Research

I study interactions between food and energy systems in the Caribbean. My research efforts are divided between two semi-independent projects and are based on several separate islands in the region. The first project investigates environmental and human health implications of an artisanal whaling operation. The second project studies the potential for—and barriers to—renewable energy development in the Caribbean. While the fieldwork for these projects is separate, the studies are both informed by a single line of questions about an interconnected human and natural ecosystem. I regularly collaborate with students on these research projects. This collaboration can take place in the classroom, the field, or the laboratory. If you are a current Sewanee student and, after reading the descriptions below, are interested in getting involved in either or both of these research projects, please contact me. Below I describe both projects and the higher-level interests that connect them to each other.

Artisanal Whaling in St. Vincent: From Conservation to Contamination

The Caribbean island of St. Vincent supports a legal hunt for small cetaceans (a taxonomic category that includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises) to produce food for human consumption. This is an "artisanal" whaling operation, which, according to marine mammal scholar Randall Reeves, is defined as being centered around "localized family‚Äźbased operations" and involving "a substantial investment of manual labour… traditional skills, and techniques" (2002, 99). Meat, blubber, liver, and kidney tissue are processed and eaten locally. I began studying Vincentian whaling in 2008, motivated by an interest in the culturally embedded conservation practices that help limit the take. There are few formal laws in St. Vincent & the Grenadines that regulate whaling. Instead, custom and tradition serve as the main controls on the operation. 

Whalers in boats search for whales off the coast of St. Vincent
Whalers off the coast of St. Vincent hunt for cetaceans in small wooden boats, armed with harpoon guns.

Whaling was introduced to the Caribbean during the mid-19th century when American ships visited the region to hunt sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) and humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). When catches declined, likely due to overhunting, the ships began to sail from New England to the Caribbean with smaller crews; they would make up the shortages by hiring local men to join them when they arrived. These local Caribbean fishermen learned the skills of whaling from the American whalers. When the Americans stopped whaling in the Caribbean altogether during the late-19th century, the locals who had learned the trade started their own whaling operations. The Caribbean whaling tradition spread from its point of origin on the island of Bequia to several other islands in the region, including St. Vincent. Today the majority of Caribbean whaling still occurs on these two islands, with Bequians continuing to pursue humpback whales and Vincentians hunting a variety of small cetaceans such as short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus), killer whales (Orcinus orca), Risso's dolphin (Grampus griseus), spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris), and Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis). 

A harpooned Risso's dolphin (Grampus griseus) is drawn alongside a Vincentian whaling boat
A harpooned Risso's dolphin is drawn alongside a Vincentian whaling boat.

An emerging issue in St. Vincent is the presence of environmental contaminants in these cetacean tissues and the associated human health risks to those who consume them. As long-lived, high trophic level marine carnivores, the cetaceans targeted by the St. Vincent operation serve as bellwethers for the presence of these pollutants throughout the environment. Nearly all the contaminants found in the tissues of these cetaceans are industrial in origin. The most concerning from a human health perspective is methyl-mercury (MeHg), a pollutant linked to a variety of developmental and neurological disorders in humans (WHO 2007). My primary method thus far has been to collect tissue samples from the cetaceans caught for human consumption and to perform laboratory analysis on the tissues to measure the concentrations of specific contaminants. While the research is ongoing, preliminary results indicate that the food products derived from cetaceans caught in the Caribbean contain high levels of MeHg and other potentially harmful contaminants (Fielding and Evans 2014). Despite the major health risks associated with exposure to these pollutants, the popularity of these cetacean-based food products in St. Vincent remains unabated, largely because few public health outreach efforts have yet resulted from these findings. The more we understand about the environmental contaminants found in the tissues of these cetaceans, the more we can predict about the risk to human health of consuming cetacean-based food products and the broader marine ecosystem health of the Caribbean.

A man in St. Vincent prepares whale meat for consumption by drying it in the sun on wooden racks.
A man in St. Vincent prepares whale meat for consumption by drying it in the sun on wooden racks.

