When Lobsters and Conch Were in Abundance

ight hundred pounds of lobster tails in the first day of delivery at the fishing cooperative! Wow! That is heartbreaking. When Edwardo quoted that figure which he had obtained from the manager of Caribeña Fishing Co-operative, I could not help but take my mind into the 1950's when I used to help my dad during the week prior to crayfish opening day and the first day of the season.

Large stack of lobster traps.
First of all the season used to open on July 15 and not June 15 like today. The week before, we used to make the rounds and checked every lobster trap called "crayfish path". If there were over six lobsters in the trap, my dad would pull it up and remove the lobsters and placed them in a crocus bag which carried about 50 to 60 lobsters. If the trap only had three or four my dad used to leave them with the idea that they would entice other lobsters to enter the trap. After a while we would have some four to five sacks and my dad would wet the bags occasionally so that the lobsters could stay alive. Believe it or not, lobsters breathe by means of gills just like fish, (I think) but they can remain alive out of the water for two to three hours. They would make a lot of noise at first, but after a while they would be quiet. This is when dad would head to the beach and empty the four bags of some two hundred lobsters into a big wooden container called "Juacales".

These were basically large boxes, which were sunk underwater in a grassy location where they could feed. Everyday the juacales would be placed on a different location where they could get more grass. Also the juacales had to be placed at an inconspicuous spot to avoid the tempting eye of an occasional thief. And one more thing, the juacales could not be too close to the beach where the water got too warm for then you would lose many lobsters. Some people say that the lobsters are only herbivores (feed on plants), but my dad used to feed them in the juacales with conch and fish. We also found out that they fed on the unfortunate ones that were changing shell or were shedding as is said in biological terms.

Opening of the lobster season was a day of excitement. After dragging the juacales to the shore or to a shallow spot, we placed the lobsters back in crocus sacks and loaded them unto the boat. I used a pair of thick canvas gloves, but my dad's hand was so thick that he grabbed the lobsters with his bare hands. My dad delivered some 70 to 80 sacks of whole lobsters. That was about 3,500 lobsters. That would be about 1,200 pounds of tails. However, the fishermen in the 1950's sold whole lobster for four cents, yes, 4 cents a pound. My uncle Genaro who had many more lobster paths brought some 120 sacks. He was considered a top fisherman and at four cents a pound he could net six thousand pounds or about $240.00 on day one. Wow, that was a lot of money considering that a family could live with $20.00 back then.

Day one was an exciting day in San Pedro 25 years ago or in the 1950's. The fishermen would line up at the beach waiting for their turn to deliver their catch of a week. There would literally be tons of lobsters in bags piled up on the beach. After receiving payments, the men would go home to announce their good luck. Bills would be paid at the local store and a new big stock would be bought. My dad usually took time also to purchase two new rolls of chicken wire for his fish trap, some paint for the house, and saved the rest, not in the bank but in a small wooden box which I never found out where he hid it. As I recollect those large amounts of lobsters caught in the early days, I cannot help thinking about how much money that would yield today on day one. Let's see, 3,500 pounds of whole lobster would give you some 1,166 pounds of lobster tails and at 16 dollars per pound that would be $ 18,656.00 on day one. Oh,how nice it would be to live in the 1950's with today's prices, but that would be asking too much, right?

My dad was a conch, fish and lobster fisherman. He had two wire fish traps, 200 wood lobster pats (traps), a small dory and a small 18-foot sailing boat. He worked his fishing grounds Mondays through Saturdays from 7 a.m. To 12 noon. Those were working hours of all fishermen.

During school days I could not help my dad in his fishing journeys, but on Saturdays I was up bright and early to go check the fish traps. The most exciting part of those Saturday fishing trips was the fun of trolling for barracuda along the reef on our return to the village.

Now let us find out why I call November the "fat month". It was this month that the northerly winds began to blow, just like this past Sunday. These northerly winds caused fish and lobster movements. The wire fish traps were loaded with hundreds of prized snappers and lobsters moved along the grassy and shallow seas.

