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Dominic's SSMR Revisited

Written by Roxan Kinas on .

It's a lazy, carefree day in Dominica's cozy south coast fishing village of Soufriere. People stroll along the narrow, pot-holed seafront road while underwear-clad children splash and squeal gleefully in the sea. Fishermen sit gathered along the thin strip of beach repairing their nets, slapping 'doms' or chatting in small groups outside the tiny one-door shops.
Everyone glides through the day, unperturbed by the riot of activity going on a few yards away beneath the sea. Just as Dominica's richly mountainous and lush landscape undulates wildly, the undersea terrain mirrors its unruly volcanic contours.
No better example is Dominica's landmark SSMR-Soufriere/Scott's Head Marine Reserve. Its underwater pinnacles, bubbling hot springs, caverns and 1050 foot vertical wall compose part of the Reserve's uncommon beauty. That, together with the bay's unsullied reefs bustling with marine life makes the SSMR is one of the region's finer diving destinations.
The SSMR is a tremendous U-shaped bay, just over one mile across. The stunning, mini-pinnacled Scott's Head mound arcs at the island's southernmost tip. It faces a spectacular clump of jagged, multi-shaded green bluffs, part of the fabled La Sorcier mount. Soufriere rests sleepily in the centre of the cove, while Scott's Head village lies yards down the road. Soufriere's centrepoint is the district's lone dive shop, Nature Island Dive (NID). Today is 'school children day', and the shop is taking an excited, uniformed group on educational glass bottom boat rides.
Behind the shop a stately looking man in frayed khakis and a big straw hat feverishly mixes and pours cement. He is surrounded by a small legion of helpers, who shuffle materials and equipment from place to place.
The straw-hatted man is Dr. Vivian Moise, MD., Managing Director of NID and first president of the steering group for the SSMR, LAMA-Local Area Management Authority. This group unites all of the principals of the SSMR and everyone has a say, from the village fisherman to the French Technical Corporation (FTC), who helps fund the movement. Other funding for LAMA and its projects will come from a user fee system to be launched soon.
Four years after first declaring the SSMR a Reserve, legislation regulating its use was enacted and it is now a "legal entity", as locals put it. Dr. Moise explains, "The first SSMR day was in June, 1994, and that event marked the official declaration of intent. With the legislation passed in June (1998), we can now institute all the rules and regulations that pertain to the SSMR. One of the criterion the French Technical Corporation (FTC) stipulated for funding was the SSMR be a legal entity before they would assist with the development.
"LAMA is the body that will manage the SSMR. It not only represents all of the villages and the fishermen, but the Government Fisheries Department under the Ministry of Agriculture, the FTC, who is funding much of the foundational work of LAMA, private diving interests through the Dominica Watersports Association (DWA) and land-based tourism businesses like area hotels and restaurants."
David Williams, Superintendent of National Parks in the Forestry and Wildlife Division notes, "LAMA is a grouping of the key stake holders in the Reserve. Essentially it is designed to give an integrated management approach to the SSMR. It involves four villages, Soufriere, Scott's Head, Pointe Michel and Galion. And LAMA represents all of them." Galion sits snuggled in the mountain ledges overlooking the SSMR and Pointe Michel is north of the bay's outer rim.
Though Dominica may be behind its regional neighbours in infrastructure development, which really just adds to its charm, it is far ahead of the rest of the Eastern Caribbean in its natural resource development. The move to designate and develop national parks and reserves dates back to the 1950s and work has steadfastly continued. The first forest reserve was designated in 1952 and the first national park, the 17 000 acre Morne Trois Pitons National Park-recently designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO--was established in 1975. Dominica now has well over 40 000 acres in national parks and reserves. An impressive figure for a 289 square mile island.
Even the SSMR itself is not a new idea. Says Dr. Moise, "The marine reserve concept was spear-headed by Government Fisheries Division Advisor Nigel Lawrence and others many years ago. It was part of the Fisheries Development Plan for the OECS (Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States) countries. But long before that, the idea of making this area a reserve was hatched by Nigel Lawrence."
While visiting Dr. Moise as a patient one day, Nigel mentioned the idea and since then the doctor has been on a mission. He says he "joined with the founding fathers" in pushing for the SSMR. Then he launched NID some five years ago. Today, the SSMR and NID are virtually his round-the-clock patients.
The catalyst leading to a heightened push for reserve status boiled down to 'user conflict'. The LAMA president remarked, "Traditionally, the only users of the marine space were fishermen." But with the advent of divers, he admitted, the two groups soon began competing for the same reefs, and "conflicts developed. But a major goal of the SSMR was to resolve user conflicts, which by and large has been achieved through the allocation of areas in the Reserve to specific uses."
David Williams agreed, noting the conflicts for reef use and complaints of interference have all been resolved through zoning. Buoys now mark off a fishing priority area, recreation areas, diving zones and a fish nursery.
Yet the work is really just beginning. The SSMR involves far more than resolving conflicts between fishermen and divers. "The primary goals of the SSMR," Dr. Moise says, "are conservation, education, protecting the traditional way of life of the villagers and preventing user conflicts. The principal aim of the SSMR is to protect the fishermen-preserving their way of life and their livelihoods, and in some ways compensate for their loss to dive sites."
