The Conquerors of the Deep

lobsuwBy Charlotte de Fontaubert, Ph.D and Jay Harding
Photos by Charlotte de Fontaubert

As you meet Belongers during your visit to the Turks & Caicos Islands, do not hesitate to ask them which island they are from. If they come from South Caicos, ask them about the lobster fishermen there — you’ll be in for a lengthy description of their prowess, their skill and their courage. These are men of all ages who make a living by free diving (holding their breath) and gathering lobsters at depths that can reach 20 meters (60 feet). In that, they are unlike the recreational fishers of Florida who, endowed with SCUBA equipment and fancy gear, can spend close to an hour underwater to gather half a dozen lobsters.

Herein lies the South Caicos paradox: despite the fact that it provides a key commercial export product, the Spiny Lobster (Panulirus argus) fishery in the Turks & Caicos Islands is largely based on artisanship.
This is a story of men who have been fishing lobster for generations, passing on knowledge and skills from father to son, armed merely with a mask, snorkel, a pair of fins and the ubiquitous “hook,” a simple fishing hook attached to the end of a short stick.

South Caicos is a beautiful, pristine island. A small hotel and a few bed and breakfast establishments accommodate discerning tourists who have come for the spectacular diving and bonefishing. South Caicos is also home to the School for Field Studies Centre for Marine Resource Studies. Other tourist developments are in various stages of planning, but the local fishery constitutes the lungs of the South Caicos economy.

Fishermen engage in three sorts of fisheries: lobster, Queen conch (Strombus gigas) and finfish. While the latter is mostly destined for local consumption, the former two feed a significant export market and the same fishermen fish for both conch and lobster.

The conch fishery is regulated by a regional agreement that was adopted in application of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Once the specified quota is reached, conch can no longer be exported and the level of fishing decreases dramatically. Lobster are not regulated by CITES, but rather through a closed season system, whereby fishermen can only fish from August 1 to March 31. As a result, fishermen tend to switch from lobster to conch once the lobster season ends and fish conch until the quota is reached. The other restriction is that fishermen are not allowed to catch “shorts” (lobsters that are less than 84 mm in carapace length), mated females (identified by “tar-spots” on their underside) and gravid females (identified by aggregations of eggs or “berries” held externally on the underside of their tail).

The fishermen operate in teams of two to four on small vessels that have been specially fitted. Hulls of various makes are shipped into the Turks & Caicos, where they are stripped of their decking and interior outfitting. The remaining bare hull is then fitted with a small foredeck and center control console, between which a well is built to hold the lobsters. The primary purpose of these boats is to provide fast, agile transportation to run the fishermen from their home port to the fishing grounds on and around the Caicos and Turks banks. Additionally, being small and of relatively shallow draft, these boats enable fishers to navigate directly over the patch reefs that form the bulk of their targeted fishing areas on the banks.

As the boat exits the Cockburn Harbour, the crew settles in for a potentially long, rough trip across open water to their chosen reefs. Arriving at the first site, the “diver” begins to dive on the reef as the “keep up” man drives the boat in a holding pattern nearby. This method is for safety as well as efficiency. Should the diver encounter lobster, the boat can pick up the catch as the diver surfaces. Should the diver experience a problem such as a cramp, blackout or shark attack, the boat is able to rescue him as quickly as possible.

Indeed, lobster fishing can be a dangerous occupation. One of the major risks to a diver’s health is the ever-present possibility of complications during any of the hundreds of individual dives a fisher may make in a single day. The most dangerous is shallow-water blackout, a condition in which a diver will lose consciousness in the last 15 to 20 feet during an ascent to the surface, which can lead to drowning or neurological damage. Shark attacks are always a possibility, mainly from Caribbean Reef Sharks, Great Hammerheads and Bull Sharks.

As a result, most fishermen are extremely fit and apt at free diving. In fact, the best are those who combine aptitude at free diving with an inherited knowledge of the best reefs, the areas where lobsters aggregate in greatest numbers. Some of the fishermen learned to dive when they were as young as 10 and most have inherited their knowledge of the lobster from their fathers or other family members.

