STANDING ankle deep in the gentle waters of Point Sable beach, with miles of thick mangrove behind, all of Trinidad’s west coast curving ahead and families of pelicans soaring between, it’s hard to imagine that the fish in the Gulf of Paria are so poisoned by oil spills and the toxins used in clean-up, that they are not safe for consumption.
Indeed, dead fish and birds lie all along the shore. These are examples of how Petrotrin has devastated one of the island’s main fish nesting and catching grounds with multiple leaks of hundreds of thousands of barrels, with about two hundred pipelines with slow leaks which are unlikely to ever be fixed, and with chemicals that disperse the oil, but have toxic effects which last years.
I saw the marks left by oil on the old jetty nearby. I met a fisherman who won’t eat the fish, but who can’t find another livelihood, and so is prepared to return to the Gulf after four years so that he can survive.
Fishing as traditionally practiced is a noble industry. Fishermen go out with their nets and exercise the kind of individual entrepreneurial spirit that state managers are now cajoling out of ordinary people, as if it isn’t how we have survived all along.
The footprint of working class fishing communities is relatively small compared to the trawlers and fishing boats of big companies or even boat owners who are minor millionaires, and it is the small man and small woman and small children in these families who will be worst affected by both the decline of the fishing industry and the poisoning of our marine environments.
Dead fish means one day, dead people, for we are not immune to pollution in our air, land or seas, nor its impact on any part of the food chain. I was walking the beach with Lisa Premchand, a young woman once working on seismic surveys, with a graduate degree in environmental management, for whom it one day clicked.
She joined Fishermen and Friends of the Sea, an organization which has been working on issues from mangrove protection to squatters’ rights to marine pollution for decades.
I admire them because I admire citizens who take risks to protect our ecology, which includes humans for we are part of nature, from corporate irresponsibility and state-managed harm. For the record, I have more time for FFOS than its critics, if those critics themselves are not stepping in to do better.
Lisa realized that the global data suggests that seismic surveys also kill fish, driving them away for years, and she turned her sights instead to learning how to legally defend nature and its inhabitants.
Listening to her talk about the government's plan to build a highway mere feet from the Aripo Savannah, which is the only ecosystem of its kind in Trinidad, with species found nowhere else in the world, makes you appreciate citizen investment and sacrifice to resist the unholy trinity of private contractors, state planners and the EMA, none of whom care about the rest of us as much as one young woman with her boots on.
I identified with her. Twenty years ago, I was helping hand out fliers to protect the mangroves from plans for Movietowne. Those mangroves and the biodiversity they contained took millennia to form and had a vastly complex relationship to the entire western coast, its migratory species, marine life and food systems. For our entertainment, they’re now gone.
The ones on Point Sable beach will themselves be destroyed for a dry dock facility being built, using Chinese loans, in collaboration with a company CHEC, globally considered corrupt. Bangladesh won’t let them in the door. The PM said there were 2,700 direct jobs to be had, but Caribbean maritime industry lobbyists put this “bright new dawn” for La Brea at between 600 and 1,200.
We don’t yet know the final cost to the nation for this facility, though it’s expected to push GDP up by 2.4%. How fisher folk and fishing traditions will endure, no one knows.
Standing ankle deep with Lisa, in this nesting ground for scarlet ibis for thousands of years, all I could think is that we understand money, but not wealth. As I said goodbye to the 900 acres which will forever be turned into or contained by concrete, in another irreversible industry footprint, all I could think is that we cannot eat the money. Already, we should no longer eat the fish.