A Close Encounter of the Third World: West Indian Fishermen & Supertankers


On a rocky beach on St. Lucia's leeward (western) coast, harry and I place our gear in Simon's little wooden chaloupe, lay some logs out and roll he "Good Shepherd" into the sea. As I sit on the bow, Harry is at the stern, feeding line baited with sardines into the water while, in the middle, Simon rows with tree-limb oars. The soft splash of the oars and Harry's nonstop discourse in patois add life the noise of the construction equipment that continues to create a new environment.

Simon rows as close as possible to the shoreline of the Amerada Hess oil terminal project. We are impressed by the magnitude and efficiency of the construction as if transforms over 600 acres of a tropical alluvial valley and sheltered bay into an artificially made landscape of perfectly graded slopes covered with uniformly gray rock. The color-coded pipes in shades of green, yellow and red are placed at angles just right for the gravity-fed loading and unloading operations. Dump trucks seem like matchbox toys as they pass beneath the shadows of 66-foot-high petroleum storage tanks, two of which can hold the crude oil contained in an average-sized supertanker. The gleaming dock in bright red and yellow, a maze of pipes and mechanical arms, looks like the berth for an alien spacecraft, an apt metaphor for this industrial enclave. Viewed within the context of St. Lucia, its mechanical orderliness contrasts with the struggling disorder of Castries - the capital city, only four miles away - its lifeless efficiency set against the lush hillsides and rural communities surrounding it. Only the crabs clinging to the rocks along the shoreline add life to the scenery, their vigilance a reminder that this is still St. Lucia.

Why St. Lucia?

For Amerada Hess, an American petroleum corporation, this technically sophisticated, capital-intensive project provides a deep-water port capable of accommodating the world's largest ships in close proximity to its 700,000-barrel-pre-day refinery in St. Croix of the US Virgin Islands. Supertankers transporting crude oil from the Middle East, Africa and Alaska can unload part of their cargo in St. Lucia before continuing on to St. Croix's much shallower port. This transshipment procedure eliminates the need for unloading to smaller tankers at sea, a costly and potentially more hazardous method. Smaller tankers carry the remaining oil sores in St. Lucia on to St. Croix where, after refining, the petroleum products are shipped to the US East Coast and marketed. Liberal financial concessions from the St. Lucian government, increased leverage in negotiating future contracts with the government of the Virgin Islands, an exemption from all taxes for at least 50 years and greater corporate flexibility are additional reasons Amerada Hess chose Cul de Sac Bay for the site of its petroleum terminal. The St. Croix refinery and the St. Lucian oil terminal are operated as separate subsidiaries by the parent firm. This allows the corporation to take advantage of transfer pricing, an accounting procedure that enables the corporation to declare its profits in tax havens like St. Lucia rather than in St. Croix where they are subject to American tax laws. In return for these concessions, the St. Lucian government receives a two cent (US) throughput charge on every barrel of oil or petroleum product shipped into and exported from the terminal. In the event the corporation builds the refinery, the government will receive a four-cent-per-barrel fee for all products produced and exported.

To the government of St. Lucia, the austere landscape of the oil terminal represents the foundation of an economic strategy designed to alleviate the island's economic problems and provide a catalyst for development. The Amerada Hess project is seen as a significant step in diversifying an economy almost entirely dependent upon a declining banana industry and the fickle tastes of tourists. By attracting Amerada Hess and other multinational corporations willing to transfer technology, the government hopes to break free of the island's legacy as an exporter of primary crops, employ it growing population and secure a stable source of revenue.

A Rural Ecosystem and Rural Economic Strategies

For Simon and Harry, as well as many other rural St. Lucians, this new industrial development is particularly significant. It has replaced a large portion of an environment that was an essential part of their lives. For over 200 years, prior to the oil project, the Cul de Sac Valley had been devoted exclusively to the production of primary crops for export.

Fishing has always been an essential ingredient in the multiple job strategies of Cul de Sac Valley residents. For many men it has been a primary occupation; for many others, it has been an important secondary source of both earnings and sustenance. As one Barre St. Joseph fisherman explained his fishing strategy, "If I was working, I'd go on Saturday. If not working, I'd go all week." The deep-sea and inshore fishermen of bayside villages almost always combined their various fishing strategies with other occupational pursuits. Within fishing itself, they combined several methods in order to remain responsive to the variable productivity of different marine environments. Allan, a young deep-sea captain, advised me that, "When you're fisherman, for a living you must do all kinds of fishing. You must not depend on only one kind."