As in other fisheries, however, some less talented divers — in an attempt to increase the efficiency of their dives– have taken to using chemicals such as chlorine bleach and dishwashing detergent to flood cavities in the reef to drive lobsters out in the open where they can be more easily caught. This practice can have a substantial impact on the lobster stock by affecting the health of their habitat. This method of fishing is strictly illegal and severely sanctioned by the enforcement officers of the Department of Environment and Coastal Resources (DECR). Most fishermen, however, are well aware that they are stewards of their shared resources and look down on anyone who employs this kind of cheating.

lobster2The end of the day for the fishing crew arrives when they have caught enough or exhausted their resources for the day and they settle in for the ride back to port. At the dock, fishers transfer their catch to the processing plant where it is weighed and they are given a pay slip to be redeemed later for cash. The processing plants operate under strict U.S. health standards since a large portion of the catch is ultimately exported there.

Fishers are paid a per pound price for whole lobster. A typical day’s catch for a three-man crew ranges from 100 to 400 pounds, depending on luck, diver skill, and seasonal shifts in lobster abundance, which can range from 40 pounds at the end of the season (when lobsters are scarcer) to 800 pounds during the “Big Grab.”

The opening of the lobster season on August 1 is known on South Caicos as the “Big Grab.” During this time, many Belongers who may or may not reside in the TCI and typically do not fish for the entirety of their livelihood enter the fishery for the period’s “fast cash.” As lobster fishing has been closed from April 1 to July 31, these first few weeks in August and September can prove quite profitable for even the least skilled diver.

In many cases, the opening weeks of the lobster season are seen as a festival of sorts — Belongers who reside on other islands of the TCI and even in other countries return to one of the three main fishing islands, but most notably South Caicos, for a working vacation. Indeed, up to 40% of the annual lobster landing can take place in August alone. However, many of these Big Grab fishers will return to their primary jobs after a few weeks. When these part-timers leave the fishery, the full-time fishers will continue fishing lobster, at a reduced catch level, for the remainder of the season.

In addition to the unwelcome competition during the Big Grab, the fishermen must also deal with incursions from foreign poachers. Those tend to sail into TCI waters, harvest all that they can with no regard to the laws and restrictions of the Turks & Caicos, and then run back to their home ports with large catches of essentially stolen product. These operations range in scale from small, sail powered vessels to larger operations involving a storage boat with numerous small fishing skiffs supplying product. One that was captured in 2002 involved two 10 to 15 meter storage vessels that were being served by eight small skiffs. The skiffs had diving crews equipped with compressed air apparatus to capture the lobsters, which were then transferred to the storage vessels and kept on ice. This particular operation had been working for approximately 10 days before it was caught by local authorities. Undoubtedly, if it had not been shut down, the two vessels would have been filled before returning to their home port with large quantities of TCI lobster.

Nevertheless, the lobster industry in the Turks & Caicos Islands has a long-standing tradition of providing a good living for the hard working fishermen of the Islands. Generations of fishermen have based their livelihood on lobster and conch and will likely continue to do so despite the many challenges that they face daily. High prices for both fuel and equipment can create hardships that these skilled boatmen take in stride as they carve out a living while trying to preserve their country’s natural heritage.

As tourism continues to grow as an industry and the number of visitors who partake of the TCI’s vast ocean resources increases, the pressure on lobster and conch habitat will also increase. There is comfort, however, in the fact that the DECR staff, in tandem with community groups and fishermen alike, are working hard to conserve and preserve these valuable ocean resources for future generations.
The proud tradition of lobster and conch fishing will no doubt remain a pillar of the economy on South Caicos. And the fearless “conquerors of the deep” will continue to pass on this tradition, from generation to generation of Turks & Caicos Islanders.

Dr. Charlotte de Fontaubert taught Marine Policy and Marine Park Management at the School for Field Studies in 1997 and 2000. She is still a frequent visitor of the Turks & Caicos and calls South Caicos her second home.

James “Jay” Harding was an intern at the School for Field Studies in 1998–1999 and just completed his Master’s degree in Marine Affairs at the University of Rhode Island, where he wrote his thesis on the lobster fishery of the Turks & Caicos Islands.

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