By P. Arana and Daniel Rath
"Belize's magnificent barrier reef and outer atolls provide employment for about 1500 fishermen and their families through cooperatives that sell to restaurants like Red Lobster". It was this part of the speech delivered by Honorable Servulo Baeza, Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, that caught my attention at the opening of Caye Caulker's annual lobsterfest. A short time later, in his address, Minister of Tourism and Culture, Honorable Mark Espat, mentioned the hard working fisher folk who would not be at the Caye Caulker Lobsterfest, but who would instead be driving a 13 million dollar fisheries industry. At that point I knew that there was more to the Caye Caulker Lobsterfest than just the partying.
Yes, the plan had been to come enjoy Lobsterfest on La Isla Carinosa of Caye Caulker. And yes, we were supposed to capture people enjoying Belize's favorite shellfish, the spiny lobster, and to join Caye Cauqueos in celebrating an industry that has sustained their island throughout its history. But... well... you see, during the opening ceremonies that morning, plans kinda changed.
JC, I'm sorry I forgot to notify you. I apologize for saying I'd be right back but didn't return. I really didn't intend for you to be worried about me as I pedaled around the island. It's just that I had to find the story behind the Lobsterfest. I'm sure that when you hear it you'll understand.
After I left you I went to Marin's Restaurant where I sat down to talk to Mrs. Marin. Boy! Lemme tell you, that woman painted a vivid picture of life in Caye Caulker when she was a little girl. After a while I wondered if she would get to fishing, but she didn't keep me waiting for too long.
Caye Caulker has always been a fishing village. When Mrs. Marin was a little girl, her father used to have a smack, something like a small sailboat. In the center and at the bottom of the smack were holes about 1.5 inches in diameter. Sea water would seep into the boat through these holes and form a "sea" well at the center of the boat. Each time her father would catch fish, he would put them in the well. After about 8 days of fishing on the atolls, he would take the fish to Belize City to sell. The journey to Belize City was an adventure in and of itself. Since outboard motors didn't exist yet, the fishermen relied on the wind. A journey which now takes 45 minutes would, back then, be completed in about four to six hours, if winds were favorable. Since technically speaking they were still in the sea, the fish in the smack would arrive at the Belize City harbor alive and flipping.
Grateful for her valuable oral history and her advice, I headed to the leeward section of the island. As Mrs. Marin had predicted, I saw stacks of lobster traps made from Palmetto palm. I could see some traps lying at the bottom, of the translucent water.
Next to the pier was another type of boat, a sand lighter. This one had what appeared to be a wide flat bottom, and distended sides, like a banana. Inside three men were busy shoveling sand from the boat to the shore. I just had to stop and get their story. Turned out they had left Caye Caulker sometime after four in the morning en route to the Sibun River which is about 6 miles from Belize City. They had spent the day filling their boat with sand, deposited at the mouth of the river. Now they were unloading the sand, which they would sell to villagers who use the sand for construction. I found it peculiar for people to journey from a place made of sand to get sand from a location 30 miles away. I was about to point this out when, on the other side of the pier, I saw a fishing boat being moored.
The boat was called La Emerita and had just come from Long Caye, one of the main islands of the Lighthouse Reef Atoll. I watched the crew of five disembark and bid the men shoveling sand farewell before ambling over to La Emerita to have a little chat with the crew. The captain, Danny, was all too willing to give me a tour of the boat and tell me about his trip. All 5 fishermen had traveled 17 hours from Sarteneja to Lighthouse Reef and had lived on the boat for 8 whole days! They spent their days diving for lobster - without using gear - and spent the nights moored off Long Caye. Can you imagine? If you could have seen how tiny their sleeping area at the bow of the boat was, you would share my amazement at hearing this. It looked like there was hardly enough room for 2 people, let alone 5.
On our way to the even tinier kitchen area at the stern, we crossed over a tarpaulin-covered hump in the center of the boat. This turned out to be a freezer used to preserve their catch. Piled right next to the freezer were a number of dories or canoes. I just didn't know what to make of this humble and sincere man who was trying to make me understand that for him what I perceived as such an incredible feat is merely an everyday experience. Danny didn't know about the formation of the Northern Fishermen's Co-operative, but did share that his father had been part of the short-lived Sarteneja Fisherman's Co-operative. Then he directed me to the receiving offices of Northern Fishermen's.
