Masbangos (bigeye mackerels) are very popular among the people of the island of Bonaire, in the Dutch Caribbean. The Masbangos are the primary food resource for many predators, as well as important to the balance of the ecosystem. In addition, this fish, capable of creating large swarms known as “baitball” or “fish-ball,” is a huge underwater attraction for divers and snorkelers. It thus plays an important role in the island’s economy, which relies mainly on scuba diving and snorkeling-based tourism. But most of all, throughout the year, local families of fishermen are dependent on the presence of the shoals. Traditionally, part of the catch is shared with disadvantaged local families. “Although I’m Italian, I’ve been living on the island of Bonaire for 9 years and, working as an ocean conservation photographer and marine biologist,” says Lorenzo Mittiga. “I’ve been documenting the life of the bigeye mackerel for years.”
The shoals get close to the coast on the leeward side of the island and stick around for a few months (from the end of March throughout October), ensuring a constant source of food for the local population as well as predators in the ocean. Throughout most of the year, the Masbangos fishes are scattered along the southwest coastline of Bonaire, in the shallow water. Each shoal travels daily along the coast in search of zooplankton and to reproduce, or spawn. It is amazing to watch the shoal even from the shore: swimming in the limpid, turquoise water, the shoal appears as a dark cloud, constantly changing shape to elude predators. “It is a challenging and chaotic event, from a technical point of view,” adds Lorenzo Mittiga.” Using a fisheye lens, I have to be very close to the action without bothering the fishermen. Being in the water with this group of people moving, splashing, and sometimes kicking my large and delicate underwater camera is definitely something.“
For Bonaire island, the presence of the Masbangos is an important tourist attraction, especially for snorkelers and divers. Tourists can spend countless hours observing and interacting with swarms of fish in the shallowest, clearest, warmest, and safest body of water one could ever find. As a source of food, Masbangos are very important too. The fish offers a relatively cheap and affordable meal. The fishermen not only make their living selling fish at the Curacao during the fishing season, but they also sustain the poorest islanders by sharing a large portion of their catch.
A sustainable traditional fishing method
The Bonarians have passed down the tradition of Masbango fishing for generations and it has become their way of life. All active members (women included) of the “fishing families” have their share of labor. Family fishing camps populate the beach during season, everyone eyeing the movements of the fish-balls and the placement of their nets.
First, one must spot the fish in the shallow coastal water, then wait for the shoal to stop somewhere in order to set up the net. The net initially is stretched from the shore to the beginning of the drop-off. As the fish encounter the net, the fishermen close the net around the shoal.
This traditional way of fishing does not involve any technology, but rather relies on the skill of the individual fisherman. The “spotter” swims close to the fish-ball to gauge which way the fish is going to help cast the net. Setting up the fishnet is done with the help of skin divers. The fishermen must be expert swimmers and free-divers. “I can see the fishermen struggling sometimes,” tells Lorenzo Mittiga. “It is remarkable how they are able to set up or fix the net underwater without any professional freediving skills. They can drown each time they dive.”
This method of fishing follows some important rules to help preserve the species and ensure the continuity of the tradition. Unfortunately, this way of life is often misunderstood and criminalized by those who may not realize that harvesting the fish is not just a pastime but a livelihood. “As this kind of fishing happens in the eyes of everybody, the fishermen are immediately criminalized by the tourists, who think they are taking out all the fish without any respect for the ecosystem,” says Mittiga. “People are then posting awful thoughts on social media.”
The Masbangos travel in swarms for one main reason: reproduction. If they are not allowed to complete their reproductive cycle, their populations will become depleted over time. The fishermen must therefore ensure that the fish are given sufficient time to reproduce and mature. Waiting for the right moment is key. They wait because this is the moment of the year for the bigeye mackerel to release their eggs and fertilize them. Respecting the natural course of events will ensure that new stocks of bigeye mackerel will grow for the next year. This is a sustainable way of fishing.
The fishing team must determine the right time to cast the net, and there is no room for mistake: it could ruin an entire season of fishing. Once the Masbangos are in the fishing zone, the fishermen encircle the fish-ball and close the net. The fish can stay in that enclosure for weeks until they complete their reproductive cycle. The responsibility of a successful catch is high, as the fishermen’s families and many other people depend on this work.
The harvest can last from a few days to a few weeks, if the shoal is large. Only the needed amounts of fish are harvested at a time. The rest are given more time to reproduce and mature. Some 500 to 1000kg of fish are harvested every day. As a priority, the catch is shared among other families, while the rest is sold to local fisheries, restaurants, and put on the Curacao market. “I know that is a practice adopted in the lesser Antilles as well,” tells Lorenzo Mittiga.
Caring for other species
Respectful of the environment and other sea creatures, the nets are not designed to catch the fish by “entanglement,” but merely to keep them enclosed. Later, the fishermen will harvest the fish manually, from a small boat, transferring the fish by hand into crates. A lot of effort is put into this fishing method. The fishermen coordinate as a team in order to succeed.
A skindiver checks continuously that the net doesn’t get snagged on small coral reefs or that other species aren’t caught (such as turtles, tarpons, barracudas, or reef fish). Laws and governmental fishing regulations are respected, and breaking them would incur big fines and confiscation of the net, which would mean the ruin of whole fishing families.
The fishing doesn’t go unnoticed by opportunistic feeders. Active predators are attracted by the multitude of fish within and around the net. Common predators of the Masbangos include pelicans, barracudas, jacks, travelers, groupers, tarpons, and, occasionally, dolphins. The fishermen never underestimate the fact that the bigeye mackerel is an important species to the ecosystem and must be shared with the other creatures.