The use of cetaceans as a food source for humans is, of course, not a universally accepted practice. Analogues available for comparison to my St. Vincent research based in other locations worldwide are rare. One case that has been especially instructive to me, however, is found in the Faroe Islands. This semi-independent Danish archipelago in the North Atlantic Ocean has supported a hunt for small cetaceans—including some of the same, or closely related, species as are hunted in St. Vincent—for at least 500 years, probably much longer (Kerins 2010). I conducted fieldwork in the Faroe Islands for five years and my doctoral dissertation was a comparison of the whaling operations there and in St. Vincent (Fielding 2010).

People stand on the shore in the aftermath of whaling in the Faroe Islands
People stand on the shore in the aftermath of a grindadráp, or whale drive, in the Faroe Islands (Photo: Becky Brice)

In 2008 the Chief Physician of the Faroese Hospital System, together with a colleague, issued a landmark statement reporting the findings of his thirty-plus years of research into the issue of environmental contaminants found in cetaceans caught for food by the Faroese. His conclusion was stark: an unequivocal recommendation that the Faroese people cease the consumption of cetacean-based food products. While the entire report was striking, an intriguing statement in the final paragraph caught my eye: "We in the Faroe Islands are without responsibility with regard to the marine pollution, which has been inflicted upon us from outside" (Weihe and Joensen 2008, 3). The report’s authors intended this claim to be taken literally. The Faroe Islands support no industries linked to the emission of the pollutants scientists were finding there. Their energy infrastructure is largely dependent on renewable sources and leaders there actively seek to reduce reliance upon petroleum-based fossil fuels for energy generation. The fact that this traditional Faroese food source, which had been exploited at sustainable levels for at least 500 years, probably much longer, would be threatened by pollution that the Faroese themselves had no part in producing was especially disheartening. As I began to investigate the presence of similar pollutants in the Caribbean environment I wondered if the affected communities could make the same claim to innocence.

Renewable Energy Implementation in the Caribbean

The question of culpability among Caribbean nations with regard to the industrial pollutants occurring in their food supplies led me to my next major research initiative: a study of the potential for—and barriers to—renewable energy development in the Caribbean. This inquiry began with my first reconnaissance visit to St. Barthélemy. This island stands out within the region as an early adopter of renewable energy systems, specifically in the form of a waste-to-energy facility that provides thermal energy from the combustion of municipal waste to power the island’s seawater desalination plant (Fielding 2014). The Lesser Antilles—as the small islands along the eastern arc of the Caribbean are known—support no coal deposits and very few sites for oil extraction. According to one industry report, "with the exception of Trinidad and Tobago, most Caribbean countries… have yet to prove the extent of their offshore hydrocarbon reserves, let alone produce them" (Vella 2015). Currently nearly all power plants within the region run on imported oil. Only a small minority of Caribbean islands has seriously investigated the possibility of renewable energy. Of these, even fewer have seen such development plans come to fruition.

 Machinery loads combustible waste into the incinerator on the island of St. Barth.
Machinery loads combustible waste at the incinerator site on St. Barthélemy.

By relying as they do on fossil fuels to power their energy grids, any claim on the part of most Caribbean communities that they, like the Faroe Islands, are "without responsibility with regard to the marine pollution" would be tenuous at best. The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy in this case represents more than just a claim of innocence with regard to the issue of contamination. Only by eschewing the very industries that cause the pollution degrading their environments can these communities stand fully on the side of conservation and make a compelling argument against unchecked environmental degradation. With effective renewable energy projects implemented, these small islands could serve as test cases for larger continental power grids in their own quest for greater sustainability.

A view inside the waste-to-energy facility on the island of St. Barth
A view inside the waste-to-energy facility on the island of St. Barthélemy

To elucidate the trends of renewable energy development in the region I began a survey of initiated, stalled, and completed projects throughout the Caribbean. The results thus far have been illuminating. The diversity of renewable energy projects within the Caribbean rivals the cultural and geographical diversity in the region. Histories on the subject include success stories such as the waste-to-energy facilities constructed on the islands of St. Barthélemy and Barbados and the development of wind farms on the so-called ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao). Some renewable energy developments are, as yet, only aspirational. For example, Barbados has set the goal of having 29% of its energy consumption to be generated from renewable sources by 2029 (Government of Barbados 2012). The Dutch island of Saba has gone even further, proposing to eventually become 100% dependent upon renewable energy with intermediate goals of 20% by 2017 and 40% by 2020 (Ugarte, et al. 2015).

