In 1990, a fisherman, Trevor Otto Thomas, dressed himself in St Helena’s flag and led a march down Main Street in Jamestown, the island’s capital, to protest against a decision by his government to sell licences to Japanese industrial vessels which he believed would plunder the island’s waters. His family still have the petition he handed in to the governor.
As skipper of the offshore fishing vessel, the Westerdam, in the 1980s he had made an arrest at sea of a poacher and brought the vessel back to James Bay to show that St Helena’s waters were regularly being invaded. Thomas, who was born in Hout Bay, Cape Town to a St Helenian father and a South African mother, was that remarkable thing, a fisherman conservationist. In a picture of him revered by his family, he stands in fisherman’s dress tending a sick bird. Sadly Thomas did not live to see his wish come true – but his vision survived and became reality. Last autumn the waters of St Helena were declared a marine protected area which will allow sustainable fishing only by local vessels, to protect both the island’s fish stocks and its rich marine diversity. Thomas’s son, Waylon, was in place as chairman of the fishermen’s association, and the decision has become his father’s legacy.
Anyone who loves the sea will find the story of Thomas father and son intensely moving, for it sums up the achievement of this remote island in the south Atlantic in taking a huge decision to restrict fishing to highly selective fishing methods used only by boats from the island.
In a world of declining tuna stocks, the idea resonates. It seems entirely reasonable to believe that it is possible to create a niche product for the island’s yellowfin and skipjack not unlike that which the island’s coffee already enjoys on the shelves of Harrods and Fortnum and Mason. But first a lot of work must be done because right now St Helena’s fishermen sometimes get less than a pound a kilo for their tuna.
I was there on a fact-finding trip to see if Blue and our allies in the GB Oceans coalition could do anything to help the island now it has announced its intention to create a meaningful marine protected area with sustainable fishing, thereby protecting St Helena’s extraordinary marine biodiversity. In theory, an MPA should enable St Helena’s fishermen to create a high-quality, low-volume tuna brand with appeal to markets in London and elsewhere where buyers are willing to pay top prices for tuna with a strong conservation story behind it.
On our trip I quizzed the governor, Lisa Phillips, about the airport, now due to open some time after chosen airlines are to be announced on May 31 with smaller aircraft than the wide-bodied jets which were shown last year to suffer from wind-shear. The airport is only one of several changes coming to the island. A huge EU-funded £18m project to lay a fibre optical cable from Cape Town should improve the island’s currently expensive and unreliable satellite broadband by 2020 making it easier to conduct business.
There is talk of new tourist developments and some are being built.
An upmarket South African hotel chain is converting three town houses on Jamestown’s lovely Georgian Main Street into a hotel. There is a proposal for a massive golf development – on land where thousands of South African prisoners were encamped during the Boer War – which seems less in tune with what this unique island has to offer. Despite the £30 million a year that Britain spends on St Helena – the overseas territories are meant to have first call on the overseas aid budget – it seems there is little spent on the rich heritage of historic fortifications, some of which are actively falling down. If tourists are to be lured by a marine reserve, and the opportunity to dive with whale sharks just outside the harbour, they are going to want other attractions to be in good shape.
At present the only way to St Helena is via its own now unique Royal Mail Ship, which leaves Cape Town and five days later arrives at the island. It then sails on to Ascension, from where some passengers fly back to England while some return to the Cape. The RMS, as it is called, gives an insight into a former age of ocean liners, with a rigid programme of deck quoits and beef tea at 11, followed by lunch, then a film, a quiz or other entertainments and then a six-course dinner. It is easy to become institutionalised into this pattern of being looked after and enjoyable to spend hours talking to the band of influential locals travelling back to the island. It is also all too easy to put on weight if you do not spend time in the boat’s gym.
When we boarded the ship again for Ascension, it felt extraordinarily like home. At present the plan is for the RMS to be decommissioned next year after the airport opens and when a new cargo ship takes over the freight that it carries. There are few who will see it go without a pang of regret.
The island is full of surprises. Saint Helena’s cliffs seem vertiginous from the sea and the land looks impossibly arid. But after driving up hairpin bends there is a moment when you burst out into the valleys of the interior where everything is green and there are pairs of white fairy terns flying in perfect synchronization above the trees where they make their minimal equivalent of a nest by laying an egg on a bough. In a couple of hours’ tour with Kevin George, our expert guide, we were able to see several endemic and endangered plants – including he cabbage and she cabbage trees and ebony – and the island’s only endemic bird, the wire bird, a kind of plover named after its spindly legs. All will say of the island’s main tourist attractions, the sites associated with Napoleon who died on his final exile there, is that we noticed that these French possessions were pointedly flying the EU flag.
St Helena offers so much that is unique that it would be a shame to compromise it with the ordinary. Its new marine protected area is a way of celebrating that uniqueness and potentially an example to the world. It deserves our recognition and support.