By Katherine Judd

Years ago, Oracabessa, Jamaica, provided a pristine beach backdrop for Ian Fleming to author his legendary James Bond novels. Today, it is the site of the Oracabessa Marine Trust, a partnership between the Oracabessa Foundation and Oracabessa Fishers Association that manages a flourishing fish sanctuary, promoting marine wildlife diversity and restoration of the coral reefs in the area. Overfishing in the Caribbean has been a serious issue for years, threatening livelihoods across the region. The Oracabessa Marine Trust was making progress in combating it—until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

Facing drastic budget cuts, the Marine Trust was confronted with the fact that a decade’s worth of hard work to restore coral reefs and fisheries was quickly unraveling. Government spending had dried up, and there were no alternative funding prospects. Embassy Kingston staff became aware of the imminent blow to the reef restoration project and worked to leverage a Department of State funding opportunity to support the U.S.-Caribbean Resilience Partnership. 

The sun falls beyond the trees for a picturesque sunset at Oracabessa Beach. Photo by Katherine Judd
The sun falls beyond the trees for a picturesque sunset at Oracabessa Beach. Photo by Katherine Judd

In coordination with the Regional Environment, Science, Technology, and Health Hub based at Embassy San Jose, Chantale Breton—Embassy Kingston’s political/economic associate—developed and submitted a proposal for funding from the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES). OES, in turn, awarded a grant to advance the Oracabessa reef restoration project. 

“This OES grant will not only help the Oracabessa project but serves to be a ‘proof of concept’ for several similar initiatives across Jamaica. The funding will allow the Oracabessa project to continue to be a model for the island,” said Breton, highlighting that this critical grant demonstrates the Department of State’s important role in enabling host country partners to invest at scale in interventions that demonstrate results. 

According to Jamaica’s National Environmental Planning Agency (NEPA), the vast majority of Jamaica’s coral reefs are in “poor” condition. While healthy reefs attract fish and other marine life, which increases the livelihoods for fishing communities and supports Jamaica’s tourism sector, Jamaica has struggled to restore the coral reefs around the island. Before Oracabessa Marine Trust took on the project, NEPA declared that no coral reefs in Jamaica were adequately protected. 

With the OES funding, Oracabessa Fish Sanctuary will provide for new fish-attracting coral cultivation and work to revitalize the sea urchin population to keep the reef healthy and clean. The project will revive the Oracabessa Bay Trust’s vision to transform one of the most depleted fisheries in the world into a place that exemplifies marine diversity, serving as a model for sustainable fisheries in the region.

A crucial component of Oracabessa Marine Trust’s success thus far has been local advocate and founder Mel Tennant, also known as “The Turtle Man.” Tennant originally came to Jamaica in 2003 and discovered that sea turtles would come ashore near his place to nest. In the intervening years, Tennant has worked tirelessly with the local community, alongside Peace Corps volunteers, to create a program that ensures maximum survival rates for sea turtles that hatch along the north coast. 

An adult hawksbill sea turtle swims among coral in warm Caribbean waters. This critically endangered species relies on healthy coral reefs for food and shelter. Photo by Isaac D. Pacheco

The Oracabessa Sea Turtle Project contributes to global tracking efforts to document turtles’ multi-year journeys up and down the Atlantic Ocean and back to their “home” to nest again. Oracabessa Bay has now been designated an official protected nesting site for the endangered hawksbill sea turtle. The turtle releases have become a popular event for embassy families and many have contributed over the years, making the project a success. The program also facilitates outreach to tourists visiting Jamaica. Through turtle release events and snorkel and dive tours, embassy families and tourists learn more about the Caribbean’s incredible marine wildlife.

Part of the OES funding focuses on implementing safeguards that protect against unintentional damage from tourists and locals. Notably, the funding will provide for mooring anchors located a safe distance away from the sanctuary, preventing boaters from mooring near the reef and damaging fledgling coral populations. These efforts seek to bolster Jamaica’s flagging tourist economy while simultaneously benefiting the local fishing industry, relying on a sustainable source of fish attracted to healthy reefs.

Jamaica’s coral gardeners play a vital role in transforming the marine life off the north coast of Jamaica. Photo courtesy of Talk Up Your Media for United Nations Development Programme
Jamaica’s coral gardeners play a vital role in transforming the marine life off the north coast of Jamaica. Photo courtesy of Talk Up Your Media for United Nations Development Programme
Inilek Wilmot, Oracabessa Bay Fish Sanctuary’s general manager, is a marine biologist who helps to protect Oracabessa’s marine ecosystem. Photo courtesy of Talk Up Your Media for United Nations Development Programme
Inilek Wilmot, Oracabessa Bay Fish Sanctuary’s general manager, is a marine biologist who helps to protect Oracabessa’s marine ecosystem. Photo courtesy of Talk Up Your Media for United Nations Development Programme

“This reef restoration project is a great example of a community taking charge of its natural resources and preserving them for future generations while sustaining local livelihoods,” remarked U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica Donald Tapia. “By protecting marine life and encouraging the local economy in times of crisis, this project is a win-win for all stakeholders.”

“2020 marks the 10th anniversary of our marine protection area…but this has been a very challenging year,” said Iniliek Wilmot, sanctuary manager with the Oracabessa Marine Trust. “Our community has been hard hit by the economic impact of the current pandemic, particularly in the tourism sector, and many of our community members have returned to fishing. Now more than ever, it is crucial for us to protect our natural resources, and we see U.S. government support for our reef restoration project as an invaluable contribution to our community.” 

In the coming months, the Oracabessa Marine Trust will begin transferring and growing new corals, collecting and cultivating sea urchins, and building the new mooring anchors. Should you pay a visit to Ian Fleming’s old haunts at just the right time, you may spot a sea turtle making its way home to nest.

Katherine Judd is a consular officer at Embassy Kingston.