Fishing Tales and Seaside Photographs from The Bahamas

Alessandro Sarno

Fishing in The Bahamas is like catching the subway in New York City—nearly everyone does it. This photo essay collects notes of inspiration from Bahamian fishers on how marine ecosystems and fisheries should be managed and on how conservation initiatives affect them.

Image © Photos and words by Alessandro Sarno

Alessandro Sarno

Image © Photos and words by Alessandro Sarno

As an Italian photographer who has documented life in The Bahamas for the past 13 years, I’ve come to understand that, directly or indirectly, the sea is the main source of income for this island nation.

Despite this, not all voices are equally heard when discussing how marine ecosystems and fisheries should be managed and how conservation initiatives affect all stakeholders of the sea, whether for the positive or negative. Because of this, I now offer you Bahamian fishers’ perspectives as told through my lens.

At the end of the day, local fishermen in Eleuthera clean, sort, pack, and prepare the fresh catch to be sold within the community.

Fishing in The Bahamas is like catching the subway in New York City—nearly everyone does it.

Net fishing, handline fishing, and spearfishing thrives in villages throughout the islands, where communities support themselves almost solely from the sea.
The daily catch is a common sight while strolling local docks.

However, it’s the commercial fishing sector that plays a major role in the Bahamian economy, generating some $80 million annually—and with such revenue come many regulations.

Fishing provides full-time employment to 9,300 commercial fishers, plus thousands more jobs in recreational fisheries, vessel maintenance, fish processing, retail, and trade.
Snapper—a staple of the fishing economy—are packed and readied for a shipment from Spanish Wells, the most important fishing town in The Bahamas.
Most Bahamian fishers realize the importance of abiding by the laws and respecting the limitations put in place to protect their fundamental resource.
Charles Fawkes, a fisherman from Cat Island, believes that “with all the laws in place, the fishing should still be good in Cat Island as long as we protect our waters from other countries coming in to steal our fish, conch, and lobster.”
I remember this day as very special, getting to photograph and experience a day in the life of Eleuthera fishermen who let me go out with them aboard their little boat. It was uncomfortable when it rained, but that didn’t dampen the shared enthusiasm of a plentiful catch of lobster, fish, and conch.

Another fisherman, Captain James Munroe from Eleuthera, believes in the importance of communicating, working together, and trying to address what he considers to be the main problem: poachers.

“I think in the next five years that if they don’t stop the poaching,” Munroe says, “it will be hard on fishermen in some areas.”
Captain James Munroe says that poachers come in during the closed seasons, work the areas nonstop, and take the undersized crawfish and those that are nesting.
The Bahamas Royal Defence Force reported almost 50,000 pounds of fisheries products as illegally poached between 2015 and 2017.

Amidst these growing concerns, in December 2020, the controversial Fisheries Bill passed unanimously in parliament, making fishing an industry reserved only for Bahamian citizens. Enforcing protections and legislation over the 90,000 square miles of aqua ocean that surrounds The Bahamas is no easy feat, and will take vigilance on the part of the government as well as conservation watchdogs who can alert authorities quickly if poachers show up.

Drones are used to help identify unauthorized vessels as well as serving to help researchers aerially track migrating populations of sea life, such as sharks, which are protected within The Bahamas as a critical part of the entire marine food chain.
When asked what Munroe thinks about the shark fishing ban, to my surprise, he says, “Right now there is a great population of sharks in The Bahamas. You could open for a few months and close so that it could replenish again.”
Sharks are so common in The Bahamas that seeing one is like having your morning coffee—they are just part of daily life.
Stevie, the Shark Whisperer, makes sure that guests of the island at Ship Channel Cay are safe during interactions with wildlife.
The colors of the Bahamian flag… Yellow, blue, and black.

On one of my recent trips to the Exumas, I met and photographed a true island character, 87-year-old Steven Cox, who has an in-depth knowledge of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. Cox has seen much from his decades on a small cay within the park, and he holds the only license to fish (for meals only) within those waters as he was there before the park was founded. These days, he is mostly found at home recounting stories of the sea, tending his vegetable patch, or picking papayas from his garden.

Steven Cox kindly offered me one of his delicious papayas, a natural treat known for aiding longevity and good health.

The Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park was established in 1958 as the world’s first land and sea park. A breathtaking place of beauty, the park prohibits extraction of any marine life, and these safeguards have allowed populations of Nassau grouper, queen conch, spiny lobster, and various fish to flourish over the decades within the healthiest coral reefs in The Bahamas.

Ospreys nest in cays throughout the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.
Noting the equilibrium between birds, fish, and a wide variety of life within the ecosystem is part of the day-to-day attentiveness and education programs overseen by the park officers.
The life of a park warden in the land and sea park involves careful attention to the weather and tides, as well as keeping visitors informed about the rules designed to keep the park flourishing.