For most of its agricultural history, Cul de Sac Valley was cultivated in sugar cane. In the late 1950s, when the sugar industry collapsed, bananas were introduced. Since the abolition of slavery in 1838, plantation workers living in hillside communities above the valley have sustained themselves by combining their meager wages with access to the plantations' marginal land and by exploiting the marine resources of Cul de Sac Bay. The bay has always been an important component in the economic strategies of the area residents. Fishermen have beached their boats on its shores and fished in its sheltered water; valley residents have depended on it for easily obtained protein, bathed in it and socialized on its beaches.

During the sugar cane era, fishing was closely integrated into the crop's cycle. The harvest coincided with the peak flying fish season. To meet the seasonal workers' demand for fish, men would go to sea after they got off from their graveyard shifts at the sugar processing factory. The most favorable climatic conditions for net fishing also paralleled the cane harvest. Net fishermen explained that during he cane harvest there were so many seasonal workers without gardens or other supplementary sources of income that it was easy to get help pulling their nets. These seasonal workers would then take their shares and sell them. After the harvest when the seasonal workers left, estate work diminished and the flying fish season ended, so local fishermen would switch to setting pots inside the bay and bottom fishing over banks outside it. With only the smaller, permanent valley population as a market, the fishermen's wives often found it necessary to carry the fish in baskets to hillside communities to sell.

The replacement of sugar cane with bananas and the closing of the Cul de Sac estate sugar factory coincided with the period when outboard engines were gradually replacing cotton flour sack sails as the power source for canoes. These events introduced change to men's fishing strategies. The closing of the factory eliminated an important wage-earning component to many fishermen's economic strategies, and the unemployment of other factory workers and seasonal cane cutters decreased the bay's importance as a market for their catch. Some fishermen invested in the new technology, intensifying their effort, while other shifted to near-shore methods requiring less labor and only a minimal investment in technology. The principal resources they depended upon as fishermen - the bay and its fisheries - remained constant; only their relations to it changed.

Fishing Strategies

The term "deep-sea" fishing is often used by St. Lucian fishermen to describe fishing that takes place outside or on the edge of the insular shelf, often beyond the sight of land. Four kinds of fishing occur here: flying fish fishing; trolling for tuna, kingfish and dolphin; bottom fishing for demersal species; and the harpooning of porpoise and pilot whales known locally as blackfish. On the leeward coast of the island many fishermen concentrate on flying fish while fishermen on the windward side or east coast of St. Lucia and those living in leeward side villages close to the island's northern and southern extremities concentrate on tuna, kingfish and dolphin. Commercially, tuna, knigfish and dolphin are the most important, accounting for over 70 percent of the estimated 1,400 tons of fish caught annually in St. Lucia.

The expense of owning and operating deep-sea equipment encourages a full-time commitment on the part of these fishermen. Although "deep-sea" fishermen can make approximately US $100 a week during, the peak flying fish season, they are often subject to gluts which deflate the price and periods of scarcity when they catch very little. To make the most of their investment, they make fishing their primary occupation. After the flying fish season, they shift to various bottom-fishing methods.

Bottom fishing for snapper and grouper can be carried out year round, but usually most "deep-sea" fishermen only employ this technique at the conclusion of the pelagic season. The rewards of bottom fishing can be substantial, but fishermen consider it to be the most labor-intensive and time-consuming technique they employ.

Deep-sea fishermen and net fishermen rely almost exclusively on the dugout canoe, a vessel with origins extending back at least to the time of the Carib Indians. The modern version remains a hollowed-out gommier tree with ribs of while cedar and gunwales of pine. It has been adapted for use with outboard engines and has withstood several development schemes aimed at introducing vessels of more modern material and design. Typically, three men make up the crew of the deep-sea canoe.

