Pollution, climate change make iconic Jamaican beach disappear

27 March 2017, 09:50 AM
Representational Image (Source: Getty)
Representational Image (Source: Getty)

One of the main attractions of Jamaica, Hellshire beach is a popular weekend getaway for people of Portmore and Kingston. What sets Hellshire apart from the other beaches in Jamaica is the quality and choice of seafood. It's a place where you can just lay back and 'lyme'- a local term for chill.

However, in recent years, tourists have abandoned Hellshire as it's beauty is fast disappearing. What once was a wide strip of sand in front of Aunt May's Fish Place has dispersed so quickly that Kingstonians find themselves digging through old photos to make sure their memories aren't playing tricks on them.

Kamilah Taylor, a 30-year-old US software engineer who grew up going to Hellshire was shocked when she visited the place last year. As in her memories she remembers the place with people riding horses and children playing on a wide expanse of beach and now it was all gone.

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“To go from that to basically shops that look like they are on cliffs … it blew my mind how different it was. It was a totally different scene”, said Taylor in a telephone interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

According to the experts a combination of pollution and warmer temperatures linked to climate change have killed the once-thriving coral reefs offshore, allowing waves to pound the beach and wash away the sand.

“I’ve never seen anywhere along the Jamaican coast change so significantly. ... It’s a domino effect starting with the death of the reef”, said Mona Webber, a marine ecologist and director of the University of the West Indies’ Centre for Marine Sciences.

Vanishing Reef 

Webber carried out her graduate work in the sea off Hellshire in the 1980s, studying the impact of pollution from Kingston harbor on the reef. Back then, as she used a small skiff to collect water samples along the reef, its structure was so dense that it could be a challenge not to bump into it.

But now the reef is completely gone, she said.

Hellshire sits downstream from Kingston harbor, where industrial and other wastes over decades made their way into the water. As the beach’s popularity grew, it also suffered from water pollution created by bathers and fishermen who gutted fish in the water, Webber said.

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“Coral reefs cannot handle poor water quality. They really are affected by excess nutrients and algal overgrowth”, Webber said. Studies in the 1990s showed that a big day out for Kingstonians at Hellshire led to algae doubling in the bay two to three days later, she said.

Climate change, which can cause rising sea temperatures and additional stress on coral, may have been the “last nail in the coffin” for the reef, Webber said. Once parts of the reef had weakened or died, other parts of it became more vulnerable to storms, she said.

Nehemiah “Natty” Thomson, 66, one of the locals and a long-time fisherman who now cooks up fish in one of the seaside restaurants, remember the hurricanes that slowly dismantled the reef.

“Ivan, Gilbert, Dean … everyone come cut off a piece”, Thomson said.

Parts of the dead reef remain offshore in a pile of coral rubble. Once the reef had been slowly swept away by hurricanes, it left the bay vulnerable, Webber said.

“Once you lose your reef, the seagrass gets exposed to too much high wave action and then the beach itself is also compromised. All those systems help to hold the sand in place”, Webber said, adding that the structures on Hellshire have cut the beach off from dunes that could replenish it.

The beach is gone and so are the tourists 

Loss of one of the few free public beaches near the city is a loss for the fishermen and vendors, it is a threat to their livelihoods.

"There is definitely a decline in the number of people coming to Hellshire… It's affecting business as well", said Glaston White, chairman of the Half Moon Bay Fisherman's Association, the non-profit group responsible for managing the beach.

May Byrou, who owns Aunt May's Fish Place, a long-popular beachfront seafood restaurant, estimates that her business is down 25 to 50 percent due to the disappearance of the beach.

For now, the Half Moon Bay Fishermen's Cooperative has tried to stem some of the erosion by putting in a groyne - a wall that extends from the beach out into the water. The cooperative is looking to raise funds do more recovery work, White said.

Some restaurant owners also have stacked sandbags and tires on the beach in hopes of shoring up the sand.

But Webber suggests one of the best solutions might be abandoning the beach entirely to let it recover – or at least restricting access.

"There is such a thing as carrying capacity", she said.

White said fishermen are coming to terms with that fact.

"They are aware that the time may come that we'll be asked to evacuate", he said.


First Published: Monday, March 27, 2017 09:38 AM
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