The actual concept of LAMA," Dr. Moise says, "has been there since 1994--the setting up, the infrastructure and how it will run. But many things could not come to fruition because it was not technically legal yet, so the advent of legislation means the drive will start back again in a big way. We will be setting up an interpretive centre and LAMA headquarters at the old police station," a stone building appropriately located on the seafront in the heart of Soufriere.
Although the effort did stagnate somewhat while awaiting legislation, vital projects still moved forward. Simon Walsh, Dive Instructor with NID, a voice for the DWA and a key organiser of their annual Dive Fest, says some two years ago the issue of reef destruction was addressed. "The DWA, in conjunction with Fisheries, LAMA and the FTC, installed 22 dive moorings throughout the SSMR and ten more along the west coast.
"The mooring system is a key part of the SSMR. The DWA supplied the boats, tanks, equipment and staff for the five-day effort and specialists came down from the United States to install it. We drilled into the rock bed with stainless steel and used stainless steel hooks." While anchoring is "a thing of the past" in the SSMR, Simon noted they can still drift dive in unmoored areas.
Aside from conservation, a major thrust of the SSMR is education. And one of the principal targets in that effort is children. Says Dr. Moise, "We're starting with the youth. There is a special SSMR day for kids and throughout the year NID has a programme for taking children on glass bottom boat rides to see the marine life. We also take them snorkeling and involve them in other education-driven activities. It is all part of LAMA's community programme: To teach public awareness from young. We are also focussing on the older fishermen, explaining the rules and regulations to them." LAMA's education committee will also work with the school system to teach marine conservation awareness to children and young adults.
But LAMA and NID are not alone in the education effort. Simon noted, "A big part of what we do in the DWA is public awareness and a major thrust of our annual summer Dive Fest is promoting marine awareness amongst children."
Plus, he added, "We just had our fourth annual SSMR Day where we take kids from all over the island on boat rides and show them the reef life through a glass bottom boat. This was spear-headed by Fisheries so they're doing education along with DWA, LAMA and NID."
With the advent of legislation, though, comes enforcement and Simon remarked, "We have reached the point where we can enforce the regulations. But most breaches are largely unintentional because residents don't know about the various regulations. So now a big part of it again comes back to education, particularly for the older fishermen."
Simon admitted, "The greatest hurdle that lies ahead is the enforcement." But, he stressed, "The word 'enforcement' tends to give the impression it is going to be forced on the population. Although we do want to stop certain practices, the legislation is not trying to take away the livelihood of the fishermen or their local traditions like line fishing." Instead, "Fisheries is in the process of providing the fishermen with more efficient fishing methods such as fish attracting devices. So we hope to offer advanced methods of fishing that would ultimately be more attractive and rewarding for them." Also, LAMA's research committee will be working closely with the Fisheries and the DWA, he said, in setting up a more sophisticated reef monitoring system.
All of these activities, he added, "Just go to show how everyone is willing to work together. You can see how everyone is pushing for the same things and that is a key feature of this whole effort. The DWA is all of Dominica's dive shops with a only few exceptions. So even though we are competing businesses, we all realise our marine resources have to be used sustainably. And the cooperation is there between competing dive shops, which you don't see much in other islands."
In fact, this collaborative approach embraces all of the interest groups. And LAMA, Simon noted, "is pulling them all together. This is a really unique aspect of the SSMR--that each interest group is spear-heading the effort in different ways, and each part is an important element in the whole puzzle."
Meanwhile, divers and government both recognise fishermen as the primary traditional users in the marine reserve. "In the DWA, we are very strict that our divers in no way interfere with fishing equipment or fish pots regardless of what may be in them. This is how people feed their families here."
Yet other marine activities SSMR are equally conservation-minded. "The whale watching," Simon said, "is definitely growing and the whale watching activities here follow strict guidelines set out by the IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare)."
The season, which loosely runs from November to March, brings a large assortment of marine mammals to Dominica's waters. Local whale watching pioneer and Manager of Anchorage Ltd. Andrew Armour, notes Dominica "has received increasing recognition as an ideal destination for the viewing of social units of Sperm whales. The opportunities to see the interaction of females, males, juveniles and young calves may be unsurpassed anywhere else in the world." He says Spotted and Spinner dolphins can be seen in large pods exceeding 500, along with Bottle-nose and Rissos. Both Sperm and Humpback whales are seasonally seen in the SSMR and off Dominica's west coast.
Simon noted yet another example of Dominica's strong Eco position is its tag and release policy on sport fishing. "Dominica is way ahead of the rest of the Caribbean in Eco outlook. And it is not just in words. Everyone here realises we need to do things with an Eco outlook. Even in tourism, we have no huge resorts going up, only small Eco resorts. It is very unique here and everyone is working together to capitalise on that."

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