Inshore fishing in St. Lucia involves a multitude of methods to take fish in a variety of habitats. Fishermen use several kinds of nets to capture species of fish that occur along the coast, in bays and around coral reefs. Fishpots, handlines, trolling, spear guns, the gathering of shellfish and lobster with and without scuba equipment, and even the use of dynamite are other inshore methods used by St. Lucian fishermen. Inshore fishing with a chaloupe is within the reach of many men; if offers them a way of obtaining food for their households as well as some cash without a large capital investment and with little financial or personal risk. Young men are proud of their hand made spear guns and their ability to use them.

Simon, a fishermen from the village of Ciceron on the bay's north side, exemplified the multiple approach of combining subsistence activities with cash-generating jobs, and of combining the work of several to support a single household. He considers himself a fishermen, preferring it to other kinds of work. He also keeps several pigs, squats a garden, works as a security guard and drives a truck whenever he can find work. On three occasions, Simon has migrated to the United States for work, picking apples in Michigan and cutting cane in Florida. Simon's wife works as a maid at a hotel during the tourist season; his grown daughter sews clothes on the front porch; and his oldest son recently migrated to Martinique, where he hopes to fin work doing auto-body repair.

Before Amerada Hess came to the bay, Simon's most reliable source of income and protein for his family was from fishing. He combined seasonal flying fish fishing with a variety of inshore techniques that he could employ year round. This strategy permitted Simon to shift his methods to complement the known conditions of the environment, thus maximizing his fishing effort. For this strategy to be successful, the fisherman must have access to a wide range of marine environments. Deep-sea environs provide the opportunity for seasonal cash earning; inshore areas supply less certain and constant resources; but usually at a less lucrative level. One fisherman summed up the dual nature of his way of life: "When I catch a lot, I sell; when I catch a little, I eat." Cul de Sac Bay and the surrounding area was, until 1977, the constant, secure factor in these fishermen's economic equation. The bay's beaches provided fishermen with a safe, easily accessible place to beach their boats. Nearby villages assured them of a market for their catch and help beaching their canoes. The bay itself provided a rich inshore area to fish, and the almost daily presence of net fishermen supplied both deep-sea and inshore fishermen with a steady source of bait.

From Bay to Superport

One of the many techniques used by St. Lucian fishermen, seine net fishing, requires access to sandy beaches and a calm shoreline without obstructions. As a result, seine fishermen openly observe territorial rights to beaches close to their respective villages. The seine owners of Anse la Raye, together with two seine owners from the Roseau Valley, a large agricultural valley south of Cul de Sac Valley, regarded Cul de Sac Bay and five other leeward coast bays as being within their territory. The bay was known for being calm even when the surf at other beaches was rough, and the presence of hillside villages assured the fishermen of help pulling in their nets. Net fishermen using smaller surface gill nets and sinking nets also came to Cul de Sac Bay on a regular basis.

With the coming of the sandsucker dredge and a vast assortment of earthmoving equipment to build the new oil terminal, the bay - as well as part of the valley - was transformed. In order to accommodate crude oil supertankers, many parts of the bay ecosystem were destroyed and what remained was irrevocably altered. The bay was dredged and new landforms created. Forty acres of land were created on the bay's south side by covering two of the bay's beaches and the long reef with earth from the two mountains that were leveled. On the north, rock and sediments from the dredging operation were used to extend the land 100m from cliffs formerly washed by the sea. These new landforms have been stabilized by riprapping, the placing of huge boulders along the new shoreline to buffer the eroding force of the waves. On the south shore, the new landform supports huge crude oil holding tanks; and on the north, the new landform is the future site of a hoped-for industrial free port.

The effect of buying two of the bay's beaches and a reef system extending along the southern shoreline under this earth was absolutely devastating. Dredging the bay's banks and sea-bottom was equally destructive. The habitats of most of the bay's indigenous marine species were eliminated. The release of sea-bottom sediments and soil into the bay continues to cause turbidity and situation, conditions that affect marine life long after the initial disruption. Turbidity cuts down available light to plants and coral, and siltation covers them with a smothering film. The negative effects on these primary food sources and fish habitats are both rapid and catastrophic. "By pushing the sea out and making it deeper, Mr. Hess has chased the fish away; " this comment by one of St. Lucia's few fisherwomen summed up the sentiment of every fisherman with whom I spoke.

