Cleaner seas in Kingston, MoBay

The polluted Kingston Harbour has appeared much clearer in recent weeks, with some marine scientists suggesting that the economic malaise brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic is possibly a contributing factor.

The environmental anomaly garnered varying theories when the Jamaica Observer visited Greenwich Farm and Rae Town fishing beaches last week where fisherfolk attributed the visible changes in the water quality to heavy winds.

“Di breeze wash all di rubbish back pon di beach. That’s why is look so clean,” said Neville McKenzie, a 40-year sea veteran at Rae Town fishing beach.

Paul Morris, a regular swimmer and fisherman at Kingston’s waterfront, said he too noticed that the water in the harbour was unusually clear, offering no hypothesis except to say he welcomed the positive change. “Di water clear clear today man. Yuh can see di bottom,” he said.

The reports of a cleaner harbour were corroborated by a marine scientists who spoke with the Sunday Observer last week.

Camilo Trench, chief science officer at The University of the West Indies’ Centre of Marine Sciences, said it was not unusual for the harbour to be less polluted during times of drought, but argued that the pandemic could also be a factor in the scenic change on Kingston’s shoreline.

“This usually happens when we don’t have as much rainfall and there is not a lot of garbage being washed from the gullies into the harbour,” said Trench. “We know that the Kingston Harbour is highly polluted and this is because there are several gullies that empty into the harbour. It is not unusual to see clearer waters when the time is dry,” he said.

“However, there is talk in the scientific community where you have persons saying that the water quality in certain places appear to be cleaner. For example, in places where you have a lot of boat traffic, these places would have less pollution.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic you have less industrial activity around the harbour. With some factories being closed, this could be causing less pollution to flow into the harbour. We see this happening globally where less economic activity, because of the pandemic, has resulted in less pollution. So we see that there is definitely a link between pollution and human activity,” said Trench.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak there have been several international reports about the pandemic having positive effects on the environment. A study published in Nature Climate Change last month, for example, revealed that travel restrictions and confinement of populations in China, the United States, Europe, and India resulted in a reduction in carbon emissions by 17 per cent.

Images on social media showing fish swimming in the canals of Venice had many in awe at how quickly wildlife were reclaiming their natural habitat. In Jamaica, similar reports are now coming from Montego Bay Marine Park in St James.

“One thing we have noticed with our wildlife is that for small animals, like our small fishes which are usually very shy, we are seeing them a lot more coming from the reef and it could be because there is not as much noise coming from the boats and persons on the beaches,” Christopher May, a science officer at Montego Bay Marine Park, told the Sunday Observer last week.

“When it comes to larger animals, we are seeing an increase in the amount of dolphin and turtle sightings,” he added.

May noted that there has been less pollution in the bay, resulting from the tourism sector coming to a grinding halt in March.

“It is a number of factors playing together. It could be because there is less boat traffic and they (wildlife) are a lot more comfortable coming to the water surface. It could also be that because there is more fish, they are coming in to feed, and it could just be that it is the time of year when they are coming in to spawn or gestate.

“But with regards to visibility and how clear the water looks, I would say that the bay has been cleaner. The amount of debris that we are seeing on a day-to-day basis is less. Normally when we have a lot of persons on the water you would have litter coming from the patrons. We are seeing less of those floating, every day garbage. We have also had fewer occurrences of oil deposits in the water because there is not as much boat travel,” May said.

This return of wildlife was also observed at Greenwich Farm fishing beach where at least one fisherman was still counting his blessings from an unusual large catch of sprat this past Easter. Ronald Phillips said he was puzzled, since sprats are normally out of season at this time of year.

“Is di first in a long while mi catch so much sprat both inside di harbour and outside di harbour,” said Phillips. “Normally when Easter time come round di sprat dem hide. But this Easter, is the first mi catch so much sprat even though di pandemic slow up di business,” he continued.

But with the hurricane season fast approaching, pollution in Jamaica’s coastal water bodies is expected to increase. In Montego Bay, May said that already there is much indication of the impending deluge.

“Last week Thursday when it rained, the entire bay was just a blanket of dirt mixed with plastic bags, plastic bottles, clothes, styrofoam, we even found a mattress; a lot of household things. You could definitely see that is what was building up.

“With everybody being at home and more waste being created, all of that is going to wash into the bay now that we are entering the rainy season,” he said.

In the meantime, science officer at the Coastal Area Management Foundation, Donovan Brandon Hay, was careful not to jump to conclusions about how the pandemic could be affecting pollution levels in Jamaica.

Hay could not confirm his own observations but said that there are several possible reasons why there could be less pollution in the Kingston Harbour.

“Shipping is a factor, especially in certain sections of the harbour where that is more prevalent. That section of the harbour is almost permanently turbid,” Hay said. “Shipping traffic does result in a certain amount of stirring up in the harbour and the less of that you have, the better it is for the harbour. But it is also possible that since we were having calm weather, that allowed the sediment to settle. Now that the winds are picking up again, it will probably get stirred up again soon.”

The marine scientist also said that while it is possible that less activity in the harbour has resulted in less pollution, it is too early to gauge the impact of the pandemic on the environment.

“Less economic activity would certainly contribute to better results for the harbour in terms of pollution and waste generated from factories. But it is difficult without looking at the different causes to proclaim that that is the reason why the harbour is cleaner. Even if there is less economic activity and we were having bad weather and rain, the harbour would probably still be dirty.

“In industrial countries where there is so much pollution, if there is break of any kind, it would become noticeable very easily. Jamaica is not as industrialised so the lower economic activity doesn’t produce the same level of change in the short term anyway,” Hay said.

On the other hand, Hay believes the pandemic could also be having a negative effect on the environment. “The pandemic could be having two different effects. There are some places that I have heard that because of the extra caution that persons are taking, there is a lot more plastic being used,” said Hay.

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