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Oracabessa Fish Sanctuary

Oracabessa has always been a fishing village. Even in its heyday as a major banana shipping port from the 1920s to 1960's, fishers were the backbone of providing a sustainable livelihood to families in the area. Even now as tourism is poised to pick up where bananas left off decades ago, fisherfolk continue to play an important, vibrant role in the well-being of the Oracabessa community. Unfortunately, their job is getting harder every day.

Jamaica has some of the most depleted fish stocks of any country in the world. Oracabessa Bay is no different. As little as 25 years ago you could make your way down to Fisherman's Beach and have no problem getting your hands on an 8, 10 or even 15 pound snapper. Walking into a restaurant you would have had your choice of fish - and it would have been sliced. Why? Because the fish were too big to put on your plate!

Today, 10 pound snappers are about as plentiful as mermaids and unicorns. Order fish at Dor's Fish Pot and the two or three sprat will fit completely within your plate (head and tail included). Although that makes for an interesting culinary experience, it is a disaster for the fish population. Fishermen will tell you that they need to set 15 pots to catch the amount of fish they used to catch with only 2 or 3. Things have clearly changed. Not for the better. Not for anyone.

How can the decline be stopped? Rather than taking advice solely from academics or environmentalists, the Foundation went in the direction we know best: involving the local community in the search for solutions. In this case, the fishers themselves. What we found is that nobody is more concerned about (and ready to stop) the decline in local fish stocks than local fishers. Sure, there are disagreements about how to implement proposed solutions but when push comes to shove everybody knows that something must be done or their way of life is going to disappear like the last banana boat leaving port.

in April 2009 the Oracabessa Foundation officially established a partnership with the St. Mary Fisherman's Cooperative to begin work on the Oracabessa Bay Fish Sanctuary. The goal of the sanctuary is to create a no-fishing zone protecting the Bay's critical breeding areas and fish habitat. And as of May 2010 the sanctuary has been officially recognized by the Jamaican Government. We have also received a JA$1,000,000 grant from the Environmental Foundation of Jamaica to complete a participatory management plan process.

Success is by no means guaranteed. And it would be a lie to say the process was anything but long, slow and at times frustrating. But there have been tangible successes along the way and at the very least there is a committed group of fishers who are going to do everything in their power to sustain their livelihoods by "giving the fish some time to sleep."

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