Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Grenadine archipelago: Bequia and Mustique a study of contrasts

Alaria sailing to Bequia
Rain squalls over St. Vincent
With a brisk wind across our beam, Alaria sailed due south past the verdant mountainous island of St. Vincent to the small island of Bequia over 50 miles south of St. Lucia.  We had all of our sails up so we travelled much faster than we could with the engine.  There is something extremely satisfying sailing to your next study area powered entirely by the Trade Winds!

Alaria under full sail arriving at Bequia
Islands of Bequia and Mustique showing our survey sites
Port Elizabeth is Bequia’s major port and it is where we cleared customs to enter the country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines (actually only the northern Grenadines since the southern Grenadines are the country of Grenada).  Port Elizabeth’s Admiralty Bay has both anchorages and moorings.  We decided to anchor to keep costs down but it was a lovely spot where we watched the sun set into the sea each night.

It is obvious after just walking around for a Bequia for a little while that it is a very friendly place.  When I first went ashore to clear customs, I asked a fellow where the customs house was and he insisted on walking me to the building.  The small town of Port Elizabeth has a ‘light’ feel to it.  It is not crowded, there are enough tourists to keep shops and eateries going.  The open air market is well stocked with nice local produce.

Bequia's Port Elizabeth
In Bequia, we arranged to see Mr. Herman Belmar who is Deputy Director of Grenadines Affairs.  He was eager to have us survey the reefs in the region and especially the Tobago Cays Marine Park.  We went over the charts considering where we could work and where we can anchor.  It was clear he knew the waters around Bequia like the back of his hand.  He knew where reefs were best developed and where fishing pressure will likely be highest.  He also called over to the island of Mustique to arrange for us to work there after a bit.

Mr. Herman Balmar pointing out keep coral reefs in the Grenadines
The Grenadines are really different from anything we’ve experienced so far.  It is an archipelago of small to tiny islands that stretch about 50 miles from St. Vincent to Grenada.  Bequia is one of the larger islands but it is only a bit over 5 miles long. 

The people of Bequia have a tradition of building boats, fishing and whaling.  They have a permit from the International Whaling Commission to take up to four whales a year but often they don’t get one.  They use traditional methods.  They sail to the whale, harpoon it with a hand-thrown harpoon and then float it to a small whaling station on a tiny island off the east coast of Bequia for processing.

Bequia's whaling station
Fishing is important in Bequia.  We saw lots of folks fishing both the inshore reefs and going offshore to catch some of the larger pelagic fish such as wahoo, mahi mahi, Spanish mackerel and small tuna.  Those are the fish I saw landed at the dock.  Pelagic fish are the best choice of fish to eat because they can be fished sustainably.  Unlike reef fish these pelagic fish grow rapidly, they reproduce early and often, and they are abundant. 

Bequia's colorful fleet of fishing boats
Nice catch of fish being filleted. 
Only some fishermen can venture offshore for the larger pelagic fish.  Many people fish with spears, traps and nets the inshore reefs.  Gillnets are particularly destructive because they drape over reefs for considerable distances.  Fish try to swim through the net but their gills get caught. Chancey happened upon one such gillnet as he did his fish surveys.  He photographed lots of large parrotfish caught and dead in the nets.  These nets fish for as long as they are deployed.  If they are left too long the caught fish will rot and not be suitable to sell or eat.   Because there is not much of a market for parrotfish in Bequia,  many (or most) are discarded dead.  The site where the gillnet below was deployed had lower than average parrotfish abundance on the reef according to our fish surveys.

Gillnet strung across a coral reef (photo Chancey Macdonald)
Dead parrotfish caught in the gillnet (photo Chancey Macdonald)
Bequia’s coral reefs are modest in extent (to be generous).  Chancey and I dived on two widely separated of reefs on opposite shores of Admiralty Bay (Port Elizabeth) and then we took Alaria around to Friendship on the eastern side of the island.  There the Trade Winds blow incessantly. We anchored in a corner of Friendship cove but had to set the stern anchor to minimize our roll from a constant swell.

