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Scientists partner with families across the country who rely on small-scale fisheries to survive pandemic economy

Bringing new funding and notoriety to The Bahamas from the National Geographic Society, the Perry Institute for Marine Science (PIMS) and the Cape Eleuthera Institute (CEI) at The Island School hope to investigate COVID-19’s effects on local subsistence fishing habits.  Prominent PIMS scientist Dr. Karlisa Callwood and her team won one of only 11 awards among the 1200 competitors considered by National Geographic as part of their global investigation into understanding challenges and changes to the natural world created by COVID-19.

Following two years marked by cascading climate and coral catastrophes, social instability, and harsh economic times, Bahamians of all stripes have turned more fully to the sea for food security.  This, for some families, could be a silver bullet to make it through the day to day grind and keep food on the table.  But in light of recurrent hurricanes and the ongoing pandemic, it is important that community use of near-shore fisheries is studied to ensure sustainability.  The National Geographic-PIMS-CEI project’s ultimate goal is to inform local disaster resilience planning, economic development, and responsible fisheries management by providing useful information to both the public and to policymakers.  

Ms. Zoe Brown, a spokeswoman for the project and Grand Bahamian, started the discussion with some stark facts:  “Unfortunately, before we can talk about this project, we must first talk about Government research permits.  I am an early career Bahamian scientist and I aspire towards research that helps to secure a resilient future for my country. Right now, because of simple Government permitting, that future is looking bleak” Brown stated, who is a research technician with the Perry Institute and CEI.  “For months and months, an impenetrable Government process has made it illegal for myself and other scientists to conduct research that could have significant positive impacts for the country.  The Bahamian science community is calling on Government to release permits, even if temporary, and to please allow academic scientists to get back to work today - not tomorrow, not next week, not another nine months from now - today.”

Stationed on Eleuthera, Ms. Zoe Brown is one of the Bahamian undergraduate researchers poised to work on the subsistence fisheries research project funded by the prestigious NationalGeographic.

On the good news subject of the study itself, Dr. Karlisa Callwood, director of the Perry Institute’s community conservation and education program explained, “We’ve seen a surge in the number of fishers engaged in small-scale fishing since COVID hit The Bahamas and now it’s time to dive deeper.  Unfortunately, world events are not becoming kinder, so we need to identify the food security challenges our communities are facing.  From there we can determine how people are changing their fishing habits to cope and make recommendations to maximize both nutrition and economics when stressors arise.”

Ultimately, little is known scientifically about the impact of subsistence fishing in The Bahamas and there is presently no routine data collection or monitoring taking place.  This knowledge gap, Dr. Callwood said, can severely hinder effective resource management and sustainable use if not addressed right away.  On family islands where resources and social services can be limited, subsistence fishing – which refers to small-scale fishing with the goal of putting food on the table rather than for sale – provides a much-needed safety net for families and communities during troubling times.

Working alongside Dr. Calwood, Dr. Nick Higgs of Cape Eleuthera Institute pointed out that “in one well-monitored small-scale fishery offshore of the Cape Eleuthera peninsula, Queen conch catches increased by a three-fold throughout the pandemic.”  Indeed, with the onset of The Bahamas’ early COVID lockdowns, small-scale fishing was among the few activities the Government allowed.  Paired with a dramatic rise in unemployment, scientists suspect small-scale fishing has been on the rise which kicked off this research.

Dr. Nick Higgs deploys lobster condos as part of his sustainable fisheries research off Cape Eleuthera.

To drive at answers for community good, Callwood and Higgs will consult with local fishers and seafood consumers in rural Eleuthera and the bustling districts around Nassau.  With this new funding from National Geographic, and once the project receives long-awaited Government permits, a second Bahamian undergraduate student will be hired to support the research.  Together the team will use surveys, interviews, focus groups, and community meetings to unveil how families shift their fishing habits during times of crisis.  Once analyzed and published, this information will be crucial for Government policy and community planning in the event of future disease outbreaks or other potential social disturbances, like hurricanes.

“Our goal here is to help Bahamian communities become more resilient and food secure,” said Dr. Callwood, the lead researcher on the project.  “If the pandemic causes Bahamian families and their relatives to turn to subsistence fishing in order to eat and stay healthy, then we need to ensure this resource remains intact for future periods of instability.”  Healthy ocean ecosystems can act as a ‘natural insurance’ in times of socioeconomic shocks and climate catastrophe, especially with The Bahamas situated in the centre of the Caribbean hurricane belt.  Notably, The Bahamas ranks second in the Caribbean for dependency on food exports and one in every three people face some level of food insecurity.

Dr. Higgs offered a closing word on both the COVID fisheries study and ongoing Government permit stalemate, saying, “Small-scale fishing could be a turnkey to creating more resilient communities in times of crisis.  Government has a responsibility to ensure the long-term sustainability of key ecosystems and species that underscore this resource.  Science has a responsibility to provide good information so policymakers can make good decisions.”  Higgs concluded on a hopeful note, “We’re a food insecure nation.  But, if we allow science to happen, and listen to what that science is telling us, we can change that.  By working together, we can create policy that benefits both our people and our environment.”

Dr. Karlisa Callwood (left) and PIMS program coordinator Lahanti Jupp (right) regularly run experiential ocean education programs for K-12 students and youth throughout the country.