MIAMI--As a boy in Haiti, Jean Wiener liked to poke around the coral reefs just offshore. The coral was thick and wild and splashed with bursts of orange and purple. Swarms of Yellow Tail Snappers and Nassau Groupers cruised past undulating sea fans and nibbled at rich, green sea grass. Sometimes young Mr. Wiener would catch a fish and grill it on the beach.
Now, several decades later, most of the fish are gone. "If you see anything at all," Mr. Wiener told me the other day, "it's almost never longer than six inches. You see little baby fish."
Haiti has been seriously fished out. As the impoverished country's population has risen to more than 10 million, more and more people have turned to the sea for food. It is against the law in Haiti to take under-size fish. But no one is enforcing the law and many Haitians are hungry.
Mr. Wiener grew up to be a marine biologist and one of the few specialists with an enduring interest in the coastal waters of Haiti. Now that the earthquake in January has people thinking of ways of helping Haiti, he is hoping some of them will recognize that the coastal waters could become a tremendous source of food. Tourists might also enjoy the beaches and reefs as he did as a boy.
For now, the reefs and coastal waters are as barren as most of Haiti's land. The overworked fields of Haiti yield a tiny fraction of the produce of most other countries and in a world where overfishing is epidemic, the waters off Haiti are a model of how bad it can get.
With high unemployment, Mr. Wiener said, lots of people have become part-time fishermen. The newcomers and the experienced fishermen go at the fish relentlessly. The idea of fishing seasons is ignored and anything that gets caught stays caught. "Nothing is thrown back," Mr. Wiener said.
To gain perspective, Mr. Wiener talked with an 80-year-old fisherman. "We used to let the sea rest during the months of January, February, March and April," the old fisherman said. "Now there are more traps, more boats, more fishermen, more types of fishing methods. They are laying out nets all the time, everywhere."
It's not just pressure from hungry fishermen. The offshore waters have become a miserable place for fish. Fish thrive on healthy coral reefs. In Haiti, you don't have that. Mr. Wiener, the founder of FoProBiM, the Fondation pour la Protection de la Biodiversite Marine of Haiti, estimates that perhaps 80 percent of the reefs along Haiti's 1,100-mile coastline have suffered some degree of damage, some of it very heavy.
Little fish, that in the right conditions grow up to be big fish, like to nestle in sea grass beds and the tangled branches of mangroves at the edge of the shore. But maybe a third of Haiti's sea grass has been smothered by silt that gushes off the land every time it rains because most of the country's trees have been chopped down for firewood. Mangrove branches also make fine firewood and much of Haiti's mangroves are also gone.
Mr. Wiener has some ideas. He is getting a little help. But he and the coasts of Haiti could use a lot more. The coasts are being included in a restoration project -- mainly on land -- by the United Nations Environment Program and Columbia University's Earth Institute. The Reef Check Foundation, a marine conservation and research organization in Los Angeles, is looking for grants to finance work in Haiti's coastal waters.
One idea is to begin creating Marine Protected Areas -- places where no fishing is allowed and where reefs and grasses are cultivated. Fish get a chance to recover. As they become more abundant, some of them leave the protected areas. The coastal waters begin to recover. Reef Check has a project like this in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, and, true to script, more fish are being seen.
There is a lot more to do in Haiti. But this would be a start. "Haiti is the only country in the Caribbean without a Marine Protected Area," said Dr. Gregor Hodgson, the founder and executive director of the Reef Check Foundation.
Follow Joseph B. Treaster on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JosephBTreaster