Why don’t they eat more fish in the Caribbean?

by on August 5, 2013 at 7:37 am in Food and Drink, Uncategorized | Permalink

David Lomita, a loyal MR reader, asks me:

I have often wondered why, given that they are a bunch of small islands, that so many of the more famous dishes of Caribbean countries are meat and not fish.  The woman of this house is Jamaican and she is much more proud of jerk than of escabeche fish.  Puerto Rico has its lechon, Cuban food has ropa de viejo and so on.

I don’t have any data here (though try the incomplete Table 7 in this pdf), but independently I have wondered about a similar question.  I see a few possible factors:

1. Often fish are available, and excellent, immediately right near the ocean.  Transport and adequate refrigeration are not to be taken for granted.  In any case, those dishes won’t always become iconic national recipes.  Note also that a lot of the fish consumed will be boiled, spiced, and salted, presumably for health and storage reasons.

2. Food is an energy source, and meat is often superior to fish in this regard, especially for diets which may otherwise lack calories.  For the same reason such meals also can be more carbohydrate-heavy than the typical daily diet.

3. Cows, chickens, and pigs are media for savings.  Fish are not.  Why not invest in some insurance while you are planning your food supply?  Keep in mind that local banking systems often do not serve the poor very well.  Furthermore it may be easier to own a chicken than to catch a fish.  Fishing is low-productivity in many parts of the Caribbean, due to poor knowledge and implementation of aquaculture.

4. Which countries are we talking about?  In the wealthier Trinidad and Jamaica, retail fish shops are common (that link is useful more generally)  In Barbados, U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Cayman Islands, culinary infrastructure is quite good and there is plenty of wealth.  In Haiti and Cuba, the two most populous nations in the Caribbean, economic conditions are dire.

5. Never overlook the heavy hand of government, plus a lack of resource management expertise: “Most of the governments of the islands aim at self-sufficiency in fish production. Some, such as Antigua, try to prohibit exports; others, such as Jamaica and Trinidad, limit imports. All of them are giving more attention to post-harvest practices both at sea and on shore, processing and storage, and to improved marketing and distribution. Many are now more interested in assessment of their resources, and collecting statistics to determine the best management practices to sustain the stocks.”

By the way, here is a very good recent piece on the rising cost of food imports in the Caribbean, especially Jamaica.

1 Alvin August 5, 2013 at 7:54 am

Good points, but what do you mean when you contrast meat with fish? Fish is meat! Or are you distinguishing between red meat and white meat?

2 liberalarts August 5, 2013 at 12:05 pm

I think that it is a Catholic thing to exclude fish from meat. Or at least fish was always an exemption for Catholics on no meat lent days.

3 GiT August 5, 2013 at 12:44 pm

Distinguishing between meat (mammals), poultry (birds), and seafood (fish) strikes me as pretty common usage. Other languages do the same thing.

4 Kaplan August 5, 2013 at 8:09 am

The Lewis & Clark Expedition noticed the same thing with a native indian tribe in the Pacific Northwest; the tribe lived near the world’s greatest salmon fishing area, but ignored it, greatly preferring meat (even dog) over easily available fish.

Why the infamous Irish starvation of the 19th Century (Potato Famine), on an island surrounded by fish ?

5 Roy August 5, 2013 at 9:51 am

It was my understanding that the Expedition themselves were far more guilty of this than any of the natives. They traded any fish they caught in addittion to hardware, trade goods, and tobacco for any non salmon they coukd get there hands on. They really seemed to relish the dogs.

Any population that is accustomed to eating meat will tend to prefer it to fish, especially for everyday consumption. You see this same trend in Scandanavia today, especially among those not in the cosmopolitan educated elite.

6 Doug M August 5, 2013 at 2:02 pm

Regarding Lewis and Clarke, that is my understanding… or, that is the way Ken Burns told the story.

7 Roy August 5, 2013 at 9:55 am

As to the famine years in Ireland, there was much harvesting of marine resources, shellfish and seaweed. The Irish possessed few boats and sailing the sea around Ireland is very inadvisable for those unskilled. But even then among those living in appropriate conditions a lot of shellfish were eaten, enough so that in the century since anything but cod, unavailable during the famine time, was regularily derided as famine food and abhored.

