Michael Marangos

Fisheries on Ile A Vache

The uncertain future of small scale fisheries and the challenges in promoting sustainable economic growth.

About 40% of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometers of the coast, and most major settlements are in close proximity to seas and rivers. Humans have relied on the water for food and transportation for centuries – and port cities have become the bustling centres of activity.

Fisheries date back to prehistoric times, about 40,000 years ago. Since then, they have become a steadfast industry around the world, developing from primitive methods to the state-of-the-art trawlers we see today, which haul in tonnes.

However, fifty percent of the world’s fish is still supplied by small scale fishing communities living in coastal areas or on islands – highly vulnerable to the changes brought by the climate crisis and rising sea temperatures.

An example of such a community, is Ile a Vache, an island off the southern coast of Haiti, where locals are heavily dependant on the health of the water for their survival. Ile a Vache has a population of almost 15,000 people, most of whom live off the sea, run farms, or conduct small-scale local commerce.

Ile a Vache is beautiful, and could be a very attractive tourist destination, but a lack of infrastructure development has kept it off the radar and locked in poverty. With a small population relative to a country of roughly 12 million people, it’s not a priority for politicians.

With little options on the table, families here turn to fishing to support their livelihoods. Being an island, Ile a Vache has always had a large population living off the sea. However, now more than ever, people are relying on the sea, leaving the marine ecosystem and fish populations at risk of damage and depletion.

Rising sea temperatures are causing fish to migrate further into the sea, searching for more optimal surroundings, and becoming out of reach for these fishermen’s methods and small handmade boats. The result, is a dependency on small fish that remain in shallower waters – fish that are very young, often representing only 10-15% of their expected growth.

Furthermore, poverty itself drives the fishermen to overfish, and rely on immature fish to generate incomes – an unhealthy and unsustainable practice. But the onus can’t be put solely on the fishermen, not without the presence of a viable alternative. After all, what these communities need first and foremost, is to be able to feed their families, and stopping fishing outright or not catching small fish isn’t an option, as there are no real alternative employment options.

Fishermen here all agree that the fish have become smaller, and that there’s less of them, but it’s still a difficult issue to combat. If one fishermen leaves the fish to grow, another will take them out to sell. The situation is understood, and that the depletion is partly the fishermen’s fault, but there are few other ways to make a living.

On Ile a Vache and surrounding islands, there’s another challenge – freezing and refrigerating the catch. There aren’t any facilities to keep the fish from spoiling, so ice is hauled in blocks from the nearby port city of Les Cayes. This lack of access to basic needs increases the overall cost of doing business, as well as increasing the risk. If the ice doesn’t arrive, the catch spoils.

Another issue is the lack of running water. All freshwater comes from wells, making farm irrigation a luxury almost nobody can afford. Nevertheless, there are many farms on the island, producing chilli peppers, carrots, peppers, corn, aubergines, tomatoes and more; those are sold on the island or hauled by boat to the port city of Les Cayes, where its sold on
the market.

The Haven Partnership is an Irish NGO working with local men and women on the island, to help build resilience in and improve their fishing practices. To develop sustainable practices and improve the health of marine ecosystems on the island, to build stronger, more sustainable livelihoods.

They are focussed on addressing these problems with education, provision of business development services, plans to establish an icing facility, and conservation efforts like the construction of artificial reefs.

However long the road to success may be, there is hope, and a comprehensive overhaul has been proposed for Ile a Vache, with investments not only in education and climate change mitigation, but also in forging better access to markets and ensuring product traceability for potential exports.

The aim is to rejuvenate the sector, enabling it to grow and develop, instead of contract.

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