No More Fancy Fish in Margarita

The dollar dynamics have changed the fishing industry on the island. The best fish is sold abroad for greenbacks and very few locals can enjoy the juiciest catch

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

I still remember the catalana snappers cooking on the stove, one for each member of the family, and another one just in case a guest came in. Their red color blazed against the fire and when you opened them up, the aroma of sweet chili peppers would serve as a preview of the savory pleasure. A warm arepa was the perfect companion for this delicacy produced by a simple margariteño that didn’t dream of being a chef.

I haven’t had that gastronomic delight in years. I haven’t even seen a catalana or any other fleshy red snapper, let alone the delicate, juicy groupers, because regardless of what we catch in Margarita, we always get the short end of the stick. 

What you see in the markets are small fish, whose names are only known by the well versed. Fishermen have to pay a high price to work with fishnets, lines, and hooks. They depend on the black market to get fuel and engine oil. The drop in locals’ purchasing power, plus the chance of selling fish in dollars offshore, have caused fishermen to sell their best fish to whoever has dollars. So most margariteños have to settle for not-so-appetizing fish that get caught in the nets.

The Dollar Decides

“Fishing falls under the laws of supply and demand, even for humble fishermen,” says Walter González, professor at the Escuela de Ciencias Aplicadas del Mar (School for Applied Sea Sciences) in the Marine Biology program of the Universidad de Oriente. The variation in the availability of marine species for consumption, he says, is caused by how they’re marketed offshore: “Some species are very sought after, like the red snapper, the grouper, or even the mackerel, that are now rarely served in Margarita because they’re taken to other islands; they’re more valuable in Trinidad and Tobago, for example. There’s a high variety of edible fish here, like blue fishes: tuna, pompano, mackerel, sawfish, sardines. But those with a high commercial value, don’t even reach our docks.”

The researcher also claims that high load capacity boats anchor by the islands of Los Testigos and Los Frailes, waiting for fishermen from Margarita and Sucre who head over there to offer their products, which are then sold abroad.

Fishing production has certainly continued in Margarita, it’s just that for the regular margariteño, the fish that they were used to eating has become harder to purchase, because of their availability and price. People are inclined to buy sardines or skates, while red snapper or groupers are way beyond their means. That means that the balance of supply and demand is off, according to González.

Even at ports where the fishermen dock, what’s available goes to a preferential market that values the fish at a higher price than what regular folk can afford. Photo by Rodolfo González.

Mackerel is in season, so it’s available, with prices ranging between $3 and $5 per kilo. Once the season ends, fishermen will have to travel farther, so the price could go up to $8.

From Fisherman to Buyer

Margarita is a strategic and valuable place for traditional fishing, thanks to the abundance of species that are found in its banks, and the large schools that go by every season.

In his youth, Pedro García earned a living as a fisherman, but nowadays he has to fight his way to good fish. He goes every week to El Tirano, once one of the most important ports in the island, to buy fish or to trade it for flour, rice, or pasta. “You don’t see the fishermen boats like before, filled to the brim with red snapper, mackerel, sawfish, cuna grouper, barracudas or medregal tuna,” he says. “It’s almost impossible to buy a kilo of good fish at the beach if you only have bolivars. The refrigerated trucks and the cold rooms near the beach are first in line for purchase, because they’re the ones providing fishermen with engine oil and fuel.”

“What you’ll find is second rate fish, what the regular margariteño buys, in bolivars or bartering: yellowhead jawfish, white grunt, megrim, crevalle jack, yellow jack, guatacara, cataco, whitespotted filefish, cachama, guaquinillo, arará white grunt. In the Los Frailes islands, you’ll see a different scenario, where high-end boats spend the night and then buy the best fish to take to the smaller islands: Trinidad, Martinique, St. Lucia, Guadalupe, St. Vincent. All paid in dollars.”

“At other important ports, like Manzanillo, fishing is done with nets, so the yellow jack, pompano, carachana pintada, catfish, white grunt, and sardine are common. We’re talking about a catch of between 20 to 70 tonnes per casting. The same thing happens there, the best fish are sold outside of the island, while the owners of the fishing trains and machinery give the residents some of what they catch; that noble gesture, as we call it here, has helped us against hunger for the last five years.”

María Tineo is a teacher and member of a fishing family. She says that traditional fishing has become a threat, as it was during the bottom-trawling fishing period, because boats and refrigerated trucks get all the fish, including the small ones that haven’t finished growing, endangering the reproduction for these species.

Fishermen have another threat to deal with: crime. Those spending the night in Los Frailes run the risk to save fuel, because their engines and even their food can be stolen. Many fishermen who have been robbed leave the trade or quit to try their luck into the high seas, where the best fish can be caught.