8 dearieme August 5, 2013 at 10:34 am

They were very reluctant to eat the maize that was imported for famine relief too.

9 Jim August 5, 2013 at 4:46 pm

They didn’t know how to cook it and often ate it while it was still hard. Because it was semi-milled, it hard sharp edges that perforated people’s intestines and caused peritonitis.

10 Bill Harshaw August 5, 2013 at 8:15 am

I wonder whether in slavery slaves would have been permitted to man boats and catch fish, given the possibility of escape? Not that I suppose there was anywhere to escape to, given the omnipresence of slavery then.

11 Carl-Henri August 5, 2013 at 9:33 am

There may be some truth to that. Many Caribbean dishes came from what the slaves were allowed to grow in small plots allocated to them in around the plantations. This may have delayed the development of a strong fishing culture in some places.
By the way, many of the most popular fish dishes in the Caribbean are also made of salted fish. As the Caribbean specialized in plantation crops they were historically also major importers of some food staples such as salted fish from the US and Canada.
See here: http://www.heritage.nf.ca/society/salt_fish_markets_1850.html

12 wolfgang August 5, 2013 at 8:21 am

One reason is that many fish in the Caribbean contain a nasty poison, which does not go away with cooking: Ciguatera.

13 Carl-Henri August 5, 2013 at 9:32 am

There may be some truth to that. Many Caribbean dishes came from what the slaves were allowed to grow in small plots allocated to them in around the plantations. This may have delayed the development of a strong fishing culture in some places.
By the way, many of the most popular fish dishes in the Caribbean are also made of salted fish. As the Caribbean specialized in plantation crops they were historically also major importers of some food staples such as salted fish from the US and Canada.
See here: http://www.heritage.nf.ca/society/salt_fish_markets_1850.html

14 Carl-Henri August 5, 2013 at 9:34 am

Sorry. This reppy applies to the comment from Bill Harshaw.

15 Jens Fiederer August 5, 2013 at 10:29 am

Ciguatera toxin definitely is an important factor. I lived in the US Virgin Islands for 6 years, and my mother was a secretary for the Island Resources Foundation…and one of the biologists was researching the toxin (apparently it is synthesized by algae and concentrated by the fish who eat it, more concentrated the higher you get up the food chain. Not all fish are poisonous, you sort of have to know where and on what they feed.

Once a hotel contacted the foundation: they had bought some fish from a man who had to be taken to the hospital that day…but nobody knew whether it was poisoning from the fish or perhaps the dead rats that were found in his cistern (we lived off rain water collected on the roofs). The hotel was hoping we could analyze the fish, but we just told them it would be cheaper to just dump the fish.

16 Jens Fiederer August 5, 2013 at 10:42 am
17 Bender Bending Rodriguez August 5, 2013 at 4:18 pm

My brother-in-law got hit with this. He was recovering and tried some more local fish only to get completely messed up. Now he has to stay off alcohol for at least a year and it will be years before he can eat reef fish.

If you’re curious what “completely messed up” means, this guy has had two of the four strains of Dengue and just laughs about it.

18 ChrisA August 5, 2013 at 8:25 am

Bake and shark is excellent in Maracas beach in Trinidad. Also the local market in Port of Spain always had excellent fish, with sushi quality tuna, and fantastic grouper at very low prices. But often the locals preferred salted cod from Canada, I think it is as Tyler says, a real issue is storage in such a hot climate.

19 athEIst August 5, 2013 at 8:32 am

In Barbados and the Cayman Islands, culinary infrastructure is quite good and there is plenty of wealth.

Theft or to be redundant, Finance.

20 Larry Siegel August 24, 2013 at 6:29 pm

This comment is outrageously unfair to the industrious and successful Bajans, who do not rely much on flight capital. The principal industries are tourism, sugar, and rum.

