Tip of the spear, end of an era

Most young Cayman Islands fishermen will never know the thrill of the hunt – and sometimes, being hunted – that accompanies the practice of spearfishing.

Before the boom of the financial services sector, spearfishing (along with farming) was a primary way for many Caymanians to obtain fresh food and make money to support their families in what was then largely a subsistence economy. More than 120 spearguns are still legally licensed for use in Cayman.

But now, after three decades of strict regulations of the equipment, “the art of the speargun” could be a local tradition that will not be passed down to future generations.

Some spearguns are kept as novelty items as spare parts cannot be imported.

‘Those were hard days’

Years ago, many Caymanians relied on spearfishing to obtain seafood year-round. Armed with a harpoon or crude hook stick, face mask and bag, the hunter would stalk a fish, sometimes holding his breath for minutes waiting for the fish to draw near. Then he would strike.

Local fisherman Freddie Watler brags of being the best “trigger man” in town. “I could go to the sea for half-hour and bring back all the fish I needed. There was a lot of fish in Cayman those days. You could pick, choose and refuse the fish we wanted … it’s not like today where they strike anything; we would choose special fish to take home,” he said.

Fisherman Olson Levy in younger days with fish bag, speargun and goggles, leaves the water water with the day’s catch.

Corine Rankine, daughter of fisherman Vibert Christian, remembers walking from Bodden Town to Pease Bay to sell fish for 50 cents a pound. Sometimes they would exchange it on the way for breadkind. “Those were hard days,” she said.

She recalls dozens of dory sheds lining the Bodden Town coastal front. The beach was the place to be on any given day – that is where the men and women hung out, under the shade of dory sheds. Fishermen fixed nets and spearguns while telling fishing tales. They also caught sprats along the shoreline, she said.

Avid fishermen Olson “Ocean” Levy said people eventually began to complain that spearfishing was destroying all the reef fish, but he said impact from local fishermen on the reefs and fish populations is minimal. He thinks the amount of tour boats, wave runners, suntan lotions and other foreign materials polluting the sea are driving away the reef fish.

Speargun regulations

In 1985, Executive Council member Vassel Johnson recommended a ban on spearguns to the Legislative Assembly. However, members thought the use of spearguns should instead be controlled and confined only to tour boat operators, who as a novelty speared lobsters for meals for tourists.

The perceived discrimination led to public outcry from local fishermen. Politician Gilbert McLean organized a demonstration, and government then introduced a control on spearguns, in the form of licensing, but not just for tour boat operators.

In 1986, the unlicensed possession and importation of spearguns became an offense in the Cayman Islands. In 2009, the manufacture of spearguns and parts also became an offense. (In other words, it is generally not legal to import a speargun, or to repair a licensed speargun using parts that have been imported or made “from scratch.”)

The Marine Conservation Board enacted these provisions in order to protect larger species of reef fish and also to gradually eliminate the method of spearfishing.

Fish caught with an unlicensed speargun.

Under the conservation laws, it has become more and more difficult for local fishermen to own and maintain spearguns. Some locals who still fish for a living said this traditional technique will soon be a thing of the past.

As time passes, local fishermen are retiring their old spearguns, modifying models with homemade parts, such as wood, PVC pipe, rubber tubing and car antennas, choosing not to re-license the spears or storing them out of view of police.

The National Conservation Law contains serious consequences for possessing an unlicensed or otherwise illegal speargun in Cayman.

  • A person must be 18 years of age or older and can possess only one licensed speargun
  • Licenses must be renewed annually and applicants must have a clean criminal record
  • Licensed users must have Caymanian status
  • Licensed users cannot use a speargun or any sharp instrument to pierce marine life in a marine park, replenishment zone, environmental zone; within any lagoon, sound, or body of water that is 20 feet or less in depth; within 200 feet of a vessel flying a dive flag; or within one mile of any designated grouper spawning area
  • Speargun users may take a maximum of three fish within a 24-hour period and may not be in possession of more than six fish taken with a speargun

Permanent licenses also require current photo identification and an inspection and photograph of the equipment being licensed.

