STEWART TOWN, Jamaica (AP) — The warm tropical air gently pushes waves against the concrete steps leading down a cliff and into the ocean — the jumping-off point tonight for night spearfishermen in the small village of Stewart Town on Jamaica’s north shore.
Down those same steps is where some of these men learned to swim as young boys.
Nicholas Bingham and Delroy Gooden put on their flippers, masks and snorkels, then wrap their faces to protect against stinging jellyfish. But that’s not the only threat lurking in the water: In addition to sharks, wardens are patrolling, scouting for illegal fishing in protected fish sanctuaries.
Spearfishing at night in Jamaica is illegal, especially in the sanctuaries set up to protect the island country’s endangered coral reefs and replenish fish stocks. The restrictions have taken a toll on many Jamaicans’ livelihoods, in a place where jobs can be scarce.
“From the time I was born, fishing is all I do. It’s my bread and butter,” Bingham said. “There’s not many other jobs to do.”
Since fish and other sea creatures sleep in the reefs at night, they are much easier to catch than during the day.
Using only handheld waterproof flashlights under a moonlit sky as they skirt the boundary of the Boscobel Fish Sanctuary, Bingham and Gooden swim over the reef and seagrass meadows, diving down to shoot lobsters along the way. The eerie silence beneath the surface is punctured only by a clanking sound as their spears make an impact.
It’s impossible for them to see anything but what’s illuminated right in front of them, and the distant lights from land are the only way to gauge how far out they’ve swum.
Tonight, two other flashlights scan the water — but these are searching for people illegally fishing in the White River Fish Sanctuary, about 9 kilometers (5 miles) away. White River wardens Mark Lobban and Donald Anderson are taking their boat — appropriately called the Interceptor — up and down the coast under the same moonlit sky.
Two years ago, fishermen joined with local businesses to form a marine association and negotiate the boundaries for a no-fishing zone stretching two miles along the coast. A simple line in the water is hardly a deterrent, however — for a boundary to be meaningful, it must be enforced.
The patrols carry no weapons, so they must master the art of persuasion. And they often meet resistance. “They threaten us and they give you trouble in the reef,” Anderson said.
Damian Brown, 33, has been caught twice. He’s been fined, had his equipment taken away and almost went to jail. He fears a third time could bring a fine he can’t afford to pay, plus jail time. He sees the benefit of the sanctuaries, but argues that the boundaries extend too far.
“We used to make good money. If they could just come in with the marker a little more, we can dive behind the marker — it could work,” Brown said, noting that the buoys’ current placement mean the water is too deep to dive in without a tank.
Jerlene Layne, a manager at nearby Boscobel Fish Sanctuary who has apprehended Brown before, landed in the hospital with a bruised leg after being attacked by another man she had reprimanded for fishing illegally in the sanctuary.
Layne said she believes her work would be safer with more formal support from the police, but that she isn’t going to stop.
“If I back down on this, what kind of message does that send?” she said. “You have to stand for something.”
Christina Larson contributed to this report.
This Associated Press series was produced in partnership with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.