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Iconic Jamaican beach vanishing as pollution, climate change take a toll

by Rebekah Kebede | @rkebede | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 27 March 2017 01:01 GMT

A view of Hellshire Beach near Kingston, Jamaica. Severe beach erosion due to pollution, climate change, and overuse has washed away what used to be a wide strip of sand between the thatched-roof fish restaurants on the beach and the coastline. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rebekah Kebede

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Pollution and warmer temperatures have killed reefs off the shore of Hellshire Beach, allowing waves to pound it and wash away the sand

By Rebekah Kebede

KINGSTON, March 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hellshire Beach, one of Jamaica's cultural icons, has appeared in countless documentaries, movies and travelogues about the island nation. The strip of sand, a half-hour drive from the capital and backed by seafood restaurants, is a weekend favourite for Kingstonians, a place to kick back and "lyme" – the local term for "chill".

But Hellshire Beach is fast disappearing. What once was a wide strip of sand in front of Aunt May's Fish Place has vanished so quickly that Kingstonians find themselves digging through old photos to make sure their memories aren't playing tricks on them.

One of them is Kamilah Taylor, a 30-year-old U.S. software engineer who grew up going to Hellshire. She remembers people riding horses and children playing on a wide expanse of beach.

When she visited last year, she was shocked to see that much of it was gone.

"To go from that to basically shops that look like they are on cliffs … it blew my mind how different it was. It was a totally different scene," said Taylor in a telephone interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Experts say that a combination of pollution and warmer temperatures linked to climate change have killed the once-thriving coral reefs offshore, allowing waves to pound the beach and wash away the sand.

"I've never seen anywhere along the Jamaican coast change so significantly. ... It's a domino effect starting with the death of the reef," said Mona Webber, a marine ecologist and director of the University of the West Indies' Centre for Marine Sciences.


Webber carried out her graduate work in the sea off Hellshire in the 1980s, studying the impact of pollution from Kingston harbour on the reef. Back then, as she used a small skiff to collect water samples along the reef, its structure was so dense that it could be a challenge not to bump into it.

But now the reef is completely gone, she said.

Hellshire sits downstream from Kingston harbour, where industrial and other wastes over decades made their way into the water. As the beach's popularity grew, it also suffered from water pollution created by bathers and fishermen who gutted fish in the water, Webber said.

"Coral reefs cannot handle poor water quality. They really are affected by excess nutrients and algal overgrowth," Webber said. Studies in the 1990s showed that a big day out for Kingstonians at Hellshire led to algae doubling in the bay two to three days later, she said.

Climate change, which can cause rising sea temperatures and additional stress on coral, may have been the "last nail in the coffin" for the reef, Webber said. Once parts of the reef had weakened or died, other parts of it became more vulnerable to storms, she said.

Locals like Nehemiah "Natty" Thomson, 66, a long-time fisherman who now cooks up fish in one of the seaside restaurants, remember the hurricanes that slowly dismantled the reef.

"Ivan, Gilbert, Dean … every one come cut off a piece," Thomson said.

Parts of the dead reef remain offshore in a pile of coral rubble. Once the reef had been slowly swept away by hurricanes, it left the bay vulnerable, Webber said.

"Once you lose your reef, the seagrass gets exposed to too much high wave action and then the beach itself is also compromised. All those systems help to hold the sand in place," Webber said, adding that the structures on Hellshire have cut the beach off from dunes that could replenish it.

May Byrou, the owner of Aunt May’s Fish Place, stands near her restaurant at Jamaica’s Hellshire Beach. Byrou estimates that the erosion of the beach has reduced her business by 25 to 50 percent. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rebekah Kebede


For Kingstonians, the shrinking beach has meant losing one of the few free public beaches near the city. For the fishermen and vendors, it is a threat to their livelihoods.

"There is definitely a decline in the number of people coming to Hellshire… It's affecting business as well," said Glaston White, chairman of the Half Moon Bay Fisherman's Association, the non-profit group responsible for managing the beach.

May Byrou, who owns Aunt May's Fish Place, a long-popular beachfront seafood restaurant, estimates that her business is down 25 to 50 percent due to the disappearance of the beach.

Parthenope James, who goes by the nickname Pie and owns another seafood restaurant, said she's also felt the impact, even though her restaurant is not on the beachfront.

"When the people come and see how it stay, they go somewhere else," Pie said.

For beach-goers, what little beach is left has been transformed. Doryck Boyd, a semi-retired dental surgeon who has been coming to Hellshire since the 1970s, said the difference is startling.

Sandbags are used to try and prevent the sand from washing into the sea at Hellshire Beach, near Kingston, Jamaica. In the background, Doryck Boyd, a dental surgeon who has been coming to Hellshire since the 1970s, marks the spot where he says the coastline used to be. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rebekah Kebede

"You could walk way out and the water would be up to your waist," Boyd said. But without a reef the currents have gotten stronger, and the water increasingly unsafe, he said.

For now, the Half Moon Bay Fishermen's Cooperative has tried to stem some of the erosion by putting in a groyne - a wall that extends from the beach out into the water. The cooperative is looking to raise funds do more recovery work, White said.

Some restaurant owners also have stacked sandbags and tires on the beach in hopes of shoring up the sand.

But Webber suggests one of the best solutions might be abandoning the beach entirely to let it recover – or at least restricting access.

"There is such a thing as carrying capacity," she said.

White said fishermen are coming to terms with that fact.

"They are aware that the time may come that we'll be asked to evacuate," he said.

"They are basically bracing to see if that's going to be a possibility."

(Reporting by Rebekah Kebede; editing by Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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