CASTRIES, Saint Lucia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - John Francis was just 17 when he began fishing more than four decades ago. But these days, the 60-year-old fisherman from Praslin, on the east coast of the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, finds it hard to make a living.
"There used to be money in fishing. In the 70s, 80s and 90s I used to catch 500-600 pounds (230-270 kg) of fish a day," he said. Now, "things have changed. These days I am lucky if I catch 500 pounds of fish in two weeks."
Just as worrying, "the sea is different. I cannot explain it, but it looks like there are less and less fish, warmer temperatures and really bad storms," he said.
He and other fishermen hit by over-fishing and climate change may soon win some relief, however, as a result of a common fisheries policy negotiated by ministers from 15 Caribbean countries to better conserve and manage the remaining fish.
The hard-won policy, announced last month, follows 10 years of negotiations by the Belize-based Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Regional Fisheries Mechanism (CRFM).
Milton Houghton, the CRFM's executive director, says the policy should aid sustainable management of the region's over-exploited fisheries, improve food security and reduce poverty.
The policy "heralds a new era in cooperation in the conservation, management and use of marine resources," he said.
The policy will establish a common fishing zone while allowing member states to retain management of their territorial seas. It also improves arrangements for the management of fish stocks in the Caribbean, which are presently not subject to any management regime.
For the fishermen of Saint Lucia, this could mean they will have access to greater fish reserves and a wider fishing area, albeit one with strict conservation and management measures.
CLIMATE CHANGE IMPACTS
Albert George, a 56-year-old fisherman, says he is happy that governments in the Caribbean are finally paying attention to the fishing, which he considers a crucial business, behind only agriculture in importance.
George hopes the new policy will protect fish stocks and help fishermen across the island cope with the effects of climate change, which he says have made it hard for him to make ends meet.
"The changes are everywhere," George said. "I see the difference in the sea level and wind currents. Every year we fear the hurricane season because the storms are getting worse.
"We live on the coast and feed our families from the sea, and these days we can barely afford to send our children to school. We do not catch the amount of fish that we used to five years ago," he said.
According to George, each fishing trip requires 1,000 East Caribbean dollars ($370) worth of fuel, but he often returns with a catch worth less than 10 percent of the fuel cost.
CHANGING FISH RANGES
Marine biologist Susan Singh-Renton, who served as the scientific advisor to the 15-nation CARICOM for over two decades and is now deputy executive director of the CRFM, said Caribbean fisheries face a range of pressures, including changes in the range of some fish.
"There are many challenges. Large fish such as dolphin, kingfish and tuna are being affected," she said. "With the warming of sea water, the natural range of the fish becomes extended and they are able to move away; they are moving northward."
For the past two years, the fishers' problems have been exacerbated by the proliferation of an invasive species, lion fish, in Caribbean waters. Saint Lucia, Barbados and the Bahamas have eradication programmes in place.
"Sometimes we realise that our fish pots are filled, only to raise them and discover that out of 100 pounds of fish, the lion fish makes up 70-80 pounds. People are afraid of that fish and it is taking over our waters. Soon, we will not have any other fish left," said Jeannette Francis, a fisherman unrelated to John Francis.
Despite regional efforts to encourage Caribbean people to view lion fish as a food, fishermen say it is a hard sell to those who have preferred tuna, dolphin and shellfish for decades.
According to data provided by the CRFM, the fisheries sector provides direct employment for 338,000 people in the region, generating $251 million in revenue annually.
Those involved in fishing in Saint Lucia are cautiously optimistic that the new policy will produce results - but some say they need to wait and see.
"We have had it with the talk. We just want action. We want to see people who can make things better actually do that for us," said Margaret Jn Baptiste, 56, who has been fishing since she was 16.
"I believe it is always good when countries in the Caribbean come together to deal with a situation, but there is too much talk. We want to see the difference. They do not understand that our lives depend on this."
(Reporting By Alison Kentish; editing by Laurie Goering)