21 Marie August 5, 2013 at 9:06 am

Why do poor people in America who live near water sources not supplement their food stamps with fishing? Because to do so you usually need to get to the water, buy passes to enter public land, buy equipment, and pay for licenses, and then there are limits. Same with fuel, I live in a state full of standing dead wood but the poor are either banned from collecting or have to pay, access and transportation is a factor. So instead, the state subsidizes winter heating bills. So the low hanging fruit is actually inaccessible to the shortest people, usually the relatively wealthy have the luxury of the heating stoves and the trout dinners. If you look at the niche markets in both things you’ll see a lot of catering to people with pretty good disposable income. Of course, the diligent can always go the Goodwill or home made or craigslist route. But as an example, I live in a manufactured home and we could not legally install a used wood stove in our house because the regulations regarding installing in a trailer are much more stringent than for a stick house. So we had to pay $3000 for a new bottom of the line stove. Not possible for the truly poor. I’d guess there’s a similar effect in the Caribbean?

22 Roy August 5, 2013 at 10:00 am

Well I grew up on the Texas gulf coast and every poor white I knew was a regular fisherman, I also knew quite a few poor blacks, but they were less common on the Bays and estuaries, and less likely to have boats.

It is a matter of opportunity, fishing for sustenance is actually pretty hard, you need equipment and licenses. Same with hunting. I know a lot of hunters in the Inland Northwest & Canada, the costs in permits exceed the value of the substantial meat. Sure an Elk will feed you most of a winter, but it might just be cheaper to shop at Winco.

23 Urso August 5, 2013 at 10:59 am

I mean, they do. At least here. A license is $15 a year. You can fish almost literally anywhere; you see lots of cars pulled about fifteen feet off the highway with people next to them, sitting on a 5 gallon bucket and casting. I wonder about the quality of those fish, but then, these people are significantly less picky about what they eat. We’re talking river cats, not yellowfin tuna here.

24 Marie August 5, 2013 at 11:16 am

I’ll add this to my list of reasons to move to Texas!
Of course, I may just not be seeing the hidden economy here. I do know a local was recently sentenced to prison, I believe for a year, for poaching an elk. I don’t know if he didn’t have a tag or if he was hunting on private property. Word was it wasn’t trophy hunting.

25 Hazel Meade August 5, 2013 at 12:39 pm

And people wonder why poor, rural white folk hate the government.

26 Confuscate August 5, 2013 at 1:26 pm

A government that is universally loved is not a government that is doing its job.

27 Marie August 5, 2013 at 3:21 pm

Sure, but neither is one that is universally hated.

28 Hazel Meade August 5, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Really? Why not?

I could see the argument that it’s not possible for any government to be universally loved, you can’t please everyone, but if you could, why would that be a bad thing? A government that is universally loved would seem (at least to me) to be making everyone happy, and how could that not be the ideal?

29 Roy August 5, 2013 at 7:00 pm

Having lived in rurall Idaho, I can tell you killing an elk without a tag is a serious crime. Your neighbors will hate you, your grandchildren will have to move away to escape the shame. Killing a deer without a tag or out of season is a completely different matter of course, though more frowned upon than I remember from Wisconsin. But everyone puts in every year for an Elk tag and people tend to think of poaching elk as personal theft.

30 Marie August 5, 2013 at 8:00 pm

Yeah, it’s a big deal. Definitely. To the degree I had a friend who got begged by a rancher to kill an elk that had been caught in a fence for days, because she had a tag. The DOW couldn’t get out and take care of it and the rancher knew better than to shoot it himself. Under circumstances like that, you are going to get pretty rabid angry at anyone jumping to the front of the line. I imagine if he were smarter he’d have taken two deer instead, and I’d agree he’d be in less hot water if he’d been found out.

31 Mike Hammock August 5, 2013 at 9:14 am

The first answer that came to my mind was “signaling relative status”. Chicken, pork, and beef are rare and more costly than fish in the Caribbean. If one wants to signal one’s high status, one shows off a chicken recipe, not a fish recipe. Conversely, some restaurants in the U.S. that are far away from water brag about having fresh fish flown in every day.

32 Andrew C August 5, 2013 at 9:24 am

One reason might be that the Carribean might not be very good for widescale fishing. Those clear waters mean that there isn’t much algea in the water (warm waters mean not so much dissolved gas). That puts a limit on how much fishlife the sea can support.

33 William August 6, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Map of Ocean Productivity. Caribbean is near the bottom.