Lesly Indriago is a young fisherwoman. She started when she was 14 years old, quitting school for a job that provides enough income. She used to spend the night in Los Frailes, along with her partner and small children. Last month, a group of armed masked men raided her family’s quarters, stole four engines, and their food supply. “My kids were screaming non-stop. We can’t stay there anymore.” But Lesly has another problem: she has no boat or engine, so she was taken off the list of those allowed to buy fuel. “I can borrow from someone, but what’s the point if I don’t have fuel? Plus, there’s also the risk of my fishing train (a large fishing net) getting stolen, because that beach gets very lonely.”

Fishermen have another threat to deal with: crime.

On July 1st, the octopus season began, even though some fishermen were already fishing them, taking the risk of confiscation by the National Guard. Merchants are selling it for $2.10 per kilo. Once the legal season begins, the battle to settle on a price by the truck owners begins. Octopus is sold by the sack to the cold rooms which store and pile it up until the season is closed, and then sell it at a better price. Fishermen will give away a few to those helping pull the boat to shore, then they sell it to small merchants and the product becomes available before the truck owners monopolize it.

Octopus season is a period of relative prosperity because it brings a lot of people to the beach, and neighbors go and sell cakes, desserts, bracelets or necklaces.

If you aren’t lucky enough to buy good fish at the ports, you can go to the Los Cocos Market, in Porlamar. You’ll find everything, because that’s where the truck owners trade.

Clams and Mussels Are Getting Scarce

The tripa ‘e perla clam that used to be sold by women door to door at very low prices, is now very rare.

The banks where several bivalve species live are located between the island of Cubagua and Punta de Piedras: there, the pata ‘e cabra clam, tripa ‘e perla clam, West Indian fighting conch, Mother of Pearl, mussels and other species are extracted. They’re taken to Punta de Piedras where the largest group of shellers (who boil and open the shells) are found.

Pedro García states that this is caused by two reasons;  first, the mollusc banks are running out due to over-exploitation, since more fishermen see them as a way to make a living, with their high demand; second, there’s a low supply of engine oil, fuel, and parts for outboard motorboats. These hurdles steer the fisherman towards large head hairtails, for example, which are pricier, or macro algae, sought after by Koreans, which are exported from the island.

We’re talking about a catch of between 20 to 70 tonnes per casting. The same thing happens there, the best fish are sold outside of the island.

Walter González adds that the traditional way of extracting clams and other molluscs, called raking, is very aggressive and it can destroy their natural banks.

Even at ports where the boats dock, what’s available goes to a preferential market that values them at a much higher price than what regular folk can afford. In Manzanillo, where mussels are extracted, a favored snack at parties and events, you used to get them by the sack between July and August. This species, which isn’t very common in its natural habitat, has also decreased its number because of human predators and its price. You can run into the scuba divers near noon, arriving with half a sack or less, offering them for $4 a kilo already shelled, or $1.50 closed. Having a plate of mussel soup with margariteño chili peppers is almost a memory now.

The Largehead Hairtail Case

In 2017, the Fishing and Aquaculture Ministry (Ministerio del Poder Popular de Pesca y Acuicultura) limited the permits given to export largehead hairtail, to bring down prices and protect the hydro biological resources from over-exploitation.  High demand for this species, that used to be handed out to those who helped pull the fishing train, made its price go up even above the mackerel’s.

According to Professor Walter González, Chinese factories in Margarita fix the price in dollars and then export it. The trucks take it to Porlamar, where it’s cleaned up and packaged. But they also take octopus, squid, red snapper and grouper.

For González, China and Japan have run down the largehead hairtail across the world. They’ve fished it excessively because they’re very sought after in their traditional cuisine.

Renowned chef Rubén Santiago, creator of the pastel de chucho, expresses his amazement at the prices that the largehead hairtail has reached, along with the catalana red snapper: “The largehead hairtail was barely eaten and it reached astronomical prices; people forgot what it is to eat a largehead hairtail. The smooth puffer fish, which used to bother fishermen because it swallows the fish hook, has disappeared today because it has a very particular meat. Same thing happens with the medregal tuna, red snapper, grouper, shrimp, squid.”

Santiago acknowledges that, despite the high prices, his restaurant carries on with its job. “Today, a kilo of mackerel goes for between $4 and $5, same as red snapper, but we pay whatever the cost is because customers ask for those dishes.”

Rubén claims that “in Caracas, you find fish markets where prices are like Cartier’s”. Chances are that they carry those tasty species that fishermen in Margarita pick out for the ice trucks, taking them away from the island.