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Fishing for fight and flying fish

By Tony Deyal

The Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, believed, “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you.” This is why I write a humorous column. Then the Spanish philosopher, George Santayana, took it from yesterday to today and tomorrow, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I was going to stop there and call this column “George”, but then I saw a newspaper article about the fishy business that has raised its humongous head, bigger than even a whale shark, once more in the Caribbean.

Before we get into the guts of the issue, I quote one of the great Caribbean leaders, another George, Sir George Alleyne, former head of PAHO (Pan American Health Organisation) who advised “Forget the past – the future will give you plenty to worry about.”

While a fish that is not smart is called a dumb bass, I didn’t know any fish that is as dumb as the two Caribbean governments which went to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, Netherlands, to resolve a conflict between Barbadians and TNT (Trinidad and Tobago).

What was it about? Not frying fish but flying fish. In early 2000, flying fish moved south of Barbados to Tobago. Barbadians who made a living from that industry had no choice but to follow the fish. TNT exploded. The legal officer of the foreign ministry insisted that TNT did not want a big bunch of boats from Barbados to descend “on our waters.” Trinidad and Tobago coast guards arrested two Bajan fishermen and confiscated their catch. The Barbados prime minister made it clear that he would not let TNT take advantage of ordinary citizens of his country. Both sides supposedly won when the arbitration eventually ended in 2006. However, as one Barbadian lady responded, “(They) draw a line in the ocean over flying fish! Mi dead!”

Now the All Tobago Fisherfolk Association (AFTA) has written to the Tobago-born, Trinidad and Tobago prime minister to deal with the Bajan fishermen. The AFTA president  said: “Enough is Enough.” So as the past repeats itself, this was my view in 2003 and repeats today for the Caribbean people who see the parts as parts but with a feeling of, and for, the whole region.

Parable of the fishes

Flying fish are very smart creatures. While we extol the intellectual capacity of whales and dolphins, the flying fish is forgotten. This is to ignore both language and ecological facts. The term for a group of whales can be “group” and in some special cases like the Orca “pods”. The use of the term “group” by whales to mean “group” shows that they are prosaic in the extreme and much of the intellectual capacity of their large brains are devoted to getting caught and supported in splendour by Sea World. Some are known as “pods” but this is also the term for groups of dolphins. Again, there is a certain lack of imagination in these species. Flipper notwithstanding, they seem destined for Disneyland.

The flying fish are different. Perhaps because they travel in schools, they have an intellectual dimension that the other marine creatures lack. This is why, once upon a time, all the flying fish of the Caribbean region got together to launch a major initiative, the Caribbean Single Marine Ecology (CSME). Refusing to be bound by national economic zones and frontiers, the flying fish decided that it was one Caribbean and they should come and go as they please. In that, they preceded and even pre-empted the Caribs and Arawaks for whom the entire Caribbean was home long before Columbus brought the bible, slavery and syphilis with him.

While there was hardly a ripple at the sub-surface level, there were many waves. First, there was Barbados which had dared call itself “The Land of the Flying Fish” without asking permission from the fish. While the fish felt proud of being so honoured, they also did not like to be compromised or tied down. The Caribbean was theirs and they wanted to be free to swim wherever and whenever they pleased. Sometimes, when they spoke, the inevitable Barbadian accent was noticeable and drew comments from other fish, but generally, they were allowed to roam the regional waters, caricoming and carigoing, without let, hindrance, passport or the inevitable caricomess. “Oi from Oistins,” one flying fish confided, “but oi am now a Caribbean Seatizen.”

TNT was also a problem. A few fish processors in Tobago wanted to make a killing both the fish and the Barbadians who were forced to buy back fish they considered their own. The Trinis sniggered at the discomfiture of the Barbadians and their embarrassment of having to buy Tobago flying fish to keep alive the myth that Barbados was the land of flying fish. Soon, there was a complete role reversal. The fish had a whale of a time enjoying the wider waters. Not so the humans. The philosophers of the flying fish schools divided the two warring human factions into carps and snappers. One group carped, and the other snapped. The fish enjoyed the respite, flying around to their hearts’ content, unconcerned about embargoes and trade agreements.

As fish, their perspective was personal and they saw everything on a scale of one to ten. They gave the dispute “one” in terms of content and significance, but hoped it would continue for as long as possible. They did not like their companions being fried and converted into “cutters” (Barbadian sandwiches) and welcomed the Coast Guard cutters as they guarded their precious feeding grounds which had become grounds for contention and confrontation. They were quite relieved when they heard one of the protagonists in the dispute say that he had other fish to fry.

The flying fish were philosophical. “Every dogfish will have his day,” they thought to themselves. “Today is ours. Tomorrow, who knows?” They had hoped that by going beyond the national boundaries and territorial waters they would start a trend that the other inhabitants of the region, the flippered, finned and feeted, would enthusiastically follow. Now they realised they were wrong. By daring to choose to create one Caribbean Sea, they were now deepening the dread divide that keeps the islands separate and apart. However, while things were going swimmingly for them, what happened to everyone else was no longer their concern. It was water under the bridge.

In Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago, nobody had a fish-eye view of events and the situation deteriorated with threats and counter-threats on both sides, accusations of lies and damned lies, and like a beached whale, the whole matter was blown and bloated out of proportion. The sardines all saw themselves as sharks, hammerheads to be exact. And now they’re back again threatening the Bajans.

*Tony Deyal was last seen saying if this story has a moral, it is that there are times when the big fish in little ponds must venture into the deeper waters where they will learn that unless we swim together we will sink separately. Instead of the fishes feeding us, we will feed the fishes.



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