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SEA Currents: SSV Corwith Cramer
June 03, 2017
Stanford@SEA: Let’s Go Fishening
"You put your fingers in the gills like this and your thumb up on top. Then just rip the head off" John, the 18 year old Palmerstonian with a full, curly black beard, demonstrated the technique on a 12 inch long pink and silver parrot fish. Standing with waves breaking at our knees, Dylan, the engineer, and I tried and failed to repeat the process on two more parrot fish fish caught in the hand-woven net. Jon came over to show us again. We moved down the net repeating the process as we went. By the time we reached the end of the net, 6 parrot fish lay motionless in the bottom of our dinghy: Five of them a drab pinkish silver color but one is a bright blue color with pink stripes and a protruding forehead. Edward, John's dad and the island policeman, looked into the hull shaking his head and said, "Not a good catch. We will have to cast the net again".
Jon and Edward had told me earlier that morning that on a single day of fishing they can catch between three hundred and four hundred parrotfish. These algavores are essential to maintaining the heath of the coral reefs
surrounding Palmerston, but are also are the major export from the island, fetching $10 per kilo of fillet. At the peak of the parrot fish trade in the 1970's Palmerston's 50 or so fishermen exported 90 tons of parrotfish to Rarotonga, but now that number is much lower: they send between 600 and 800 kilos of parrot fish per cargo ship (3 to 4 times a year). I part of me worried that I was contributing to this reduction of parrot fish abundance
on the reef, but at the moment all I could think about was not getting knots in the net as we prepared to cast it again.
We start piling the 40m long net into our dingy; one person pulling the edge with floats tied to it and the other unwrapping the lead weighted edge from around rocks underwater. With the net folded back into the homemade boat, fashioned out of half a kayak that had washed ashore, we walk out farther towards the reef break. Suddenly Jon holds up his hand and says "Stop". He points to a nondescript part of the blue water in front of us. He
whispers, "Look there- there are a whole bunch of parrot fish- you can see their tails coming out of the water" I look and nod even though I can't see them. Jon turns to Dylan and I to hash out the game plan.
"Edward is laying the net down there (pointing to the ocean side of us), I am going to walk around the fish and you two stay here and be really quiet. When I say go we all have to run towards the net slapping the water". He slaps the water with his 10 foot wooden spear to demonstrate. Dylan on my right also holds a long, sanded down wooden pole, in my hands a baseball hat will serve as my splashing instrument.
Dylan and I wait as Jon almost tip toes across the reef, the water barely coming up to his ankles at this point. Once in position, Jon holds up his arm like an official starting runners for a track race. He shouts "Go" and we begin sprinting, tripping, and splashing our way over blocks of coral towards the net about thirty yards away.
"Over there! Don't let them get away." Eddie points to a hole between the edge of the net and our advance, to which Jon threw his spear flying in that general direction sending water spraying in all directions. We splashed the rest of the way to the net. Upon getting there, I look down to see blood dribbling from my left shin into the water from where I fell and scraped it on coral during the mad dash. Looking at the net, parrot fish can be seen every couple of feet, tails wriggling in vain. The four of us separate and go down the net kinking necks and then stringing the fish onto the prongs of Jon's rusty three pronged spear. We fill up all three prongs in about twenty feet of netting, to which Jon remarks, "This is a good catch. When we get home I will fry them up and we can have lunch."
We empty the net, filled with almost forty fish, and then load the net back into the dingy. Towing the dingy by a rope, we step over coral heads protruding from the surface all the way back to the larger aluminum boat. Dylan meanwhile was trying his hand at spear fishing. Once at the larger aluminum boat, Edward ties the line with fish onto the back of it, takes out a knife and slices open the underside of one of the parrot fish, exposing its innards.
John then takes his hand and shows us how how to remove the guts from inside of the fish then throwing them into the sharky waters around us. We work our way down all of the fish, our hands covered in the gritty coral
pieces that had been digesting inside.
Edward asks me to lift the fish into the aluminum boat, but the catch is too heavy for me to lift on my own. It ends up taking all of us in the small boat hoisting the line to get them all the fish on board
We motor back to Ed's house where a wheelbarrow waits for us on the beach. We load the fish in the wheelbarrow and push it to a table under a tree where all the other men of the family, David, Simon and Sione (our Tongan observer) are gathered sharpening knives. They quickly set up a four-step assembly line on each side of the table with the first person cutting two skin-on filets, the second slicing off the skin from the filet, the third deboning the filet, and then the last person wrapping groups of filets in plastic wrap for export. I am stationed at the third position. Jon takes the first fillet that his brother David throws across the table and shows me how to hold the filet in my hand and carefully cut out the five pectoral bones in a v-shaped cut.
In the center of the the table there is a glass dish filled with coconut milk and lime. Each person in the the assembly line throws bits of fish they missed while cutting the filets into the dish, creating instant sashimi. When we finish, 12 neat packets of fish fillets lay on the table.
David then takes a cleaver and begins cutting up the fish ribs for our fish fry lunch. I go over to Bob's, the father of Madenia and Henry whom I drew pictures with the other day, to give his daughter a pencil sharpener. When I get the table outside of Edwards is staked with plates of steaming fried fish. Jon serves up fresh papaya juice and we all eat until nothing is left except clean bones.
At that point I have to bid my goodbyes and return to the ship to start on my watch standing duties. When I get up to leave, Eddie brings out all the fish I thought they were going to export. "A gift" he tells me and loads it all into the aluminum boat.
I thank then and when we return to the ship gift Jon with the rain boots I bought in Tahiti, since the ones he uses to fish are developing holes on the sides.
Back on board, the parrot fish fillets become our next two meals. I help Charlie first make grilled parrot fish in a red curry sauce for dinner that night and then for lunch the next day we batter and fry the last of the parrot fish, the final remnant of the fishing trip as we sail away from Palmerston through the open ocean towards Tonga.