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Galibi village in Suriname facing uncertainty due to fish deaths

An Amerindian village in Suriname, Galibi, is facing an environmental crisis with thousands of dead fish washing ashore, raising alarms about climate change and pollution. Known for its sea turtles and diverse bird species, Galibi's villagers are calling for help as they grapple with the disaster and the uncertainty of its cause.

A coastal Amerindian village in Suriname, Galibi, has been grappling with a severe environmental issue since early May 2024, with thousands of dead fish washing ashore. Part of this village is the Galibi Nature Reserve and the Wia Wia Nature Reserve. While Galibi is a nesting spot for sea turtles, Wia Wia provides a safe abode for different bird species.

Strangely, this involves only one type of fish, a smooth species also known as the Caribbean catfish. This has raised significant concerns among the local community and environmental activists. The phenomenon has triggered alarms about potential environmental and health consequences, with the cause of the fish deaths still unknown. Both the village communities and the authorities are questioning whether this could be due to climate change. Unfortunately, Suriname lacks the tools to research the effects of climate change on different sectors.

For some time now, various events, including the decline in shrimp catches, have been linked to climate change. However, there has been no targeted investigation by the government, even though the country presents itself as the greenest with great biodiversity, promising to protect all of this while preparing itself for offshore oil and gas exploitation.

Captain Ricardo Pané of the village describes the situation as critical. “The fish deaths began in the second week of May and have recently stopped,” says Pané.

Despite this, the pervasive odour of decomposition lingers in the area, making the water unsuitable for bathing and swimming. The presence of an oily layer on the water surface makes the situation even more dire, although recent rains might help reduce it. For now, the residents rely on rainwater for their daily needs.

The local community, heavily dependent on the river for fish, is severely affected. While fishing in the Marowijne River, which was not affected, continues, sea fishing, especially near the coast, has been halted. Pané estimates that it will take at least three weeks for the ecosystem to recover. The cause of the fish deaths remains speculative, with some suspecting it is related to events in the Amazon River, climate change, or possible pollution. Water samples have been taken, and the community is anxiously awaiting the results.

Apart from relying on water provided by the river, the village also depends on tourists who visit the beach for their daily livelihood.

The Ministry of Spatial Planning and Environment (ROM) plays a crucial role in this matter. ROM Minister Marciano Dasai, when asked for a response, referred to the official statement of his department. On Sunday, May 5, the ministry was informed of the fish deaths by Myrysji Tours Suriname. The next day, the ministry contacted the local administration of Galibi to assess the situation on the ground.

The local administration reported that the washing ashore of dead fish is an annual phenomenon, but this time it is so severe that a massive stench has affected the entire village. Notably, vultures initially did not eat the dead fish. The local population is working hard to bring the situation under control.

The Ministry of ROM has sought assistance from national and international aid organisations and is closely monitoring the situation. Minister Marciano Dasai referred to the official statement of his department, which mentions two potential causes of the fish deaths: a possible “dead zone” along the coast where fish suffocated due to lack of oxygen, and the El Niño weather phenomenon, which can influence warm and cold water currents. Warm water can hold less dissolved oxygen than cold water, leading to oxygen deficiency for fish and consequently large-scale fish deaths.

The dead fish, many of which have sharp spines, pose a significant hazard, especially on the beaches. Captain Pané explains that community members have cleaned up much of the debris, but some fish remain buried in the sand, which still poses a risk. The beaches, including the famous nesting beaches for sea turtles at Babunsanti and Wia Wia, are particularly affected, according to him. The captain points out that sea turtles, which are sensitive to the changed conditions, are avoiding the beaches, jeopardising this year’s nesting season.

Professor Max Huisden, a forensic scientist, emphasises that only thorough research can determine the cause of the fish deaths.

“Fish deaths are a complex phenomenon with multiple possible causes, ranging from chemical contaminants to oxygen levels and algal blooms,” he explains.

Huisden underscores the importance of examining various physical and chemical parameters that can affect aquatic life, such as oxygen levels and water clarity. He also notes that climate change could be a potential factor, but specific research is needed to establish this.

“Climate change can lead to temperature changes and changes in water quality, all of which can influence fish deaths,” says Huisden.

Sathyam Noersalim, climate associate of the Association of Indigenous Village Leaders in Suriname (VIDS), links the fish deaths to a broader project aimed at strengthening the resilience of indigenous communities against climate change. This project includes a study on food security, with water and soil samples being collected to assess quality. The unexpected fish deaths have been incorporated into this research, with the hope of gaining important insights.

The theories about the cause of the fish deaths range from environmental factors to human activities. Some suspect illegal discharges by large trawlers, possibly discarding low-value fish like catfish to make room for more lucrative catches. This speculation highlights the need for coordinated research involving multiple stakeholders, including fishermen and environmental authorities.

As the rainy season progresses, the community hopes for natural relief from the ongoing effects of the fish deaths. However, without concrete findings and effective intervention, the long-term impacts on Galibi’s ecosystem and its inhabitants remain uncertain.

The full report of the ongoing investigations is expected in July, according to Noersalim, although accessibility issues may cause delays. In the meantime, the residents of Galibi continue to manage the consequences of this environmental disaster and advocate for more support and intervention from the authorities. The situation underscores the urgent need for comprehensive environmental monitoring and response strategies to protect vulnerable communities and ecosystems.

This story was originally published by Key News, through the Caribbean Climate Justice Fellowship, under a partnership between Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.


Picture of Richelle Mac-Nack

Richelle Mac-Nack

Richelle Mac-Nack is a journalist and a master’s degree student in history at the Anton de Kom University of Suriname. With over eight years of experience in print and TV journalism, she sheds light on a range of topics spanning politics, culture, climate, and society. When tackling issues like climate change, she endeavours to underscore the gravity of the situation for both humanity and the environment, with the aim of steadily increasing awareness.

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