Where did all the BIG fish go?

Hey there.  I hope August has treated you well.

I returned last week from a trip to St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines.  This trip was made possible by my thoughtful brother-in-law and sister-in-law and their generous friends who invited us to sail with them on their 60′ catamaran named the “Cool Cat.”  Sadly, Cindy could not go because of her schedule.  However, as a testament to what a wonderful person she is Cindy urged me to go nonetheless.  How about that?

We joined the Cool Cat on St. Lucia and sailed south to the neighboring nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.  Throughout the week-long voyage we made dives and/or snorkeled on some spectacular coral reefs scattered over much of the area.   Overall, the diving was incredible.  Visibility was very good and the reefs appeared quite healthy.  The smaller tropical reef fish were plentiful and at times their schools were so dense as to cast a shadow.  Everywhere I looked I was astounded by the diversity of life surrounding the coral reefs.  At least that was my initial impression.

Despite the incredible beauty surrounding us we also noticed something was missing.  After each dive there was consistent comment among us about the distinct lack of large fish sightings.  In fact, over the course of 5 days in the water over multiple reefs we only saw one small nurse shark and a handful of grouper and snapper that would be legal to harvest by our standards.  Let me be clear, in no way do I intend to pass myself off as a marine biologist.  However, I would also argue that you do not need to be one to recognize that the pronounced lack of mature and/or predatory fish in the area indicates a problem.

Upon returning to the States, I became more curious whether our observations were correct or whether we simply missed the larger fish due to seasonal migration patterns.  Online research yielded multiple scientific studies describing a long list of threats to coral reef systems in the Caribbean.  Prominent among these threats was that of overfishing.  The World Resources Institute concluded in a study of coral reefs from 2004-2005 that overfishing threatens over 60% of the Caribbean’s coral reefs.  I am willing to wager that this percentage has only increased since that time.  The same study also concluded that coral reefs located closer to shore (such as those in the E. Caribbean) are most directly affected by overfishing because there are usually several different fisheries (e.g., subsistence, sport and commercial) all competing for the limited resources of a relatively small area.  Further exacerbating the issue is that the largest fish are those most valued by fishermen for obvious reasons.  The sustained targeting of the largest fish of any particular species eventually lowers the average size of that species in an area.  Consequently, fishermen will usually move on to another species and repeat the cycle.  The largest fish also tend to be those most responsible for breeding activity so their depletion is that much more damaging.  To read the WRI study, click here.  Here is a link to another interesting article about threats to coral reefs by Science Daily.

In the end we all had an incredible time on the trip.  After all, its pretty hard to beat sailing around beautiful tropical islands and diving to your heart’s content.  However, I still cannot shake the thought that despite the healthy appearance of the coral reefs we dove that there is a critical imbalance in the ecosystem that is probably getting worse over time.  Whether or not overfishing is the culprit is somewhat academic.  The lack of big fish in the environment was quite alarming regardless of the cause.   Despite the relatively somber news, I hope you enjoy the photos.  Until next time, take care.  Jimmy


Diving in St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines (August 2010). – Images by James White

10 Responses to “Where did all the BIG fish go?”

  1. Robert Glenn Ketchum says:

    Scary! Hope at least you had fun. Keep up the good work.

  2. htweto says:

    Great work, sir…the colors on the close ups are popping! Fine images above as well. Pity you had to endure on such a shabby vessel. I’ve no doubt about overfishing, but I wonder about migratory patterns of other potential predators as well. Anyway, I’m excited to read a book called “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food.” Maybe you likey too?

    • Jimmy White says:

      Thank you Hal! Hope all is well for the four of you! I actually read that book while on this trip. Interesting read indeed. Enjoy! Thanks for reading!

  3. mj says:

    Hey Gum,
    Amazing photos as usual. The trip looks so great! Pretty astute to notice the lack of big fish, I don’t think I would have. I would have just been glad not to run into any sharks! Still it’s sad to hear that’s happening on the reefs.

  4. Elaine L. says:

    Jimmy: I am truly “hooked” on your photos, envious of your explorations and am grateful you share the beauty of your findings. The color is awesome! Keep ’em coming.

  5. chad says:

    jimmy, i always look forward to your next posting and this one didn’t disappoint. your images and words are beautiful, but you’ve also managed to tell a story that prompts critical thought…i love it, keep up the good work.