Violation of any of these laws is an offense carrying a maximum penalty of a $500,000 fine and four years in jail. Upon conviction, forfeiture of the vessel or other equipment may also be ordered.

Spearguns in Cayman

Homemade speargun parts confiscated by the Department of Environment.

The Department of Environment currently has 122 valid speargun licenses on file. Additionally, the department has a different program where “spear licenses” are issued exclusively to hunt invasive lionfish. There are about 450 valid lionfish spear licenses.

Although the department still processes and renews all current speargun licenses, the last renewal of a (non-lionfish) speargun license was issued in 2015, before the National Conservation Law came into effect, replacing the old marine parks law.

In the past 11 years, 40 spearguns have been confiscated. The guns are returned if their owners are found not guilty. If the owners are found guilty, the guns are destroyed, said Department of Environment research officer Bradley Johnson.

The National Conservation Council is considering a measure to allow the importation of spare speargun parts by licensed users. Until and unless that is approved – along with concomitant changes to the Customs Law, which also prohibits the importation of spearguns and parts – local fisherman can forget about making legal repairs to their spearguns.

Hooks sticks seized by the Department of Environment.

Assistant Collector of Customs Kerrylyn Ebanks said, “Customs cannot take it off the book until that law is passed in the House and Gazette and the Customs head of department has been notified. We have not received anything in that regards and have to keep it on the books until this is done.”

Mr. Levy, the local fisherman, said his own speargun was confiscated by enforcement officers.

“I took it there to re-license and they took it from me because I had put on a new handle. This made me believe they were trying to eradicate spearguns totally. If you could not find parts for your speargun, then it would become dormant, not functional and could not be licensed,” he said.

Hunters and hunted

“No spearguns were here in Cayman those days, just a harpoon which I knew as a ‘Jeggy,’” Mr. Levy said.

Around the 1950s/’60s, the Hawaiian sling became popular in Cayman. Made of bamboo and rubber, the sling operates much like a bow and arrow does on land.

Back then, any discarded old cars were good pickings for a speargun rod, Mr. Levy said. “The rods were pulled out of the roof of the car and sanded to perfection, the tip was honed and shaped to pierce the fish.”

The Department of Environment has seized many unlicensed spearguns, including those pictured, over the years.

To make the Hawaiian sling, they secured a piece of bamboo and used some old bicycle rubber tubes. An old piece of car tire was used to make the tongue to fire the rod. Mr. Levy said such a rod could be dangerous, and not just for fish. Once, while fishing for cobblers (palometa), he accidentally shot his cousin in the hand.

Spearfishing in Cayman took a technological stride forward with the introduction of the Arbalete Champion speargun. Mr. Levy recalled national hero Jim Bodden having the first Champion speargun in Bodden Town.

Fishermen used the Champion speargun to shoot rock fish, barracudas, parrot fish and other reef fish, Mr. Levy said.

Spearfishing is a dangerous way to feed a family, as Mr. Levy knows well.

He learned how to spearfish as a young boy from his father. On many occasions, he said, he had to fend off sharks attracted to the bloody fish he had speared, or to avoid them by swimming away, dodging into a cave or hastily jumping back in the boat.

Sharks can smell a drop of blood in the ocean from quarter of a mile away. A man swims in the water with a dangling speargun and a bag of freshly caught fish dripping blood – and suddenly the hunter becomes the hunted.

When an 8-foot-long bull shark suddenly appeared next to Mr. Levy, ripping the fish bag inches from his leg and thrashing wildly to empty its contents while sprinkling him with fresh fish blood, a speargun seemed tiny.

“The most dangerous thing to man in the water using a speargun is a shark,” Mr. Levy said. “He don’t want you, he just wants the fish you have, but he will take a chunk out of you too if you’re not careful.”

Mr. Levy described another occasion when a shark kept him “hostage” in a cave for minutes while he struggled to hold his breath as the shark circled the cave mouth. Only after he surrendered his catch to the shark was he able to swim to the surface and jump back in the boat.

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