 The port of Gustavia on St. Barthelemy
The port of Gustavia on St. Barthélemy (Photo: Diane Fielding)

Economic, technological, and social factors—not a lack of knowledge or political will—are likely behind the delays in the implementation of renewable energy systems there. Small islands such as those in the Caribbean region are especially vulnerable to interruptions in the supply of imported resources and, considering their lack of locally available fossil fuel resources, would benefit from the development of locally driven renewable energy infrastructures—especially those that make use of resources these islands do have in abundance: sun, wind, volcanism, and municipal solid waste. Since the late-20th century St. Barthélemy has focused primarily on the niche of exclusive, low-volume, luxury tourism. The economic opportunities as well as the expectations of the clientele that the island be perceived as environmentally-friendly likely influenced the relative ease with which St. Barthélemy's renewable energy system was implemented and accepted. 

Eden Rock hotel on St. Barthelemy
Eden Rock, a luxury hotel on St. Barthélemy (Photo: Diane Fielding)

Other islands are less so. I have recently begun fieldwork on St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands, the site of a planned waste-to-energy facility that never materialized. I hypothesized that historical and cultural factors might have influenced the failure of this project in St. Croix (Fielding 2017). The data I collect through my ongoing fieldwork will be used to test that hypothesis. I plan to continue this line of inquiry to consider other forms of renewable energy development and other environmentally-friendly industries throughout the region—whether completed, planned, stalled, or abandoned. Sites may include the wind farms on the ABC Islands, solar energy on Barbados, waste-to-energy on Saba and Barbados, and geothermal development on St. Lucia, Nevis, Dominica, and even St. Vincent—the island where a turn from fossil fuels to renewables would make the most profound statement regarding the effects of industrial pollutants on the marine ecosystem and its direct effects on human health and wellbeing. If St. Vincent were to become more sustainable in its energy sector, perhaps it could, like the Faroe Islands, one day claim to be "without responsibility with regard to the marine pollution" that affects its food security. St. Vincent, or any island that works to develop a more sustainable infrastructure, can also set a positive example for the region and the world as a country that prioritizes human and environmental health.

References

Fielding, R. Artisanal Whaling in the Atlantic: A Comparative Study of Culture, Conflict, and Conservation in St. Vincent and The Faroe Islands. Ph.D. dissertation, Louisiana State University, 2010. Download here

Fielding, R. "'The Good Garbage': Waste to Water in the Small Island Environment of St. Barthélemy," Focus on Geography 57, no.1 (2014): 1-13. Download here

Fielding, R. "'The Good Garbage': Waste-to-Energy Applications and Issues in the Insular Caribbean," in E. Stratford (ed). Island Geographies: Essays and Conversations (London: Routledge, 2017), 114-131. Download here

Fielding, R. and D. Evans, "Mercury in Caribbean Dolphins (Stenella longirostris and Stenella frontalis) Caught for Human Consumption off St. Vincent, West Indies," Marine Pollution Bulletin 89, no.1-2 (2014), 30-34. Download here

Government of Barbados, "National Sustainable Energy Policy," 2012. Download here

Kerins, S.P. A Thousand Years of Whaling: A Faroese Common Property Regime. Edmonton: CCI Press, 2010.

Reeves,R.R. "The origins and character of 'aboriginal subsistence' whaling: a global review," Mammal Review 32, no.2 (2002), 71-106.

Ugarte, S., M. van der Velde, and S.A. Muller, "LEDS Global Partnership Case Study: Towards 100% sustainable energy on the Caribbean island of Saba," SQ Consult B.V., Government of Saba and LEDS GP, 2015. Download here

Vella, H. "Offshore Caribbean—a resource filled paradise?" OffshoreTechnology.com, 2015. Download here

Weihe, P. and H.D. Joensen. Recommendations to the Government of the Faroe Islands Concerning the Pilot Whale, English Translation Released 1 December 2008. Tórshavn: Landslægen, 2008. PDF

WHO [World Health Organization]. Exposure to Mercury: A Major Public Health Concern. Geneva: WHO, 2007. PDF

 

Header images (L-R): The village of Barrouallie on the island of St. Vincent; a lighthouse on the island and Mykines in the Faroe Islands (Photo: Cory Fielding); A view from the Alexander Hamilton off St. Barthélemy during the 2010 West Indies Regatta.