Marine Heatwaves Threaten the Livelihoods of Barbadian Fisherfolk

Marine Heatwaves Threaten the Livelihoods of Barbadian Fisherfolk

As of August 2023, Barbados and the wider Caribbean region have been facing record-breaking ocean temperatures, reaching almost two degrees Celcius in some areas. These periods of abnormally high temperatures are known as marine heatwaves (MHWs) and can last anywhere from a period of more than five days to years. The MHW in the Caribbean is forecasted to persist into the month of October, and these can have adverse effects on marine ecosystems and wildlife, and subsequently fisheries; negatively impacting the livelihoods of fisherfolk communities and the economy. MHWs have increased in their intensity and frequency as a result of climate change, doubling in number since the 1980s. The Blue Economy is an essential pillar to many on the island of Barbados, and climate change stands to exacerbate these threatening events.

Though stated to be undervalued, the Barbados fishing industry generates $BBD 12-16 million per annum and employs 8,800 people directly and indirectly. Fisherfolk rely on the stability of fish stocks in the island’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), many having been in the industry for decades. Fisherfolk at the Half Moon Fort Landing Facility echoed each other saying they have been in the industry for more than 20 years, while one lady at the Six Men’s Bay Fishing Village said she had been selling fish for over 30 years. All stated that fishing is their main source of income, and noted the stocks of important commercial fish such as dolphin and flying fish were depleting considerably. Flying fish is Barbados’ national fish and is a part of the national dish and displayed on the Barbadian dollar, which means the effects span beyond the socio-economic level, but also on a cultural level. Fishermen at the Berinda Cox Fish Market also noted that bait fish populations such as sprats and pilchards are lower than they used to be, and in turn, the larger fish that they would attract have also been lower in number.

Barbados faces record marine heatwaves, harming marine life and fisherfolk livelihoods, impacting the Blue Economy.
A house on the main road of Six Men’s Bay Fishing Village with fish pots found around the outside. Fishing is strongly interwoven in the fabric of this community

Surprisingly older generations of fisherfolk did not attribute the changes they were witnessing to climate change, but rather to changes on land such as the increased use of chemicals in agriculture which degrade the reefs and development in the Amazon River Basin affecting the outflow of freshwater and by way ocean currents in the southern Caribbean. Younger fisherfolk such as Mr. Gregory and Mr. Anderson at the Berinda Cox Fish Market do believe climate change has been affecting the sector as they have noticed the reefs becoming increasingly fragile, intense weather events battering the reefs, and warmer temperatures causing commercially important fish such to relocate, making fisherfolk change their fishing locations to suit. 

Barbados faces record marine heatwaves, harming marine life and fisherfolk livelihoods, impacting the Blue Economy.
Mr. Gregory (left) and Mr. Anderson (right) on the landing dock of the Berinda Cox Fish Market. These younger fishermen recognize the impacts climate change is having on Barbados’ fishing industry and how it can affect their community’s livelihoods.

Speaking with Dr. Shelly-Ann Cox, Chief Fisheries Officer, target species such as tuna are one of the species that have changed their patterns, now being found hundreds of miles further than before. Barbados relies on tuna for foreign exchange as the island exports it at least two times a week. Dr. Cox said MHWs lead to significant coral bleaching events on coral reefs, directly affecting the catches of fishermen who use fish pots. Coral reefs thrive in temperatures of 23 – 29 degrees Celsius and can tolerate higher temperatures for a short period of time. The temperature of the waters around Barbados has been above 30 degrees Celsius throughout the month of August, however. 

Barbados faces record marine heatwaves, harming marine life and fisherfolk livelihoods, impacting the Blue Economy.
Sea surface temperatures in degrees Celsius for the month of August in the Caribbean Sea. Temperatures around the island of Barbados maintain 30 degrees Celsius (Courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

The high temperatures also lead to other effects such as the increase in the frequency of extreme weather events such as storms and hurricanes which threaten life and property. Dr. Cox states these changes in weather patterns affect the safety of the fisherfolk as they are out at sea. The reduction of economically important species’ populations such as lobster, and changes in environmental conditions that could allow non-native, invasive species to spread and change ecosystems are also effects of these higher temperatures. 

The Caribbean Coral Reef Watch (CCRW) was developed in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Coral Reef Watch, and acts as an early warning tool for those countries that are most at risk of coral bleaching. The July – October 2023 forecast predicted that Alert Level 1 (Bleaching Expected) and Alert Level 2 (Widespread bleaching and some mortality expected) conditions could be expected from mid-August to late September, with the possibility of lasting into October and November. This means that coral reefs within the basin will suffer major mortality, altering the dynamics of the biodiversity on the reefs and the livelihoods of the people who depend on them.     

Barbados faces record marine heatwaves, harming marine life and fisherfolk livelihoods, impacting the Blue Economy.
The lady who runs this food stall in the Six Men’s Bay Fishing Village has been in the industry for more than 30 years.

Early-warning systems such as the CCRW aid in communities such as fisherfolk and organizations being sufficiently prepared for an impending hazard. Dr. Cox suggests that building the resilience of coral reefs to withstand MHWs is highly important, such as transplanting coral species that are resilient to high temperatures. Restoring ecosystems such as seagrass beds and mangrove forests are also nature-based solutions that help strengthen coral reefs, as these ecosystems are interconnected. 

Dr. Cox also stated that certain adaptation measures are being put in place to climate-proof landing facilities and maintain infrastructure. Improvements are being made to the haul-out facilities to ensure that fishing vessels are taken out of the water efficiently in preparation for hurricanes to avoid damage. Training and capacity building programmes are also in place to help fisherfolk learn how to be safe at sea and how to use climate information to make smart fishing practices.

Fisherfolk are entering  a reality where MHWs are predicted to become more frequent and intense due to climate change. For the fisheries sector to survive, those in the community need to be engaged to raise awareness of how they can be affected and be educated on resilience in a changing climate in order to make informed decisions regarding fishing practices. Strengthening the fisheries sector also relies heavily on healthy ecosystems such as seagrass beds and mangrove forests, meaning the responsibility also rests on all Barbadians to protect the natural environment.


This story was published on IsleThree with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture between Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.

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Kyle Foster

Kyle Foster

Kyle is a writer and ecologist residing on the island of Barbados. With a deep passion for sharing the stories of the natural world, he has dedicated his craft to raising awareness about environmental issues. Much of his writing experience stems from publishing captivating stories with renowned platforms such as the Sustainable Ocean Alliance Caribbean and the Cari-Bois Environmental News Network. Through the art of storytelling, his ultimate goal is to bring attention to the pressing environmental challenges that surround us. Additionally, he devotes time to his personal blog, where he documents his immersive experiences in nature through detailed field journal entries.

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