Is there anything more Barbadian than the flyingfish? Barbados is known the world over as the ‘land of the flyingfish’ (never mind that flyingfish live in the sea). Thenational dish – ‘flyingfish and cou-cou’, a staple in Bajan rum shops – ‘flyingfish cutters’, or simply roasted on an open fire with breadfruit to accompany a game of dominoes at the beach. In almost every restaurant across the island, you will (or used to) find flyingfish on the menu. But that’s not all, flyingfish is at the heart of the nation depicted on the Barbados dollar coin, appearing as a hologram in the Barbadian passport and used as the emblem of the tourism board to name but a few. . .
But wait …. Let we pause a minute. What about this thing called climate change?’ It seems that it is not just changing our climate, it’s changing our fish too! Gone are the days when Barbadian vendors could buy 100 flyingfish for $25 or less, and you would hear their calls ringing out in the neighbourhood ‘Fish! Fish! 4 a dolla! 4 a dolla!‘. Or you could buy your fish ready-boned in neat packages at ‘$10 fuh 10′ ready to ship out to family over and away too! For several years now, flyingfish has been really scarce and the prices at Barbadian fish markets have risen sharply in response. Now it is the public who is crying out in disbelief ‘$30 fuh 10?‘ and the restaurants proclaiming that flyingfish is off the menu! Off the menu in Barbados? Well ‘try amberfish instead’ consumers 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 little changes in the tides, seasons, wind, and colour of the sea. They know how these things are affecting the fish, just like you notice changes in the weather. Ignore them and you could miss the boat! All pun intended. This is why scientists at the University of the West Indies and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) are now working together with fishers to try to make some sense of why flyingfish catches ‘real dead’ right now with everybody crying out about the fish prices.
Fishers have noticed more and more green water replacing the pretty blue water on traditional fishing grounds in recent years. These green waters are well known to fishers as they are the result of seasonal influxes of river water coming from South American rivers, such as the Orinoco and the Amazon. The green and blue waters are kind of like oil and vinegar, they don’t mix, so the warmer, less salty green water floats on top of the cooler blue waters. Whilst this murky green water might be full of nutrients, flyingfish and dolphinfish don’t like it Instead, they hang out at the edges where the two waters meet. Normally fishers would see the green water in August-September. However, climate change is fooling with the weather with rivers like the Amazon experiencing way more flooding events 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 of green water 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 Barbadian fishers further and further afield to maintain their catches and their livelihoods.
Fishers already have to travel afar to reach their fishing grounds, with iceboats and longliners perhaps going as far as 500 km away from Barbados. But now they might have to go even further in small vessels through rough seas taking several days to reach flyingfish spawning aggregations, where they are easier to catch. Spawning aggregations are like ‘Carnival’ for flyingfish. Massive numbers of flyingfish all looking for some fun! Getting to these flyingfish ‘fetes’, however, has become more and more difficult. The weather being deceitful 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 more risky, especially for wooden boats, and the fishing grounds out of reach for dayboats. Changes in the direction of surface water currents, means that fishers who normally travel into the current to get to the fishing grounds and sail back with the tide, now often find themselves struggling against the current to come home carrying a boat full of fish. So what does this mean? More time away from home, more fuel, less money in the pocket and higher fish prices.
And now sargassum! Our newest natural hazard in the Caribbean region related to climate change and an increase in ocean nutrients. Not just a smelly ugly nuisance on the beach, it is also playing havoc with fishers’ traditional catches. Since 2011, fishers have been plagued by millions of tons of the floating sargassum seaweed, which has changed the behaviour of flyingfish. Fishers know that flyingfish need floating objects on which to lay their eggs, so the traditional fishery in the eastern Caribbean is based on the use of screelers (bundles of floating sugar cane trash or palm leaves) used to lure the schools of spawning fish to the boat, making them easy to catch. As the floating sargassum now acts like an ocean full of screelers, flyingfish don’t see the need to come to the boats anymore to spawn! Fishers will tell you that sargassum is ‘running’ flyingfish away from the boat, but they are instead catching plenty of amberfish (almaco jacks) and turpits (ocean triggerfish) around the sargassum who are clearly enjoying the feast of flyingfish eggs and larvae.
So what is all this telling us? Fishers have to travel further and against the current, spending more on fuel. Adult spawning flyingfish are no longer coming to the screelers, so many fishers have resorted to using smaller mesh gillnets to catch smaller, younger fish before they are old enough to spawn. 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 which has caused 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 fertilizing massive sargassum blooms too. All this means that the traditional flyingfish season has changed, and there are often times when catches are so low that fishers don’t even go out to sea anymore, as it is simply not worth the cost of fuel and ice. So flyingfish catches are really scarce with more than a fifty percent decline since 2011 and they have become really expensive. Since flyingfish used to make up over half of all fish catches in Barbados, this climate change thing is causing some serious havoc with fisherfolk livelihoods. But wait, not just fisherfolk, you know, climate change is touching the very heart of this nation – it could even end up changing its very identity! Will Barbados now become ‘de land of the amberfish’?
Dr. Iris Monnereau
Regional Project Coordinator on the Climate Change Adaptation of the Eastern Caribbean Fisheries Sector Project (CC4FISH) at the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, Barbados.
Prof. Hazel Oxenford
Professor in Fisheries Biology and Management, Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies (CERMES), University of the West Indies, Barbados.