The tide was in. Water so blue, I couldn’t tell the horizon from the sea. Warm gusty winds had whipped the morning’s clouds to the edges of the sky—astonishingly far apart. Water was steadily covering and unveiling some gnarled rocks, channels carved out by tenacious rivulets. It was hard to imagine the perfect white sand wiped clean twice daily.
Only a long wooden jetty broke the scene. It stretched out into the ocean, anchoring dozens of colorful bobbing boats. But like everything in Barbados, they seemed no burden to the old structure. Fishermen were coming back in for lunch, hauling their morning catch across the rickety planks in large wheeled bins.
They were slowly congregating under some shady palms to my left—right by the famous Oistins Fish Fry (you haven’t been to Barbados unless you’ve been to ‘The Fry’). One of them waved me over with the island’s customary friendliness. “Sags,” the man extended a rough old hand. “That’s my nickname though. In Barbados, we only go by nicknames.” He pointed to the crowd of fisherman lazing by the water. “Not one of them would be able to tell you my real name.”
Sags grew up in the tiny fishing village, and has been living in the area ever since. Known as Bay Garden to the locals, it’s the place where the civil war between the Royalists and the Roundheads ended, resulting in the Charter of Barbados (Treaty of Oistins) being drawn in 1652. Also making Barbados the third oldest parliament in the world. But despite various guesses at Sag’s age, his poker face remained steely. “I’m very fit, no complaints,” was all I needed to know.
From a long line of Bajan fisherman, Sags lives and breathes the industry. He finished school at 14, learning how to fish and repair boats with his father. “We had a lot of poverty back then, and this place was not nearly as developed as it is now,” Sags said. “We’ve gone far beyond those days. Barbados now has one of the strongest economies in the West Indies.” It’s an economy that, like many Caribbean islands, relies heavily on the fishing industry. Not only for food, or even for the direct sales of fish, but for the social and cultural ties luring over half a million tourists to the tropical paradise each year.
For any farmer, land or sea, business is seasonal. From December to June is good fishing—with hauls of mahi mahi, wahu (kingfish), tuna, marlin, shark, garfish, barracuda, and the nationally celebrated flying fish. But the other six months of the year is hurricane season—what Barbadian fishermen refer to as “hard time season.”
The demand for fish in the off-season is filled with imports from countries like Trinidad, and Guyana—a well-documented source of angst for local fisherman. But Sags said this is a media-hyped myth. “We can’t fish too far out during the hurricane season, because the seas are just too rough for the boats. So we’re only really catching red snapper, grouper, amber fish, and bream then,” he said. Bajan fishermen are responsible caretakers—they understand supply and demand and no one resents imports. “There is nothing wrong with it. Because when our season is on, the amount of fish we catch is huge, meaning we rely on exports too.”
In the fresh market behind, flying fish—which make up about 65% of a yearly Bajan catch—were going for about $8 a pound (US$4). “Prices are high for flying fish right now, which means they’re pretty scarce,” Sags said. Named after their unique ability to stay airborne for long periods of time, flying fish travel with the current. “They’re coming from around 400-500 miles to the north, east, and south of Barbados,” Sags said. “The big fishing boats would only do about 300 miles out to sea maximum, so we have to wait for the tide to bring them to us.” From March through May boats bring in 50,000-60,000 flying fish a day, sometimes selling for as low as US$2 a pound.
“I’ve retired from the ocean now,” Sags said over an apt lunch of Barbados’ national dish—fried flying fish, cou-cou (cornmeal mashed with okra), and breadfruit—at a nearby local joint. What Sags actually meant, was he still wakes up at 5am each day to cast a net from his small boat, making a living selling sprats, jacks, or pilchards (sardines). “Here we clean them off and slice them in half, take some flour and spices to make a batter, and serve them on our cutters (Bajan sandwiches),” Sags said.
In between bites and sips of iced mauby (local drink made from tree bark), he told me most fishermen are skilled cooks. “We have gas and a stove on the big boats. So we cook, share, and eat everything while we’re out there. But mostly we eat fish, because it has more purity and gets us away from red meat.” The Bajan seaman trick is to boil the fish in saltwater before even cleaning them. “Then the skin is easy to peel and they taste so good,” Sags said.
Floating debris from African trees, shipwrecks, and Japanese trawler nets stealthily litter the open waters, ready to maul your propeller. “Everything you see on land, can be found hiding in the sea,” Sags said. There is so much life and danger in the ocean. But it goes seemingly unnoticed by the local fishermen, laughing and passing around sandwiches under the palms. “We’re accustomed,” Sags said. “When you live here, to go out fishing is life and death. The only thing in between is knowledge.”