Such compelling characters span the breadth of the islands. Morgan Bower, the daughter of a longtime friend, is a young Bahamian with a keen interest in marine conservation. She is currently working as a diver in Abaco for IDEA Relief, a disaster relief organization helping to remove the debris caused by Hurricane Dorian.

Morgan Bower’s love of nature was evident from a young age. Once, when I was visiting her dad, she sent us out to relocate some ducks that were swimming too close to sharks.
“I do believe that my generation has an understanding of the importance of a healthy ocean,” Bower tells me, “or let me say a better understanding compared to some of the older generations. I’ve noticed that they are more open to learning about the importance of it and a lot more people in my generation are becoming environmentalists. It all comes down to awareness in my opinion.”
Morgan Bower’s deep appreciation of nature is shared by many of her contemporaries.
A young dad teaches his daughter how to catch her first fish, handing down knowledge through the generations.
The joy of seaside fishing in waters as clear as glass has been part of Bahamian life for countless generations.
“If I see some wrongdoing—spearing a small lobster or taking an undersized conch—I let them know,” Bower says. “And if they question me on it, I explain to them the reason behind why we should respect the regulations.”
“Save the Oceans” was the overall theme of the annual Junkanoo parade in Nassau a few years ago. Protecting conch is proudly heralded in this display of extravagantly handmade costumes.
You can tell the age of a mature conch by how thick the lip of the shell is.
Something as small as the size of the lip on a conch shell can make a big difference in ensuring an ongoing wealth of this Bahamian cuisine staple.

Despite new generations and the majority of people understanding the importance of respecting the oceans, there are still many who don’t. Last winter I had a shocking experience that elucidates this.

While at a little restaurant in a fishing village on the north end of Great Exuma, I was shown a sea turtle chained by fishing ropes behind the bar, an animal destined for their “tasty soup.” After hitting the turtle with a stick to show me it was alive, the restaurant owner said, “Don’t tell anyone.” When asked why the owner would break the law, as killing sea turtles is illegal in The Bahamas, he said, “Because it’s a delicious aphrodisiac.”
Sea turtles have had full protection in Bahamian waters since 2009.

But for every negative example, there are more positive ones. Fisherman Joel Robertson is one such example. Robertson is a stone crab fisherman and has been fishing the Grand Bahama banks for over 30 years (but only recently did he get his own boat).

A variety of crabs from both land and sea are part of the Bahamian diet, and still abundant.
“Now that I finally have my own business,” Robertson says, “I can fish under my ethical beliefs of respect for the ocean and its creatures. In my younger years I went through turbulent times and, at some point, I found myself lost, like I was in the mercy of stormy waters without a sense of purpose or direction.”
A dark and stormy sky during summer afternoon thunderstorms in The Bahamas emphasizes the dazzling clear colors of the water in the shallow seas.

It was church that eventually gave Roberston his deep love of nature. His mission soon became to be one with the ocean, fishing with respect and advocating for sustainable and ethical fishing throughout the world.

“My ultimate goal,” Robertson says, “is to have the world ban the use of plastic traps of any kind in the ocean.” He is currently talking with a local biologist, Rachel Miller, to bring the subject up to the UN.
The remnants of fishing nets are a sad cleanup challenge and a reminder that there is more still to do in generating awareness of how tragically damaging plastics and any use of the ocean as a dumping ground can be.

Robertson explains to many of his crab fisher colleagues to strictly follow the Bahamian fishing laws and adopt all measures not to destroy the crab population, which serve the very important role of cleaning the ocean’s bottom and keeping it healthy.

“The key is being informed and communicating with the right voice,” Robertson says. “Then people, little by little, will understand.”
The Exumas, seen from the sky, look like a magnificent work of art. So many colors, shapes, and textures blend through the vibrant oceanscapes.

It’s clear that life on this planet fully depends on the oceans. In The Bahamas this is especially true—from recreation, to livelihood, to perseverance.

The bond I’ve seen between the Bahamian people and the sea is so essential: economically, culturally, even spiritually. The future of these waters depends on collaboration amongst its stakeholders—and listening to all the voices that represent them.

A young man gathers conchs, used in many favorite Bahamian dishes, while a young girl plays in the water in Gambier Village, New Providence—a small community that relies deeply on the sea.
Contributors

Alessandro Sarno

Photographer

Thirteen years ago, Alessandro Sarno made his first trip to The Bahamas. What started out as a short vacation transformed into a deep love for both photography and for The Bahamas. Sarno now considers photography his profession and his ongoing travel companion, with recent published books including Exumas—The Kingdom of Blue and The Exuma Cays Land & Sea Park.

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