Caribbean fishers count the cost in wake of Irma

Published on
September 26, 2017

Several Caribbean island nations unfortunate enough to find themselves in the path of Hurricane Irma in early September are now assessing the vast toll the storm took on their economies, with Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, and the Turks and Caicos reporting severe damage to their fishing industries.

The hurricane is estimated to have cost the Caribbean more than EUR 8.4 billion (USD10 billion) in damage overall, along with dozens of lives. 

Barbuda recorded the first three fatalities of Hurricane Irma, including a two-year-old boy. The island also suffered most severely in regard to its fishing fleet, with at least 44 percent of its fishing vessels suffering serious damage when the hurricane made landfall on the island on 6 September. Of those vessels, only about 10 percent of were insured, according to information shared with SeafoodSource by Antigua and Barbuda Senior Fisheries Officer Ian Horsford. He cited a 2005 survey that indicated just 9.6 percent of Barbuda's fishing vessels were insured up to then.

Prior to Hurricane Irma, which resulted in the total evacuation of this island's inhabitants to neighboring Antigua, there were 96 active fishers operating there on 54 vessels – mainly modern fibreglass pirogues powered by outboard engines, most of which were less than 10 meters long.

Horsford estimated 26 percent of Barbuda's population of 1,600 were dependent on the fishing industry for a living, including dependants of the fishermen. The fishing industry on that island targets mainly spiny lobster and conch, with production of lobster over the past five years ranging from 12 to 35 metric tons and bringing in revenue to the island ranging from approximately EUR 125,000 to 312,000 (USD USD148,000 to 370,000).

Major damage to vessels included damage to the hulls and engines of at least 24 vessels. However, a full assessment of the carnage wrought by Irma may not be known for some time, according to Horsford.

“The state of emergency and mandatory evacuation of the island have restricted our work in terms of talking with the various owners relocated to Antigua and the time allowed on the island for security and public health reasons,” Horsford said in an email to SeafoodSource, adding “Note, we did not have enough time to cover the entire village and secondary landing sites.”

With respect to fisheries habitats, he said, “The mangroves and seagrass beds appear to be extensively damaged (no quantitative assessment done as yet). The Codrington Lagoon in Barbuda, a major nursery ground for the Caribbean spiny lobster, was severely impacted by the storm when the sand bar that provides coastal or storm surge protection to the village was breached.”

Antigua and Barbuda's fishing industry also suffered serious losses when the country was hit by the Category 4 Hurricane Luis in 1995. At that time, 16 percent of the fishing fleet was lost or destroyed and a further 18 percent damaged, resulting in a loss of fishing capacity of about one-third, according to a draft report prepared for the Caricom (Caribbean Community) Fisheries Unit on the impacts of climate change on the region's fisheries.

That report also noted that “in addition to the cost of replacement and repair to fishing vessels and gear caused by a hurricane, there is a loss of revenue due to disruption of the fishing industry. The Fisheries Division and FAO together estimated a recovery period of about six months for Hurricane Luis. The estimated schedule of recovery as a percentage loss of landings is as follows: 80 percent loss in month one; 60 percent in month two, 40 percent in month three; 20 percent in month four; 10 percent in month five; and full recovery in month six.”

On 7 September, Hurricane Irma moved into Bahamian waters, hitting the islands of Mayaguana, Inagua, Crooked Island, Acklins, Long Cay, Exuma, and Ragged Island in the Bahamas over the next couple of days. Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis was reported as describing the destruction the hurricane wreaked on Exuma and Ragged Island as “heartbreaking.”

A report in that country's newspaper, the Tribune 242, quoted Bahamas Commercial Fishers Alliance president, Adrian LaRoda, as expressing fears about the impact on the country's seafood export markets.

LaRoda was reported as saying, “The months of preparation and planning were lost in a mere matter of hours during Irma's passage and has left many in the industry incapable of fulfilling international demands.”

The newspaper reported that, according to LaRoda, while a large percentage of vessels avoided damage, the destruction of traps and condos [a type of fish trap] were “massive” and could cost fishermen “tens of millions.”

“The domestic economy is normally served by day-fishermen who go out on short runs, but when you talk about export numbers and international purchasers, that is where those traps and condos come into play because they give the guys with the quantity they need,” LaRoda told the newspaper.

LaRoda told SeafoodSource that the Bahamas exports around USD 100 million (EUR 84 million) in fisheries products annually, with spiny lobster being the chief export bringing in approximately USD 80 million (EUR 67.5 million) annually. There are about 6,000 persons directly employed in the Bahamian fishing industry, he said.

Just before hitting the southeastern islands of the Bahamas, Hurricane Irma turned to the Turks and Caicos, “tearing off roofs and tossing cars,” according to one report. The Miami Herald reported that in south Caicos, “much of the working population who depend on the fishing industry will be affected. Along with the island's Belongers, as they are called, a sizable Haitian and Dominican population work in the fishing industry, sending money to families back home.”  

Photo credit: Antigua and Barbuda Fisheries Division

Reporting from the Caribbean

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