25 YEARS AGO ON AMBERGRIS CAYE BY ANGEL NUÑEZ
How wonderful if this would be the situation today. If lobsters would exist in abundance today like twenty five years ago, all fishermen would be millionaires. And how come they are not millionaires if lobsters were in such abundance back then? Very simple, because the price was very low. Fishermen will recall when whole lobsters sold at 2 cents per pound, then 5 cents, then 10 and 15, and perhaps as much as 20 cents per pound of whole lobster. Then with the coming of the fishing cooperative, Caribeña, purchases were of tails only and there the prices started at about 50 cents per pound.
Well you all know the price today. But this column wants to give some examples of the times when lobster was in abundance. On delivery day, July 15, every year a typical fisherman would turn in about 50 bags full of lobsters. The really good ones showed up with a boatload of as much as 90 bags. The buyer, Mr. Efrain Guerrero, made several trips to Belize City to deliver the product.
Another thing fishermen remember with nostalgia was when their fishing traps became loaded with lobsters. You could see red patches from afar as you neared your trap. A trap could yield as many as 6 or 7 hundred lobsters on a good day in November when the northerly winds were blowing. There were as many as a hundred lobsters alone at the tail of a trap and those anybody could catch because they had not yet entered the trap. Therefore fishermen used to get up very early, at 4 in the morning, to visit the trap and get those at the tail first. After that, fishermen had to spear or catch the lobsters inside the trap so that they could get to the fish, for the lobsters were a nuisance and made casting the net a bit difficult.
Now about the underwater wooden lobster traps or crayfish path as they were called. A good trap in a good location yielded about 25 to 30 lobsters per trap. I had fun counting them aloud as my dad grabbed them one by one and put them in a crocus bag. With one hundred traps a fisherman could net two thousand lobsters per week. But darn it, that was only ten cents a pound.
Perhaps the best anecdote or fisherman tale was when lobsters were running during the cold northerly months of November and December. Red patches of lobster could be seen all over, right in front of the village. Even by the main pier in front of Big Daddy’s, you could load a dory in a matter of half an hour. I mean they formed lines as they paraded the sea- beds looking for food and shelter. Boys and their fathers used to hit the cold sea at four in the morning and literally raked the seabed with hook sticks or the famous loops or “lasso” as they were called. When we filled the dory, we went to the beach to unload and back to sea for some more. That is when fishermen used to say “langosta como arena” meaning lobster like sand or in great abundance. Yes, beautiful times twenty five years ago not only on opening day for the lobster season, but throughout the year.
It was December 2, 1959 and a cold northerly had been blowing for two days. The San Pedro fishermen were bracing for a cold month of December and with it the happy anticipation of a large lobster catch.
“Angel, are you going out with me tomorrow to catch some lobsters?” asked my father with a smile knowing full well that I would not turn down the invitation. “Yes, I will so be sure to wake me up,” I replied enthusiastically. “It is going to be colder than today and we have to jump in at five thirty with the first rays of the sunlight,” my dad assured.
The next morning low and behold it was really chilly as we poled our dory about five hundred feet from the beach right in front of the village. There were already about ten other dories, two or three fishermen in each one also preparing to dive in. I put on my fins and cleaned my mask while my dad gave me two weapons which I was to use to catch our most precious prey. One was a stick with a hook firmly fixed to the end and which, of course, we called a “hookstick”. The other weapon was another piece of stick with a wire hoop or lasso fixed on to the end. When we spotted a lobster we would dive towards it and place the hook under its body and with a firm pull we would hook the prey making it defenseless. It was more or less the same thing with the lasso. The hoop was carefully put around the tail of the crustacean and with a slight pull, the animal would be captured and placed into the dory.
After about an hour of swimming and diving surfacing only to place a fresh catch into the dory, I asked. “Dad, about how many do we have already?”
“I believe we have about a hundred and twenty five, and there is space for about 25 more,” said my dad. About half an hour later with a full dory dad and I got into the dory and both shivering and clattering our teeth when the cool breeze hit our bodies. “Put on your shirt, Angel,” said my dad and I did so without hesitating. That felt so good and I silently admired my dad’s audacity in being able to tolerate the wind chill factor. We poled our way towards the beach, pulled the dory slightly up shore and went for a most deserved breakfast of fried snappers with refried beans and hot flour tortillas which my mom had prepared for her two fishermen.
It was the first windy northerly hitting the Island and with it the lobsters made their move during the night because they are nocturnal feeders. In the day time they would hide under anything they could find- a small cave, a rock, branches, mangrove roots, coral, even the lobster traps. The San Pedro fishermen knew about this bonanza and made the best of it while luck lasted. Our catch this day was about two hundred pounds and at nine cents per pound of whole lobster, dad smiled all day long with his prize sale of 18 dollars. Sometimes this would go on for three to four days and it would happen up to four times during the month. Indeed December was a great month for fishermen and their families. It was a time to pay all the bills and even save some in the credit union. Good ole days twenty five years ago in the sleeping fishing village of San Pedro.