Knowing this, my dad (and this is true of most families) got my brother and I up at 5a.m. We boarded our small dory and paddled our way about 500 feet from the beach right in front of the village. In our case it was in front of the Tackle Box Bar. There we spotted lines of lobsters moving in procession southwards.

The toughest part was jumping into the water at 5 a.m. in 65ºF weather. The water felt ice cold but the thrill of seeing hundreds of lobsters in line formation quickly made us forget the cold and got adapted to the water temperature. Not lying, in a matter of one hour we had three to four hundred lobsters on board.

The next difficult moment was coming out of the water and feeling the gusts of cold air. This happened for several days, perhaps 10 to 15 days in November; sometimes in December, depending when the northerlies started blowing over Ambergris Caye. Lobster sold at 15 cents per pound of whole lobster, and even at that rate it was considered a great catch. Thus my reason for calling it a Fat November 25 years ago.

CONCH EVERYWHERE: I did mention that we become nostalgic when we remember these. To enjoy a good conch dish today costs a fortune. And not only that, we do not enjoy conch as often as we could or should. I think you will agree that the most popular thing with conch today is the famous ceviche.

Well listen to this! I will not lie when I tell you that as a child I used to be able to roll up my pants up to my knees and walk a few feet off the beach and collect enough conchs for mom to make a huge pot of conch chowder for the entire family.

“Angel, if you do not want to eat fried fish for lunch, go get some conch for lunch,” my mom would say and I excitedly volunteered to do so. Tired of eating fish every day, I USED TO waddle into the sea on the shallow grassy area right in front of my house on the beach and picked up as many conch as my arms could embrace. After collecting what I considered enough for a hungry family of five, I expertly got the conch out of the shells, cleaned them into a white fillet, and took them home for mom at 11 a.m. By lunch time mom has a huge pot of conch soup, or conch chowder, even fritters. One of the specialties of our family was the conch beaten and tenderized with a mallet and prepared into what mom called ‘conch steaks.” These steaks were prepared in similar manner as you would do a beef steak with plenty of onions. Trust me it was difficult to stop eating. My dad used to say that he stopped eating because he was tired and not because he was full.

Just to add a bit more on this conch story, I will tell you that when conch was obtained for commercial purposes, you could take your dory (canoe) and paddle your way to the reef and in a matter of half an hour you would have your dory filled to capacity and I would say that was some 150 or 200 conch. Really and truly we did not have to go to the reef, but it was the shallowest spots for diving. Thus the distance midway between the beach and the reef required dives of some ten to fifteen feet and that was considered a bit more arduous.

On another note I would like to say that conch ceviche was not the “in thing” in those days. Conch ceviche became a popular dish when the bars and restaurants used it a promotional gimmick to attract clients. And one more thing on conch! The shells were used as foundation in the ground floors of houses once concrete floors came into being more or less in the 1970’s. . Instead of using steel, the conch shells did the job. Is that strong? I guess so because everyone used them and there were no cracks.

The only thing the San Pedranos and visitors of today know about conch is conch ceviche. However, here are several things you should know that only the older San Pedranos know.

There was a time that when conch was so abundant that you could pick up enough of them right along the beach at knee-deep distance for lunch or supper. If you swam out about 300 feet out into the deep, you could load a dory with some 100 conch in one hour's time.

At that time there were no restrictions on the size of conch, but the islanders never, ever captured small ones because of their abundance. One more thing, conch was very seldom used for ceviche. It was the main ingredient for conch soup, conch chowder, conch fritters which were dishes of the main menu.

Conch was also a good source of bait for hand line fishing because it was good for chumming and its meat is firm and not easily stolen from the hook. Finally San Pedranos remember that in the 1960's when construction steel was not yet being used, conch shells were used in the foundation and ground slab of concrete floors. You see, conch is more than just ceviche.

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