Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Fishing the Yucatán Channel


 For all the changes in fishing technology, for the typical Mayan fisherman little has changed in the past 200 years. Daid is fairly representative of the younger generation, those that learned to fish from their fathers and grandfathers as soon as they were old enough to walk. In this village they rise well before dawn to be out on the grounds in the Straits, in the lagoon, or near the mouth of a river when it gets light enough for their would-be catch to see the bait sparkling close to the surface in the rising sun.

Everybody has their favorite places but anywhere along this coast the fish are almost certain to be biting unless a cold thermal has driven them south towards warmer waters. The Straits of Cuba are a vast conveyor belt returning schools from the Caribbean to the Gulf of Mexico, there to mate and spawn and return new fry to the Atlantic. Where the channel narrows like a funnel at Cabo Catoche the catch is always good. The migratory route feeds the tourists in Cancún today just as it fed the Mayan Empire 1000 years before.

When he gets to a good location to begin his day, Daid tosses out his line, a simple monofilament with a hook knotted at one end, baited with a small fish gathered the previous day, using a hand-held, hand-knotted net.

The line feeds out with the current and trails the sideways drifting boat. He waits 5 minutes, 10, 15. No strikes, so he pulls in the line and moves to a better place, maybe one shown by circling birds or jumping fish. He repeats the process and this time he gets a strike within 2 minutes, pulls it rapidly hand-over-hand into the boat, resets his hook, and tosses the line again. Then another strike, then another. After a while the sea grows calm, so he moves once more. This process repeats until he has used up his bait, used up his fuel, is satisfied with the catch, or has just been unlucky and now grown bored and hungry.

Most days the men are back in port while it is still morning, with an adequate catch to pay everyone a living wage and take the best fish home to the family to eat.

Some of the fisherman go after bigger commercial fish, but they have to go farther out to sea for that. Some set nets for shrimp, or drop cages for lobster. Some snorkle to spear rays, octopus and squid, or gather conches. Some are drift-netters, and sell their catch to the factory boats, never bringing it ashore. Lately taking tourists along has been a good way to get a newer boat or bigger motor, and you can make big money with deep sea fly fishing or whale shark watching if you can master the competition. Most of these young guys do a little of everything, but the hook and line is their standard.

Daid says the restaurants will buy anything he can bring them in the morning, and sometimes all day. Covina and Mero will fetch 20 pesos per kilo, Corel and Esmadregal 30, Pompano 50. We caught a large Barracuda and asked if we should throw it back. “No,” Daid said, “ceviche.” When he decided we’d caught enough, we pulled up onto a sandy beach and he turned our barracuda into Mexican sushi.

Barracuda Ceviche
Serves 5

5 medium fish (~1 kg fresh weight)
5 limes
2 tomatoes
1 red onion
1 bunch of fresh cilantro
1 habanero pepper
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. white pepper

Filet the fish, removing skins, heads, tails, bones and innards. Dice the filets and place them into a large serving bowl. Dice the tomatoes and finely dice the onion, cilantro and habanero pepper. Halve and press the limes, rendering the juice into the bowl. Add salt and pepper and stir. Serve chilled with tostada chips.

Are these fishermen an endangered breed? Yes and no. Yes, because tourism in the Mayan Riviera is driving up the cost of living faster than what people can earn fishing. The breakneck and carefree development is also having a horrific environmental impact on bays, estuaries, rivers, and freshwater breeding grounds. If a catastrophe from offshore oil drilling or a tanker wreck were to happen near here, it would destroy the fishery instantly. Climate change is slowly destroying coastal living in a variety of ways, from stronger storms to eroding beaches. And of course, overfishing by multinational seine-netters to feed distant humans and their pets is constantly making it harder for local fishing village economies.

But no, because the price of oil will be tougher on those big guys than on the little ones, who can still row or sail to their fishing grounds. This place is naturally abundant from a confluence of factors, and, for the most part, these families don’t over-exploit that good fortune. A Mayan fisherman is content when he has caught enough. He doesn’t need to work more than about 4 hours in any day, nor does he have any motivation to work beyond that. He doesn’t have a savings account in the bank unless he is has need to pay off his boat or some other big expense. Neither did his father or grandfather. He is rich not because of what he owns, but because of what he expects.

He expects that tomorrow the fish will come by again, the same as they did today.

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