It is apparently that resources essential to inshore, deep-sea and net fishermen were destroyed in the process of constructing St. Lucia's first large-scale industrial development. The reefs and banks where fishermen once set their fishpots no longer exist. The beach on which both deep-sea and inshore fishermen kept their canoes and chaloupes, and two of the three beaches where seine fishermen cast their nets, are now buried under millions of tons of earth. "If you see a lobster now, its a dream," is one fisherman assessment of the bay's changes. Harry is even more to the point: "As Hess take over there, it kill the place; it kill the place entirely."

The Demise of Fishing

The bay's alteration has affected the fishermen's strategies in many ways. A fundamental loss for all of the valley's residents, but especially for the fishermen, has been easy access to the bay. The fence surrounding the oil terminal has cut the people of Barre St. Joseph - a hillside village a few hundred meters southeast of the bay - and other nearby communities off from the sea. As a result, well-worn paths that for generations had carried the weight of villagers as they went to and from the bay are gone.

Charles, a deep-sea fisherman from Barre St. Joseph, used to be able to carry his gear from his house to the bay in ten minutes. Now it takes him 35 to 40 minutes. This additional effort combined with other changes in the bay's environment have discouraged him from continuing to fish. Without reefs and banks, there is little reason to fish in the bay; and with access impeded, fewer people are on the beach to help him beach a canoe or buy his fish. Now he rarely fishes: "All that is finished now. There is no more room for the fisherman."

Discouraged from fishing and unable to find work or to maintain their self-sufficiency, some fishermen like Charles looked to the city for jobs. "I like the sea better, but after Hess, I went to Castries and worked on the docks more." Now Charles takes turns with over 100 other men loading and unloading ships. But even there, industrialization is pushing them aside. Recently, the introduction of forklifts cut down the number of stevedores needed per ship. For Charles and his family, the valley's and bay's changing role in the St. Lucian economy has produced only costs. The alteration of their environment has alienated them from their traditional economic endeavors without offering them any new opportunities.

Crude oil storage tanks rest on two of the beaches from which fishermen formerly cast. The remaining beach is in an impaired state and not considered safe to use; it is scattered with construction debris and buoys in the water restrict the casting of seines. Dredging the bay has contributed to the rapid erosion of this beach, exposing rocks. Most detrimental of all is the creation of an underwater cliff where the shallow shoreline meets the 90-foot-deep dredge cut. Pulling in nets on this beach now raises the danger of ripping them on exposed rock and collecting rocks and muddy sediments that accelerate net deterioration. Such equipment risks combined with the bay's radical alteration have convinced most fisherman that casting the seine at Cul de Sac Bay in unproductive and hazardous. When I asked net owners why they did not take their nets to other beaches along the coast, they explained that such an action would result in "war," since those beaches are regarded as the territory of seines from other villages.

Although it is still possible to make money from a seine net, the rewards are much less. Seine owners complain about the rising prices for equipment and the steadily declining catch. At one time, most owners had engines for their canoes, but now only two can afford them. After itemizing the costs of his equipment and its maintenance, I asked an owner whether or not he would buy a seine now if he were starting out as a young fisherman. He replied, I own three nets, a bonito, a seine here and a seine in Gros Islet. I would sell all three at half price if I could find a buyer.

All of the owners are over 45 years of age, as are most of the men who make up their crews. Most of them have not worked at any other occupation since the end of the sugar cane era in 1960. Too old to start over, specialists in an endangered industry, indebted and without additional components to their economic strategy, the seine fishermen of Anse La Raye continue trying to make a living from the sea. As one fisherman stated, "We are fishermen; there are no other jobs."

Postscript. Since the early 1970s, the seine industry in St. Lucia has been under attack by outside development encroaching on beaches. In Gros Islet, a large tourist development destroyed two beaches used daily by seine fishermen. If another planned oil terminal become a reality, the fishermen of Anse La Raye will lose one of their six remaining beaches. As one government official explained, "Fishing is an important industry, but a $100,000,000 project takes priority, and if Anse Cochon [a leeward-side bay and proposed oil project site] becomes a reality, I'm sure government won't think twice about the fishermen."

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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