eventually, I moved here to Manchioneal, by that time I had gone from paddle boat to motorboat so I could go out further and I would catch hundreds of pounds of fish.”

Many of the fishers in the community are born into the traditions of a fishing family. Those traditions include the use of hooks and lines, poles, nets, pots and even spears for those who know how to free dive.

Manchioneal’s Smith is a second-generation fisherman, who has been in the business long enough to witness the impact of globalization firsthand.

“Fishing has been my occupation since I was 20 years old, it was handed down from my father to me,” he said. “So, I grew up fishing.”

Even though fishers like Smith and others regularly work out of Manchioneal Port, several miles offshore, they are also often forced to venture out into deeper waters.

“Our fishing port is like 14 miles [22.5 kilometers] offshore, but we have banks that are like 40-plus miles [more than 64 km] offshore, in international waters,” Smith said. “But you have other boats who come and catch a lot of fish, because Jamaica has more fish than other Caribbean countries.”

Parked boat on land at Manchioneal Harbor. Even though fishers like Cato Smith and others regularly work out of Manchioneal Port, several miles offshore, they are also often forced to venture out into deeper waters. Image courtesy of Gladstone Taylor.
Cato Smith, a second-generation fisherman, holding one of his fishing poles. Image courtesy of Gladstone Taylor.

The threat of increasingly unpredictable weather has also played a role in recent years, as climate change impacts intensify weather systems like hurricanes. Jamaica’s 2021 hurricane season saw four storms by mid-October.

That, in turn, has exacerbated international competition on the seas. According to fishers, some small-scale fishers in other parts of Jamaica, like Port Maria, St. Catherine or Oracabessa, simply tend to fish within their own harbors and ports, unless they’re driven farther out to sea due to depleted fishing stocks.

But, according to Smith, that’s not the case.

“No, it is not overfishing,” he said. “You have to go [specific] places to catch the fish, because the demand for it is great, worldwide. Fishing here has always been going out to the deep sea.”

Experts note, however, that some of the traditional catches by these local fishers, include kingfish, jack, sprat, mackerel and tuna, among others which are typically found further from shore.

A decade ago, in 2011, a report on coastal coral reefs in Jamaica from the World Resources Institute noted that Jamaica’s “nearshore waters are among the most overfished in the Caribbean.” The report also places Manchioneal near-shore reefs in the “very high” threatened category, which indicates a danger to biodiversity and overall fisheries in the area.

Even Smith concedes that despite longtime traditions, the impetus for his and others’ extended sea treks today is linked to the fact that current demand exceeds the volume of fish available in nearby waters.

Manchioneal beach. A report on coastal coral reefs in Jamaica noted that Jamaica’s “nearshore waters are among the most overfished in the Caribbean.” Image courtesy of Gladstone Taylor.

On equal footing

For local fishers to even access subsidies, certain formalities must be observed. The Oracabessa Fishing Sanctuary, located in Jamaica’s St. Mary parish, is one the 10 gazetted fishing sanctuaries that receive subsidies from the local government in the form of financial aid to the sanctuary. This cooperative group of fishers, according to executive director Travis Graham, has banded together with nearby hotels, and its members currently work as coral gardeners and sanctuary patrols.

But artisanal fishers like Smith and Robinson say they haven’t benefited from any subsidy programs so far.

“It’s hard to get the fishermen as a group, and without that, they cannot access any funding from the government,” said George William, a fisher and agent with the National Fisheries Authority.

William is a seasoned fisherman of 50 years, and has worked with the National Fisheries Authority, an arm of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, for roughly 30 years.

“They were thinking about making a sanctuary here [in Manchioneal],” William said, hinting at the viability of the bay. “But the fishers won’t band together. If they did, there would be a lot to preserve because all along the coast here sea turtles come to nest. It’s a breeding ground for them.”

With a clerk as his teammate, William services the National Fisheries Authorities outpost in Manchioneal, where they sell gasoline as well as boat and fishing licenses.

“Whenever they have work to do, for instance, out in Pedro Cay, I help out [with] things having to do with the sanctuaries and to see that the fishers don’t overfish, so that the next generation can grow up and have fish,” William said.

View from behind the Manchioneal Fisheries Authorities outpost. Image courtesy of Gladstone Taylor.

In 2018, the Jamaican government passed new adjustments to the Fishing Industry Act, placing heftier fines on outlawed fishing practices like operating without a license, possessing or selling prohibited or illegally caught fish, and more. The government also outlawed fishing by deep diving with compression air tanks. This had been a growing trend for years, despite the high risk of compression sickness or “the bends,” which has crippled and even killed some fishermen.

According to Smith, some fishers suffer from the bends while deep diving, recover, and then go right back to using it. Many are still willing to take the risk even after it was outlawed, because they feel it gives them an edge over their foreign counterparts on the water. Jamaica’s revised fishing subsidies draft could provide the leverage these local fishers need.

Floyd Green, Jamaica’s minister of agriculture and fisheries, did not respond to multiple inquiries about developments regarding the government’s current or new fisheries subsidies agreement.

WTO’s mission: Why it matters

The issue of hefty subsidies for wealthier foreign fleets over local fishers is about more than just unfair competition. These subsidies could throw a serious wrench into Jamaica’s food security agenda, forcing Jamaicans to purchase their own fish from foreign sources.

It’s one of the negative outcomes in the equation that the WTO is seeking to remedy with its revision process. Fishers from industrialized states, who are already well-equipped, will be ineligible for subsidies after the WTO’s 12th ministerial conference in November 2021.

The WTO agreement they’re scheduled to present and table in Geneva from November to December could end up being one of the single most important decisions they make for Jamaica’s long-term fisheries sustainability.

Muirton river, Jamaica. Image courtesy of Gladstone Taylor.

Banner image: Jamaican fishers in their fishing boat. Image by Adam Cohn via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).