For Isla Mujeres, the Island of Women on the Caribbean side of Mexico that is surrounded by water and fish, lobsters and conch, fishing was the economic mainstay of the island until the tourism industry began to prosper in the 1980s.
There are still island fishermen, much fewer in numbers, who scrape out a living from the ocean; fishing, or diving for lobster, or harvesting conch. At dawn the crews head out hopefully to haul in fish-laden nets, maneuvering open deck, panga-style boats through the turquoise water.
Rain or shine, it doesn’t matter. If they are lucky, four or five fishermen per boat will be needed to drag the nets on board. In the evening the crews return to their favorite locations and reset the nets for the night hoping for another successful catch.
There are several fishing coops around the island, each with their own group of men and boats that have worked together for a lifetime. When not out on the water they gather to clean the fishing nets, picking of bits of entangled seaweed, share a beer or two and shoot the breeze about the good old days; the bigger fish, and the larger hauls.
Prepared nets are hung to dry across a shaft of wood nailed between two palm trees, or piled in orderly mounds on the white sand beaches. Lobster traps are stacked as high as a man can reach, waiting for the season to start.
When the weather turns grumpy, with strong winds and high waves, the port captain restricts small boat traffic until conditions normalize. However, a short port closure can be beneficial to the fleet. It gives the fishermen time to make repairs to their boats and to their equipment, repairs that are put off until bad weather keeps the fleet in harbor.
The mesh nets are strung between palm trees, or crisscrossed under the covered basketball domes while the men search for rips in the weave. The mending process is similar to the technique for weaving hammocks. Holding a wooden bobbin in one hand and a tough nylon line in the other their hands weave in and out, neatly filling in the torn area. It’s a beautiful skill.
On the days when the port is closed, keeping the small boats in the harbor, most restaurant workers will tell you that there is no fish on their menu that day. Others might have a supply of frozen fish from previous catches, and still others might substitute with a Vietnamese basa, a river-caught fish, uniform in shape, and softer in texture. Basa is not our favorite, though, and we will usually change our meal selection to something that doesn’t include fish until the fresh supplies are replenished.
As you enjoy your locally caught fish in a restaurant on Isla Mujeres think about the folks that make that tasty meal possible, working whenever the weather allows the small open boats to ply the waters, hauling in fish, cleaning the catch at the end of the day and repairing nets on the stormy days in preparation for the next day’s work.
It’s a physically demanding job, dangerous at times but for those who do the work there is no other job that gives them so much enjoyment.
The writers are Canadians who have been full-time residents of Isla Mujeres for nearly 10 years. You can read their blog here.