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
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
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
“Ivan, Gilbert, Dean … every one come cut off a piece,”
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.
VISITORS – AND PROFITS – DOWN
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
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
“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
“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
(Reporting by Rebekah Kebede; editing by Laurie Goering :;
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