Alaria at anchor in Friendship Bay. 
Because we were on Bequia’s exposed coast, wave action was high on the reef we wanted to study.  So we had to take particular care on how we anchored the inflatable boat, just out of the breaking waves, and we checked the anchor at the start and end of our dive.

This was a high-energy reef so conditions were ideal for seaweed growth.  Normally we wouldn’t see much seaweed because parrotfish and other grazers would keep it mowed down.  However, this is a heavily fished reef according Mr. Balmar and grazing fish densities were low and seaweed was luxuriant.

Fishermen of Friendship Bay
Seaweed dominated reef at Friendship Bay
Overall, Bequia’s reefs were about average for the region.  Areas like Friendship that are heavily fished and where conditions for seaweed growth is good, there is a carpet of seaweed that limits baby corals so the reef is likely to remain degraded for some time.

We had learned from Mr. Balmar, that the reefs around the neighboring island of Mustique are protected from fishing and they are patrolled regularly by Mustique’s security force.  We knew we had to sail over to see if reefs were in fact different there.

Alaria viewed from the groomed shoreline of  Mustique Harbor 
Mustique is unlike any island I’ve visited.  It is a private island owned and operated by the Mustique Company.  It has a board of directors (including folks like Mick Jagger, who is also part of the environmental committee); it is where Britain’s royal family goes when they want a break from the winter chill.  The week before we arrived the Duchess of Cornwall (Kate Middleton) and her baby had been on the island for the baby’s first overseas trip.  The head of security told me in jest that “no photos were taken of them, so I get to keep my job”.

The tiny island of Mustique (only 2.5 miles long) has by far the highest per capita income of any island in the region.  Its economy comprises one quarter of the gross domestic product of the country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines!  When a powerful Christmas Eve rainstorm flooded St. Vincent (as it did in St. Lucia while I was there), Mustique donated a million dollars for the big island’s restoration.

We met with Mr. Simon Humphrey who holds several important positions within the Company but importantly he is the island’s Conservation Officer.  He has a broad view of what is happening on land and in the sea.  He worries about how the island runoff may affect the reefs.  The island has banned pesticides and landscaping looks to minimize erosion. The reefs are all currently protected from fishing.  He also wants to see the protection of the island’s coastal zone extended one kilometer offshore (he knows that will be hard but he’d love to see that happen).

Mr. Simon Humphrey explains the conservation challenges of Mustique
Mr. Humphrey arranged for us to dive from the island’s security force boat while Brian, the dive manager, was busy.  Afterwards, we dived with Brian and the dive team.  On our first dive we saw the value of Mustique’s protected area.  Parrotfish and grouper abundance (biomass) were an order of magnitude higher than the average for Bequia and the entire eastern Caribbean. 

A school of striped parrotfish swim over Mustique's coral reef

Pillar coral and fish along my transect line on a Mustique coral reef. 
We spent the week diving other sites and none quite matched up to our first dive but the average for Mustique.  However, coral cover, juvenile coral abundance, parrotfish and carnivorous fish abundance were all well above average for the region and for the eastern Caribbean.  We intend to return to Mustique to follow up a bit on what might be driving coral reefs around this island.  However, the bigger picture that is emerging is that the socio-economic status of the local area creates the need to fish the coral reefs.  Arguably, Mustique can afford to be conservative but Bequia may not.

The value of coral reefs, as with any commodity, is what the market can bear.  There are some dive operations in Bequia but there are many more fishers so the incentive to conserve the coral reefs is low.  However, truly unique and expansive coral reefs exist around Tobago Cays and there they have the Tobago Cays Marine Park, a fully protected ecotourist magnet.  There we can study reefs where the overwhelming value comes from having healthy and abundant reef fish as opposed to those sold in fish markets.

Chancey looking from Bequia to neighboring islands of the Grenadines

1 comment:

  1. This was my favorite post yet! What an interesting contrast between the two islands- and fascinating that you got to visit Mustique. No royals sightings, I take it...?