Five miles out
A day spent... fishing

Stabroek News
June 24, 2001

The time of the tide dictates a fisherman's life. If, when the world was born, the tide had come and gone in twelve hours instead of thirteen, fishermen could have gone to work at the same time every morning like everyone else. Instead their work starts an hour later each day.

So it is that on a June afternoon when children are normally coming home from school and housewives are folding laundry, a red and blue fishing boat sets off from the Windsor Forest koker on the West Coast of Demerara.

The 20ft open boat belongs to Hemchand Chanderbir who lives in the village. It is called rather unromantically but quite logically the H.Bir. It was his parents,' but they emigrated to Canada three years back and bequeathed it to him. He does not go out any more. He wanted to go tonight but his wife must have said something and he decides to stay home. He may have been swayed by the chicken cooking on the fireside. Instead, as we wait by the koker he introduces his crew.

Fish factory

The captain, Krishnat, is tall and wiry with lots of energy and a slightly rotting front tooth. His deputy is his elder brother Harry who is stocky with a 40 year-old's belly. Harry has been fishing for some 20 years. The other member is Sharief. He is short and likes to smoke a lot. He keeps his Bristols and matches in a jar so they don't get wet.

The flat-bottomed boat powered by a 40 hp motor slaps against the last of the incoming waves as we head out to the fishing grounds, five miles from the coast. The tide is almost full and water occasionally sprays over the prow causing Krishnat to put up his hand as if waving at someone. The other two sit side by side in their yellow rubber slicks, smoking. A couple of fishing boats follow behind. A pontoon goes past on the horizon on its way to collect rocks in the Essequibo.

The distant village is by now just a murmur of palm trees and white, yellow specks of houses in the late afternoon sun. Much like being in an airplane, the view gives no indication of how complicated the lives of humans there might be.

It takes about an hour to reach the fishing grounds which are located in a broad channel that runs along the coast and into the Essequibo River. Each fishing boat has its own set of poles which have been driven into the mud roughly in rows of eight and parallel to the shore. As we arrive, large sea birds reluctantly leave their perches on the greenheart poles and circle slowly in the sky.

These birds, called "fishermen" by the locals, have wingspans of up to six feet and live out on the sea almost all the time eating the dead fish tossed aside by the boats. The black cormorants have long beaks hooked down at the end, red raw gullets and their eyes are covered by feathers. They are not pretty. There are also large seagulls who fight amongst themselves for perches to spend the night.

By now the tide is beginning to turn. Sharief puts a pole over the side to confirm that the undercurrent has started to go out. They work quickly stringing the nets across the poles and pushing them under the water with a long hook. They go from pole to pole, Krishnat leaning over the prow and tugging the boat along. They do not talk much. They all know what their jobs are. Sharief prepares the nets, Harry attaches them. After twenty minutes all eight are in place.

They are called "Chiney" nets and have an opening of about 12ft square which tapers down like a cone to a length of 20ft. They are closed at the narrow end with a rope. As the tide goes out, the fish and shrimp are dragged along and go into the net where they are trapped. It is simple and it works.

Right away Harry starts pulling up the closed ends of the nets which are bulging and heavy with fish.

He undoes the rope and pours the catch into a bucket. He ties up the end and throws it back and then goes along to the next net. Sharief pours the bucket onto a wooden tray which hangs over the edge of the boat. Each basket gives up a squeaky chatter as fish called the kakwari seem to complain about their treatment. They sound like chickens clucking in the yard.

Sharief starts sorting the fish. Most of them are "rockheads." These are yellow and small ? only an inch long. He scrapes them overboard. Amongst them are some small bangamary which he hands over to Krishnat who is preparing bait.

Fishing does not require a lot of strength. The crew all say the work is easy and much better than the canefields or rice work. They have been doing it for long. Harry says, "we grow from small and get use to 'em." What it does require is a manual dexterity not unlike what a good seamstress has. There are ropes and knots and hooks. You must be very organised and Sharief is good at keeping the boat clean and everything in its right place. At times the work seems like a dance with the boat as a stage. There is no time to sit and stare and the hours are filled with well-horeographed activity.

The three chat about what they saw on television that day. Sharief says Channel Six was showing RoboCop.

Krishnat is preparing a line to catch catfish. He deftly baits a hundred hooks in a few minutes, laying them in a wooden tray to be released. He goes back to the motor and the boat sets off in the gloom to throw out the line. Harry stands on the port side throwing out the hooks and Sharief stands behind throwing anchors that keep the line near the bottom. Old bleach and corn oil bottles mark the line's position.

