Access to data – working with small-scale fisheries in the Turks and Caicos

Dr Ed Butler

Small-scale fisheries are notoriously difficult to monitor and manage, particularly in the tropics where target species include a plethora of options ranging from a variety of invertebrates to any one of more than thirty important finfish. Fisheries are also characterized by much larger fleets, on smaller vessels with less crew. What this often means is that management need to keep tabs on a wider-spread, more diffuse and often unpredictable fishery – which is no mean feat! Staying on top of these fisheries is also of paramount importance as they most often provide a traditional means of subsistence, support numerous livelihoods and have direct impacts on other sectors, such as tourism. But here’s the good part – if managed correctly, small-scale fisheries can be more environmentally friendly, more sustainable, and more equitable than their industrialised cousins.

This situation typifies the fisheries of the Turks and Caicos Islands. Here, a small, yet impactful, collective of fishers venture daily across an expanse of blue in search of conch, lobster and fish. These fishers use somewhat primitive methods, often foraging amongst the coral heads, sand and seagrass by hand, or with the help of simple implements such as Hawaiian slings. The daily routine of these fishers is unpredictable, departing out of any one of many locations and returning at inconsistent hours with who-knows-what in their possession. In 2001, Christophe Béné and Alexander Tewfik attempted to analyse the characteristics of fishing effort allocation between species in TCI from an economic, biological and social perspective. What they found was that the only major predictor of effort allocation was the seasonality of the lucrative lobster fishery – with fishers tending to target this species more heavily when available. They also identified a number of other factors which stemmed from the socio-historico-cultural environment.   

Many things have changed since 2001 though. First and foremost, the Turks and Caicos have gone through the largest economic explosion in their history to become one of the leading travel destinations in the world. Development has increased accordingly, along with crime and illegal immigration from neighboring Caribbean nations. All the while, a small-scale fishing sector has continued to operate, amidst the changing social, economic and cultural landscape.

There are more than fifty important fish landing sites across the Turks and Caicos Islands

An influx in tourists has also placed increasing pressure onto the fishery sector, with both conch and lobster marketed as local delicacies which must be sampled by every visitor to the islands. Longstanding exploitation of both stocks have placed them in a precarious position, with no real scientific understanding of just how far they may have plummeted. Finfish, on the other hand, have maintained their role in local subsistence, but have also gained an importance in the local culinary scene, and as a substitute for a loss of available conch and lobster.

As of late, the SAERI-led Darwin Plus 153 project has supported the management of finfish among these changes. Most recently, stakeholder consultations gained renewed perspectives on the importance of each sector. While lobster is still economically most important, it is closely rivaled by finfish. Additionally, finfish and conch are thought to be more important resources for subsistence and cultural traditions. Long-standing stakeholders also suggested that there have been dramatic losses in the availability of finfish recently. Together, this provides direct evidence that finfish likely need to be increasingly recognized by research and management as important players in TCI’s developing fishery.

The perceived importance of scale-fish, lobster, conch and turtle to TCI fishery stakeholders in terms of: left – subsistence and food; middle – job creation, livelihoods and money; right – TCI culture, heritage, history and traditions

To better address the unpredictability of TCI’s fishery, essential fish landing sites across the country have been identified and visited and will prove critical for supporting fisheries data collection. While the islands of Grand Turk and South Caicos support large fisheries which operate out of a single area, Providenciales hosts a multitude of separate locations. The drivers between landing site choice are also different for each island, with customer accessibility more important on South Caicos and Grand Turk, versus vessel safety and community conflicts on Providenciales.

A makeshift fish landing site in the traditional area of Five Cays, Providenciales

All of this information plays a crucial part in painting a holistic picture of the fishery, which can be used to guide both the design of data collection plans, but also management. To read the full consultation report, you can visit the project webpage

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