Flying fish and bearded fig trees are on the decline in Barbados

Feature image via Canva Pro.

By Kyle Foster

This post was first published on the Cari-Bois Environmental News Network as part of an ongoing series that aims to give Caribbean scientists, explorers, environmentalists and nature enthusiasts a platform to share important environmental information in creative ways. An edited version is republished here as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Barbadians are a very patriotic people, and their love for their country is usually on full display during the month of November, when both Independence and Republic Day celebrations are held, and there is increased awareness of cultural traditions.

From eating cou-cou and flying fish (the island’s national dish) to attending the annual Independence Day parade, the island teems with national pride. Intertwined with the national festivities are also subtle nods to Barbados’ natural heritage, which has greatly influenced its culture and identity.

The island’s very name was inspired by the bearded fig tree (Fiscus citrifolia), which dominated the local landscape during the period of Portugal’s colonisation, from the 1530s until 1620. The tree’s aerial roots, which droop from its branches, make it look like it has a long, full beard. This led to the Portuguese naming the island “Los Barbados,” meaning “the bearded ones.”

Without strategic conservation measures, however, Barbados could see this tree disappear from the island’s landscape. Studies have shown that significant swaths of the trees have been removed to make room for agriculture and tourism activities, to the point where it is estimated that only 15 percent of the original cover of these trees remains.

On an island of only 430 square kilometres, these remaining trees must compete for space with many areas of need, including housing, farming, and tourism, which is the mainstay of the nation's economy.

Bearded fig tree at the Andromeda Botanical Gardens, Barbados. Photo by Joe Ross on Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED.

“Pelican Island” would once have been an accurate description of Barbados, as its coastline features a thriving colony of brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis), the country's national bird.

Since the construction of the Deep Water Harbour project, however, sightings of these birds have decreased, and there are concerns that many Barbadians will grow up without ever seeing their national bird if they are lost to development.

Similarly, the flying fish (Hirundichthys affinis) — the island’s national fish – was once abundant. Recent studies have shown, however, that the population of flying fish in Barbadian waters has decreased.

Not only do flying fish hold cultural relevance as part of the island’s national dish, they also hold economic value. Fisherfolk and other Barbadians who depend on flying fish, such as vendors who serve the popular national dish to tourists, have felt the effects of decreasing yields. This has led to the fish being sold for much higher prices than they traditionally would have. Barbados’ Chief Fisheries Officer, Dr. Shelly-Ann Cox, has publicly stated that flying fish landings have decreased by almost 50 percent since 2011.

In addition, scientists have observed that with changing climatic conditions, schools of these fish have been moving more southwards, which further affects their availability.

At a November 2023 “St. Michael Parish Speaks” event, hosted by Prime Minister Mia Mottley, who has been lauded as a regional champion when it comes to the climate crisis, there was a discussion on the preservation of the island’s natural heritage.

Barbadian conservationist Carla Daniel spoke about the need for protecting the bearded fig tree, and suggested that a certain number be earmarked for conservation as part of a national project. She also called for legislation that prohibits the removal of these trees from the landscape.

Noting that there are current legal provisions which prevent the felling of trees that are over a certain size without approval from the island’s Town and Country Planning Department, Mottley also confirmed that there are plans for the island’s Ministry of Environment and National Beautification to create a national register of the bearded fig trees. She added that “given the iconic status of the bearded fig tree to our own country,” the Division of Culture would be also involved in the initiative.

Environmental clubs across the island, the prime minister suggested, would be a meaningful way in which to encourage young people to become interested in such pressing issues, and to educate themselves about the significance of these aspects of Barbados’ natural heritage — and why they should be protected.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.