French Leave, Eleuthera — Under a cloud-studded sunrise at the end of the two-and-a-half-mile long beach I watch a 14-foot plywood boat back into the morning surf. A trio of Bahamian men readies it for a day of spearfishing along the near-reef that parallels the 110-mile long island. One will drive; another will watch and stack fish. The third – a lithe, fair-skinned black man with ‘Aries’ tattooed on his upper arm, who dons a thick wetsuit while we talk – will dive and spear. They hope the day’s catch will include as many as 40 grouper, maybe another 40 lobster.
The laws for all fishermen in the Bahamas are pretty straightforward, no matter the size of the boat or crew: Boats must be 100 percent owned by Bahamians. They can use seine nets, hook and line or — ‘Aries’ tool of choice this morning — the Hawaiian sling and spear. There can be no long lines, no chemicals or explosives in the Bahamas. The small fishermen have no GPS or fish finders. Bigger boats, mostly based at the north end of the island, have set up what the locals refer to as “condominiums,” slatted wooden traps to catch lobsters.
The day will take this trio 30 miles down the coast and back and will end by early afternoon, when they will take whatever they’ve caught across the island to the port at Governor’s Harbor where they will clean and hawk it from the boat ramp. The cutting table there is close enough to the road that passing drivers can slow, observe, ask questions (“What you got today?” “How fresh?”) And decide to stop and buy … or not.I watch them motor away up the coastline and then find them later in the day. ‘Aries’ tips a white plastic bucket filled with six-pound lobster to show off his catch. “It was a good day,” he says. When I ask if fishing is his passion, he admits not. “I like being on the water, I can dive to 100 feet, I’m not afraid of anything down there, even the tiger sharks, but to be honest when construction is good here … it’s good for the fish because lots of guys, including me, stop going out.”
A forty-five minute drive to the north delivers me to Gregory Town, where a now-dimming sun lights up the harbor. On either side of the bay, fishing boats have come in from twenty to thirty miles out to sea, stacked with fin fish – mostly grouper and jacks — and conch.
There are 9,000 fishermen throughout the 700 islands of the Bahamas; only a few hundred of them call Eleuthera home. The fishermen descaling a boat loaded with grouper are happy with the small number of locals who make a living off the sea. “When my grandfather was fishing,” says one, his head swarmed by flies as he rakes a sharp knife over a foot-long grouper, “this bay was loaded with fish. Now we have to go far out to sea for a good catch. But once we’re there, there’s plenty of fish.”
Despite such colloquial wisdom among the fishermen I meet up and down the length of Eleuthera – that there are plenty of fish out there — statistics, mostly collected by NOAA, suggest that’s not exactly the case.
NOAA says the lobsters, conch and all finfish in the region have been fished “to a dangerously low level.” Particularly concerning is drop offs in the number of snapper and grouper, which are already off limits along the Atlantic coast of the U.S., especially Florida.
One fish that’s long disappeared from these waters are the Atlantic bluefin tuna. “The only tuna we see now are black tuna,” one of the Gregory Town fishermen says. “And they’re only the size of a football, when they used to be several feet long.”
The biggest, most successful, thus wealthiest fishermen on Eleuthera live on an island off the northern tip, called Spanish Wells. With a population of 1,500, mostly white descendants of the British Puritan loyalists who first settled here in the 1780s, there are a couple hundred big boats based here.
Regarded as the lobster capitol of the Caribbean, it is one of the wealthiest settlements in the region. It is also a conservative, staunchly religious place, where visitors stick out. Guidebooks advise to expect “passive displays of hospitality.”
Many of the men, even into their seventies, still dive for fish, during a season that lasts from August through March. Most use condominiums, or traps, which help fulfill big contracts with Red Lobster and several big European chains.
The near waters surrounding Eleuthera are shallow, 75 feet at the deepest, and easy to navigate. According to the men of Spanish Wells the only hindrance to success these days is not a lack of fish, but poachers, from the Dominican Republic and Haiti, who sneak into the 45,000 square miles of Caribbean that is supposed to be for the Bahamians-only.
One group of fishermen in Eleuthera who don’t seem to have any complaint are the visiting bone fishermen who comes in droves to escape winter’s cold and whose silhouettes you spy throughout the day, fishing knee-deep in the salt water flats lining the Caribbean side of the island.
I stand with one, on an elevated cement wall lining the calm bay at Governor’s Harbor. Peering into the distance, he’s looking for signs of the big, opaque fish that love these shallows. He’s been coming here from New York to fish for forty years.
“There are probably a couple thousand of them within casting range,” he says. “Which never seems to change from year to year. I think because they’re mostly too smart to let us catch them.”
[flickr image via Thespis377]