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Times of Change

School for Field Studies research targets TCI fisheries.

By Amanda Greenstein, Kathy Lockhart, James Squires, Clarence Stringer and Heidi Hertler,
School for Field Studies Center for Marine Resource Studies, South Caicos

On the island of South Caicos, freediving is not a sport, but a way of life. Located along the western margin of the Columbus Passage (also known as the Turks Island Passage), “The Big South” is the fishing capital of the Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI). South Caicos is fringed by a diverse marine environment with over 350 fish species and nearly 50 species of coral. The diversity and health of island, coastal and ocean habitats — including mangrove, seagrass, coral reef, sand banks and deep open ocean — contribute to the value of TCI fisheries and tourism, either directly or through the ecosystem function that they perform.

Queen conch (Stombus gigas) has been harvested from the shallow turquoise waters of the Caicos Bank since the first indigenous people, the Lucayans, arrived on the Islands as early as 750 AD and found conch to be an excellent food source. Historically, the waters surrounding the Islands were also teeming with Caribbean spiny lobster (Panulirus argus), hiding within coral crevices.

Lobster fisherman in South Caicos

Prior to the 1950s, lobster were caught from a wooden dinghy, with fishers peering through glass buckets to spot the target dens from the surface and using “bully nets” to corral the lobster out of their hiding place. The catch was then brought back to a wooden sailing sloop, where it was stored for up to a week before returning to port for offloading. This method was used until the mid-1950s when the emergence of mask, snorkel and fins revolutionized the fishery and put freediving in the limelight.
With the onset of freediving, fishers were able to fish deeper waters that were previously inaccessible. It was not until the collapse of the salt industry in the 1960s that fishing for conch and lobster became paramount to the local economy, especially on South Caicos. Fishers would locate a lobster den from the surface while snorkeling, dive down, use a hook attached to a pole to catch the lobster, remove the lobster from the hook with their other hand and continue to hook more lobster, all on a single breath!
By the early 1980s, as technology advanced, fiberglass boats with high horsepower engines allowed fishers to find thriving lobster grounds that were further from port, yet still allowed them to be able to return to sell their catch to processing plants on South Caicos by the end of the day. Over the past ten years, fishers have landed an average of 600,000 lb (272 mT) of lobster each fishing year in all of the Turks & Caicos, making it the most valuable fishing industry in the Islands. The majority of this catch is processed on South Caicos and shipped to the United States to support the growing demand for seafood.

Annual lobster catch in the Turks & Caicos Islands

While South Caicos has seen the likes of world-renowned freediver, Jaques Mayol, today it’s the fishers who make their living freediving. Just after sunrise on South Caicos, in a timeless tradition, fishers can still be seen fueling up their boats and collecting their fishing gear to head out for a full day on the water. As everywhere, fishing is highly dependent on weather conditions. Strong winds not only make for a rough boat ride but also cause the water to be “muddy” or turbid. Still, boats can be seen leaving the dock six days a week, with Sundays the only day off. Despite the conch season being 273 days (typically October 15 to July 15) and the lobster season being 243 days (typically August 1 through March 31), weather conditions typically allow fishing less than 15 days per month. This decreases significantly as the season progresses both because of weather and catch availability. Catch also changes from lobster-dominated to a mix of lobster, finfish and conch.
A typical boat operates with one to two freedivers and a captain. The captain keeps the boat near the fishers while they search for lobster dens and bring catch to the surface. SCUBA is a prohibited fishing method under the TCI Fisheries Protection Ordinance. Freediving is responsible for 95% of lobster landings, with traps and artificial habitats making up the remaining percentage (Tewfik & Bene, 2004). Divers make an average of 120 freedives per day but often up to as many as 250. A freedive is typically half a minute to an average depth of 5.6 m (18 ft); however, dives to 23 m (75 ft) are not uncommon. As the season progresses and stocks dwindle, the depth to which they must dive for their catch increases.
Fishers have a vast knowledge of the Caicos Bank that allows them to alternate between thriving fishing grounds throughout the season. Weather, fuel costs, product value and freedivers’ abilities all go into their decision-making process — how long to stay out and what to target. The conch season opens in the third month of the lobster season and so, when it becomes unprofitable to target lobsters due to their decline in availability, fishers switch to conch.
With increasing tourism and pressure on existing stocks, how and what they fish for is becoming increasingly important for both the preservation of the industry and the target species. Fishers are often asked if the season was “good” and are only interested in the total catch. Catches have risen and fallen over the past ten years, due to a variety of potential influences. However, fishers, processors, government and other stakeholders are well aware that total catch does not necessarily indicate a “good” season.
Fishing pressure is often assumed to be the cause for decreased catches; however severe weather events have been shown to affect both catch (total pounds landed) and fishing effort (number of boats and fishers fishing). The TCI Government has been able to obtain catch and effort information from the commercial processing facilities. From the catch and effort recorded, scientists determine a catch per unit effort (CPUE) that provides a more accurate indication of the season status.
CPUE has risen and fallen, but the trend over the past ten years is declining. After the notable hurricane season in 2008 (Hanna and Ike), there was a decline in both catch and CPUE, but by the 2010 fishing season, fishers adjusted to increase their catches per effort exerted. This is a clear indication that fishers are aware of the availability of the spiny lobster to make a living.
Seasonal decreases, from the opening to closing, in CPUE could potentially be indicative of profitability in landing a particular catch. As stated above, during the year, fishers will deviate from one fishery to another. This can be attributed to the decreased availability of the lobster.

SFS student Samantha Cooper watches lobster being weighed at a processing plant on South Caicos.

The School for Field Studies Center for Marine Resource Studies (CMRS) is working with local fishers and government agencies to monitor fishing stocks in the TCI. Several South Caicos fishers are volunteering to wear SCUBAPRO Aladin 2G dive computers to monitor their fishing practices through the seasons. Data is used to evaluate diving and fishing practices and answer such questions as: how do fishing practices change as the season progresses, when do fishers switch from lobster to conch, and how can an increase interest in fin fish (or scale fish) change the current fishing practices? Long term monitoring of climate data and changes will also provide useful insight into best management practices.
SFS provides U.S. college students with a field-based pedagogic model and venue to learn about local environmental issues from a local and multi-disciplinary perspective, and the opportunity to engage in field research that serves local stakeholder needs. SFS–CMRS works in collaboration with local, national and international partners to generate the scientific knowledge of South Caicos environments and natural resources needed to monitor change, and to identify and promote sustainable fishing practices and species and habitat management strategies. Through the dissemination of research findings and environmental education, CMRS hopes to develop an increase in the level of environmental awareness among residents that will contribute towards greater self-regulation and ownership, and subsequently greater environment stewardship and long-term sustainability.

For more information on the School for Field Studies Center for Marine Resource Studies in South Caicos, visit

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