The Food Chain

Underwater Caribbean

The Food Chain

Underwater Caribbean

The Food Chain
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
July 12 2007 7:08 AM

Underwater Caribbean

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Most days, as we cruise northwest along the island's leeward shore, I spot a few fishermen. Nothing fancy: Maybe a young man crouched at the base of a cliff, scanning the water, or a couple of guys with a net and a rowboat.

I've just surfaced from a dive at Orca Point, where two rock spires at the mouth of a bay frame the lush onshore greenery beyond. Just 10 yards from our boat are two more vessels, one a rowboat, the other slightly larger with an outboard motor. There are four men standing in the boats, three of them shirtless, all in shorts or rolled-up pants. A fifth man is in the water with a mask and snorkel. Together, the team is looping a long net into a cylinder. Red and orange floats bob on the surface as the men draw the net tighter.

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After pulling their net onboard, they smile and wave at us. One holds up a long silver fish for our inspection—a ballahoo. "They gotta feed their families," says Captain Bill. "You should check out the fish market. You'll see turtles, pilot whales. They'll fish anything they can eat." Unemployment here, I later learn, is 22 percent; St. Vincent and the Grenadines is literally a banana republic, the fruit being its traditional top export, and the banana market is not what it used to be. The island of St. Vincent—including this very location, the mouth of Orca Bay, favored by shirtless subsistence fishermen—enjoyed a brief stint of Hollywood stardom in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, during the filming of which every hotel and spare bedroom on the island was occupied. These days, at the site of an elaborate set left behind on a pretty bay, a man sells bracelets made of shells and plastic beads for a few East Caribbean dollars. The government speaks of building a new airport, but Bill reckons it will never happen, and he thinks that's a good thing: At 133 square miles, St. Vincent is little more than the tip of a volcano; above or below water, it can handle only so much.

Large-scale commercial fishing as practiced for the last 50 years or so is the definition of unsustainable: We eat the fish faster than they can reproduce. Globally, commercial fishing has reduced the number of large predatory fish, like sharks and barracudas, to 10 percent of the 1950 population. Here in the Caribbean, though, most fishing is for local consumption. Still, many species are disappearing or under threat.

Why? Take the Nassau grouper, a big lug of a fish that REEF calls "a social and ecological cornerstone of [the] Caribbean's coral reefs." It's threatened by both overfishing and habitat loss. Islanders around the Caribbean have always fished the grouper for both its meat and its roe. But now there are more humans, and they have better technology. Several governments have imposed Nassau grouper fishing moratoriums to try to rescue the population, but in their absence, fishermen use outboard engines and GPS tracking to hone in on the giant schools that congregate to spawn. Even small-scale fishing, it turns out, became unsustainable with new technology.

If the logic of overfishing is easy to understand, "habitat loss" is more of a mystery. Water quality is being hurt by pollution, coastal development, and agricultural runoff into rivers and estuaries. And coral reefs, home to hundreds of species, are dying for both known and unknown reasons.

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When predators disappear, there are consequences for their prey, their prey's prey, and so on. Consider the threespot damselfish, 3 or 4 inches long with a golden crescent above the eye. It's a farmer, cultivating an "algal lawn" for its own consumption by weeding out undesirable algaes and fertilizing its patch. It also fends off invaders, including divers. I realized I had unwittingly approached an algae farm when a threespot started darting at my arm.

The threespot damselfish prefers to cultivate its algae on a nice patch of rock. But the threespot's usual predators—grouper, snapper, and jackfish—are disappearing. Consequently, the threespot population is booming, and good rock real estate is in short supply. So, the resourceful threespot has started cultivating its algae on coral.

Corals, which are animals, have symbiotic relationships with particular algaes. The right amount of the right algae can help corals produce their calcium-carbonate exoskeletons, which fuse into those vast shells we call reefs. But the threespot damselfish kills corals in order to grow its crop. Among the corals the threespot likes to farm on are the staghorn and the elkhorn. Thirty years ago, both were common throughout the Caribbean; by last year, they were so scarce that they were placed under the protection of the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

But the overabundance of threespot damselfish is just one of many threats to coral. Damage is also caused by hurricanes and other natural events; by coral diseases, which are on the rise; and by rising sea temperatures. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that 10 percent of coral reefs worldwide are beyond recovery, 30 percent are in critical condition, and that if current pressures continue, 60 percent could be gone by 2050.

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I try that one on for size, and I can't picture it. This teeming, bright-colored world could come to seem as fanciful as Atlantis.

Topside, I visit the Kingstown fish market one day with Lad and Mike, the mustachioed retired government worker whom we have put in charge of our species-count betting pool. To get into town from Villa, where the upscale hotels are ghettoized, it costs 30 cents for the 30-minute ride on a packed minibus. Since St. Vincent and the Grenadines is the poorest country in the Eastern Caribbean, I expect the fish market to be open-air and chaotic. Instead, it's housed in a pristinely sterile building on the waterfront, with glass front doors and white-tiled walls. A stainless-steel plaque dated 2005 is embedded in the outer wall, imprinted with a Japanese flag and an inscription: "The project of re-modeling the new Kingstown Fish Market … as a token of friendship and cooperation between Japan and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines."

Lad says he's seen similar gifts from Japan all over the Caribbean. They're Japan's way of thanking these small nations for supportive votes on the International Whaling Commission, the organization that attempts to regulate the rate at which humans may kill whales, and which has objected to catches taken by Japan since a 1985 ban.

Inside the market, splayed out on the ice, are some of the fish I've been seeing all week and a few I haven't spotted: The blackbar soldierfish, red with a black stripe, was one of the first species I learned to identify. I see the sherbet colors of several male parrotfish; a fishmonger proudly holds one up for my perusal. And I see red hinds, a speckled grouper that I've been looking for underwater. Two buyers haggle with a white-aproned seller, who picks up a coney and flops it into her scale.

After the market, we walk down the street to a restaurant called Vee Jay's, where we sit on a veranda overlooking the Bayview Parking Lot. I order my favorite local dish, a fish roti, which consists of a chickpea-flour tortilla stuffed with potatoes, spices, and a hodgepodge of the daily catch.