Fish are poured into Jamaica's Rio Cobre after pollution incidents, but is this the end of the matter?

The 2022 pollution of the Rio Cobre river, Jamaica. Photo courtesy of the Jamaica Environment Trust.

In the “Land of Wood and Water” (“Xaymaca,” the island's Taino name) residents are justly proud of their beautiful rivers and waterfalls. Dunn's River Falls is listed as Jamaica's top tourist attraction and there are some beautiful riverside spots that are popular with local Jamaicans.

However, Jamaica's rivers face unprecedented challenges. These include severe and prolonged droughts, resulting from climate change. The river feeding Somerset Falls, a popular waterfall attraction has run dry, and it was closed. Although rivers sometimes disappear underground during the dry season, the attraction's manager said the closure was due to the absence of the expected rainy season in April. Human activities affecting rivers include deforestation, extractive industries such as sand mining (legal and illegal), the dumping of garbage, and even the reported poisoning of a river in eastern Jamaica by residents wanting to catch fish — also not a new phenomenon.

One of the most long-suffering in recent years is the island's second-longest river, the Rio Cobre. In 2019, 2021, and again in 2022, the river allegedly received overflows of effluent from the nearby bauxite plant operated by the West Indies Alumina Company (WINDALCO) and owned by UC Rusal. The governmental National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) reported that WINDALCO had “lost sight of its processes” during the 2022 pollution and that the company would be held accountable and prosecuted. NEPA currently has three cases against WINDALCO pending in court (from 2019, 2021, and 2022).

On each occasion, the pollution from the company's holding ponds resulted in major fish kills and loss of livelihoods for communities depending on the river, besides the continued degradation of the riverine environment. In January 2023, WINDALCO began the construction of a new effluent pond, with the intention of preventing further overflows. After the 2022 spillage, NEPA's CEO observed that the company had been “given enough time to comply with the terms and conditions of its operating environmental permits and environmental licences.”

On June 30 this year WINDALCO began restocking the river with fish, with advice from Jamaica's Fisheries Division and guidance from an unnamed independent environmental consultant hired by WINDALCO to do so. It is not clear whether the operation was guided by this assessment, notes the non-governmental organisation Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), which monitors the situation along with another Jamaican NGO, Freedom Imaginaries and the community-based Friends of the Rio Cobre.

JET immediately issued a press release and raised concerns over the manner in which the restocking exercise was done. Both JET and the community said they were not informed in advance and residents were surprised by the appearance of men with buckets of fish. A total of 4,000 tilapia fingerlings were deposited in the river. It was alleged that some of the fish had subsequently died, but this was not confirmed.

JET also asserted that the restocking, which is to be done in four phases, according to WINDALCO, was done without briefing the fishers on the type of fish to be introduced, or any other relevant information. A lack of transparency in the matter remains a major concern. Despite several letters sent to NEPA requesting a copy of the ecological assessment report, JET says it has not received it.

Meanwhile, there was an odd political twist. On the day in which the news of the restocking exercise broke, the leader of the Opposition People's National Party, Mark Golding, shared a tweet, which surprised and confused many:

One Jamaican Twitter user commented wryly on the political turn the discussion had taken, referring to “green” (Jamaica Labour Party) and “orange” (People's National Party) fish:

Subsequently, Golding's friend, Donnie Bunting, who is a businessman and fish farmer, shared his thoughts on how he could replenish the river's fish stock, and with what type of tilapia. He has offered to provide the fish free of cost if he receives a permit to do so:

So what is the current situation? There have been no updates since the June 30 activity, and it is not known when or where the restocking will continue. Civil society organisations are seeking a meeting with officials. CEO of JET Theresa Rodriguez-Moodie noted via text to Global Voices:

Following the start of the restocking of the Rio Cobre, JET, Friends of Rio Cobre, Freedom Imaginaries and Jamaicans for Justice reached out to NEPA requesting an urgent meeting with themselves and representatives from the National Fisheries Authority (NFA), the Jamaica Bauxite Institute (JBI) and any other relevant agency. The primary objective of this meeting was for us to gain a better understanding of the plans with respect to the restocking of the Rio Cobre. The request was acknowledged but the date proposed to meet was not suitable and NEPA was to suggest a new date. JET followed up on July 13 but we have had no response since.

JET founder and environmental activist Diana McCaulay focused on the concerning question of the fish species themselves. Tilapia is a non-native, invasive species. Native species would include perch, crayfish, shrimp, mullet, and dog tooth fish. In her column headlined “Who speaks for the river?” McCaulay observed:

Undoubtedly, restocking the Rio Cobre with a species common in Jamaican rivers is best for the fishers. But where is the voice of the agency set up to speak for the river itself – the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA)?

The various species of Tilapia brought into Jamaica are native to Africa, and they are a well-documented invasive species in other parts of the world. Here, as in many places, even where they were not deliberately introduced to rivers, they escaped to rivers and streams from fish ponds, and soon, native species were extremely rare.
Nor are Tilapia the only invasive species to be found in our rivers. We also have Australian redclaw and catfish and, perhaps, many others.

Why should we care? Simply put, invasive species impoverish complex food webs, threaten biological diversity, cause extinctions, and reduce ecological resilience.

The leading environmentalist later tweeted:

Indeed, at this point, several questions remain to be answered, although in one radio interview Minister Matthew Samuda described the restocking process as “the beginning of the end” of the matter.

But that is not all. Fishermen remained nervous, but another report of dead fish in May was discounted by NEPA upon investigation. On July 16, another fish kill was discovered in a different section of the Rio Cobre. Fishers reported that the water, further downstream and near an industrial complex, had “a black look.” The latest media report quoted the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), which confirmed that this was effluent from an unnamed, nearby factory, and that they had served an enforcement notice on the company on July 18. NEPA says it may take further action.

As the river struggles to recover, residents will have to wait until December this year before they may be able to start fishing again. Meanwhile, it is hoped that the major 2022 pollution event will be the last for this beautiful river and that it can begin regenerating.

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