Outside I met Alfredo, a Caye Caulker fisherman who was getting ready to clean a boat full of lobsters. I watched Alfredo remove the intestines and head while his nephews practiced fishing techniques on the pier. Not wanting to keep him from his job, I peeped inside the building. Two metal troughs lined the walls, a large scale was suspended from the ceiling and a smaller scale was on a chair. Buckets and orange baskets filled with lobster tails were all over the room. Upon entering, I met a teenager called Joaquin. Having been around the co-op since age six, he now spent his summers helping his father inspect lobster tails.
Joaquin explained what happens at the receiving facility: After cleaning the lobsters, fishermen take the tails to the receiving station to be weighed and graded. While Joaquin inspected the tails to ensure their quality - intestines removed and shells hard to preserve freshness -- and weighed the catch to making sure that each tail was over 4 oz, he showed me the difference between male and female lobsters. (Female lobsters have an extra hairy claw-like appendage that is used for the attachment of eggs). Tails that pass the inspection are weighed on the big scale and the fisherman is paid. Members of the Coop receive a fixed rate per pound of lobster tail upon delivery and get a percentage of the profit from the export at the end of the year.
After they have been weighed, the tails are put in big baskets and immersed in metal troughs containing a sodium solution preservative. After a few minutes they are transferred to a storage room. One section has a hill of ice while the main storage area is filled with coolers. Each cooler is packed with layers of ice and lobster tails. The purpose of the room is to preserve the lobsters for their eventual shipment to Belize City where they are processed for shipment overseas to Red Lobster and other buyers in the US. The room was so cold it felt like a huge freezer, so I was happy to return to the sunshine outside. Besides, even though I had learned a lot about the spiny tailed lobster and its journey from reef to restaurant, I still didn't know anything about the early days of the co-op; so Joaquin suggested that I visit Mr. Badillo of Hotel Miramar.
I had every intention of heading straight to Mr. Badillo, but as I pedaled by the Caye Caulker Bakery, the aroma of fresh bun, garlic bread and other goodies distracted me. Several minutes, and 3 cinnamon buns later, I was talking to Mr. Badillo, a 68 year old fisherman who considers himself partially retired. When lobster season closes to allow for the eggs to mature, Mr. Badillo runs his hotel. As soon as the season reopens, in mid-June, he leaves the hotels to his daughter and returns to the sea he loves.
According to Mr. Badillo, when he was about 7 years old, there were so many lobsters around Caye Caulker that all his mother had to do was walk along the beach and pick up dinner. The days of commercial lobster harvesting began when foreign brokers on boats such as the Lucy, the Marcian and the Devorah started to offer Caye Caulker fishermen $0.04 to $0.08 for a pound of lobster tail. It was only with the formation of the Northern Fishermen's Cooperative on September 5, 1960, when lobster tails started to be sold at $0.75 a pound, that the exploitation of the Caye Caulker fishermen became apparent. The Coop, even though it was originally formed in Caye Caulker and consisted of 36 members from the island, established its head office in Belize City for the ease of exporting its precious tails. After the rest of the country witnessed the success of the Northern Fishermen's Cooperative, other fishermen followed suit and started own cooperatives like National Fishermen's Producers, Caribea Fisherman's and Placencia Producers Cooperatives in Belize City, San Pedro and Placencia respectively. Of these, only 2 remain active, National and Northern.
Mr. Badillo confessed that the forty-three year history of the Northern Fisherman's Cooperative has not been without obstacles and pointed to the destruction of traps during past weather systems and the illegal sale of tails directly to Belizean hotels and restaurants at a higher cost than the established coop cost. Likewise he boasted about the variety of other seafood now being exported, the growth of membership, the expansion of the Coop to include Belize City, Sarteneja and Dangriga, and the $13 million dollars lobster tails contributed to Belize's gross domestic product last year. And of course, who could forget the development that Caye Caulker has enjoyed with profits from one of the Caribbean Sea's valuable resources.
I was so fascinated by Mr. Badillo's stories that I hadn't even noticed the sun stealing across the Caye Caulker sky. By the time I looked up, night had fallen, the moon had risen and preparations were underway for beachside barbecue lobsters. For those couple of hours that the friendly people of Caye Caulker taught and enlightened me, I sorta ... well ... forgot about you. So, JC, how did you spend your day on "La Isla Carinosa"?
Special Thanks to:
Northern Fishermen Cooperative
Caye Caulker Lobsterfest 2003 Committee
Images Courtesy of:
Tony Rath Photography