The boat returns to the nets and by now with the sun long gone under the Essequibo, it is time to turn on the battery-powered lamp which is just a simple bulb fixed to a pole. The channel is dotted now with maybe ten lamps, as boats from Goed Fortuin and even Ruimveldt work the falling tide. Some go out far looking for the precious gilbacker which sells for $500 a pound and other salt water fish such as snapper and trout. The daily harvest is enough for everyone and only time and the tide limit the catch.

Harry says business is good at the moment ? not like before when they had to go house to house selling. The large exporters buy up all the fish.

Amongst the small fish are shrimp or "white bellies." To separate them Harry leans far over the boat and submerges a wicker basket. He lets the small fish float or swim away and left in the bottom are the shrimp. It is a bit like panning for gold.

A full moon rises over Georgetown sending a broad corridor of yellow across the water. The crests of the waves glimmer as they pass by. By 10:00 pm all the shrimp have been caught for the night. Shrimp only like salt water so as the tide goes out further they follow. With the rainy season, the shrimp catch also goes down as the saltwater is diluted by the runoff from the land. The boat has become a mini fish-processing factory.

What start to appear later in the tide are some rather odd looking creatures. There is the dark red "banjuman," a mini sting-ray which has a long, razor-sharp tail. "It does cut bad," Krishnat warns and shows a scar on his hand. Then there is the "silver belt," long and thin as the name suggests; the "pimetoe" which has two bottom teeth like a little child's. "It does bite bad"; and the flounder, green and flat as a pancake - "This can live long... live till morning"; the kuma kuma, a relative of the catfish; and a miniature laulau with whiskers three times the length of its body. Big laulau grow to 500 lbs and inhabit the Essequibo punching holes through fishing nets like charging bulls.

Then there is the ugly looking jewfish or grouper; the sweet man (because its skin shines); a mini swordfish with a long beak. All these go back in the sea.

Fish that can be sold include the butterfish, pink and yellowy with a translucent skin, and Suriname mullet, small and silvery blue like the moon. The occasional foot-long basha appears. Sharief says, "it is sweet mixed up with a little tomatty paste."

As the tide goes out further it pulls fish who live close to the shore or even inland. This includes the "high water" fish. It is an indication of the tremendous draw of the river that such a backdam or sweet water fish can reach five miles out in the Atlantic. Highwater is best curried with green mango Harry advises, and promises to pick some mangoes when we get home. What also gets caught in the nets are a lot of plastic bags from Bakewell bread and chowmein brands.

Meanwhile the fish are piling up and Krishnat carefully empties them into picnic coolers and covers them with ice.

It is time to go pick up the catfish lines and despite the darkness Krishnat easily finds the bobbing bottles. Harry stands and lifts up the hooks as Krishnat slowly manoeuvres the boat along the line. They say nothing and only the occasional hand signal from Harry indicates where the boat should go. Some hooks have catfish. Harry swings them over the side and bashes their heads against the bench. This serves to tear the hooks from their mouths and kill or stun them at the same time. The fish have been biting and they collect about 30 medium size catfish some 18 inches long and some kuma kuma along with one cuirass.

It is 11.30 pm and the tide is slowing. The poles are exposed and the tops of the nets hang above the water. The birds still sit and sleep. The other boats are heading home calling out in the darkness. One captain can't stop talking, teasing Sharief about how he is this and that. Sharief just smiles; his cigarette fixed between his lips. He is not taking him on... the man got mouth worries.

The crew unhooks the nets and empties the last of the catch of mostly bangamary and a couple of catfish. It has been a decent night. They normally catch more shrimps but the season is passing. The crew will get a share of the take. Krishnat says a weekly wage is about $8000. They all say they like to "knock" a little drink on the weekend. Harry likes to play dominoes.

The tide is washing and the boat speeds to the shore. The work is done and it is time to eat. The men bring out their bowls of curry and roti. They chew slowly in silence under the huge starlit sky. At the koker they unload the boat and put the coolers with fish in the guard hut. In the morning the owner will come and sell to the hucksters.

The crew heads home. Harry's big wicker basket shades his face from the moon as he says goodbye and turns along the dam. Krishnat says he is going to work drift seine in the morning. They will all return tomorrow afternoon and head out again. Of course it will be an hour later. (William Walker)