34 Ron W August 5, 2013 at 9:45 am

I agree with Andrew C. If you go to a nice restaurant in the Caribbean and ask which of the fish items on the menu are local, the usual answer is very few.

35 Stefan August 5, 2013 at 9:50 am

Speaking as a Trini, I would put it down mainly to preferences and ease of production. Rising incomes may have ‘inferiorised’ fish to an extent, but I don’t think there was ever a time fish was preferred to meat. Certainly I can’t remember fish ever being less expensive than meat anyway, though I think this is true for most places on earth.

WRT the NY Times article, I’m however an agro-skeptic. The only time agriculture drove Caribbean economies was when labour was free and forced. Land here is in reality not all that fertile. It should be remembered that what was grown in the Caribbean was sugarcane, which is basically a type of grass.

Additionally, the food we import is mainly processed. With the exception of Trinidad and Jamaica (and even then only minimally so), there’s no capacity for packaging, turning fruits into juice, etc. Even if primary production was ramped up, I doubt it could be of the scale large enough to justify localised investment into agricultural downstream processing. Even if it was that Trinidad & Jamaica’s extant food processors were targeted, labour and transport costs alone might render the production from the smaller islands unable to compete with raw material imports from Latin America.

That said, we ran out of flour here for a week in 2008, so I accept that something has to be done. Maybe technology offers us routes to increased productivity we didn’t have before, but I don’t think this approach is what is being considered by Caribbean leaders. Being on the frontier of agricultural best practice may not even be enough to close the gap, so how can teaching kids to be peasant farmers fix the problem?

36 KevinH August 5, 2013 at 10:27 am

Also, the abundance of fish may paradoxically make it less likely to be a ‘signature dish’. First abundance means that there are probably a larger variety of fish recipes, this makes one harder to stand out as ‘signature’. Second, there is of course a lot of signalling with food. The relative scarcity of non-fish could mean that non-fish is the go-to meal to impress people. Have that dynamic for a hundred years + and even after the prices come closer to parity, you still have a cultural bias.

37 dearieme August 5, 2013 at 10:37 am

According to my weekend’s reading, in the Southern Hebrides the mesolithic inhabitants ate a diet that was almost entirely sea food, plus hazelnuts. The neolithic people who replaced them spurned sea food and lived off their crops, flocks and herds. Neither mob went for a mixed diet.

38 kebko August 5, 2013 at 10:41 am

Couldn’t you ask the same thing about people that live near lakes & rivers?

39 Roy August 5, 2013 at 7:05 pm

Lakes can get fished out very quickly,which is why you pay for so much for a fishing license in many states. The lakes need to be regularily restocked. and much of the fish in rivers is very seasonal

40 Phids August 5, 2013 at 10:52 am

Could it be because outsiders looking in – the people who give Caribbean food it’s international demand – are more likely to be land-locked and interested in meat-based dishes? People in the U.S., for example, may be more likely to try and cook chicken or beef dishes from the islands over fish dishes.

41 Jimbino August 5, 2013 at 11:09 am

The same phenomenon exists in Buenos Aires, and in Argentina in general, and, to a lesser extent, in the SE coast of Brazil. They are so busy eating parrilla and churrasco that the have little time for fish. Lots of fish is eaten in the Northeast of Brazil and in the Amazon basin, of course.

42 Kent Anderson August 5, 2013 at 11:11 am

While not doubting its accuracy, the prevalence of meat comment surprised me.

I spent a year on St. Thomas back in the 1980s. Every day about 5 p.m. the local fishermen would dump their catch into a pickup truck and drive around the island. There would be four or five guys hanging off the truck and a heaping load of fish. One of the fishermen would have a hanging scale and they’d stop for anyone who waved. You’d pick your choice from the back and they’d weigh it to determine the price. I don’t recall amounts now, but I remember it wasn’t cheap. Maybe they had one price for us Conti’s and another for the islanders. My favorite was a flounder-like fish they called an ‘old wife.’

The menu’s of the many local restaurants I frequented seem to have been mostly seafood oriented. One could get a good New York strip if you visited your banker before dining.

All together, it was some of the best food I’ve ever encountered.

43 Mark August 5, 2013 at 12:12 pm

I forget who pointed out that all the heroes of the Iliad and Odyssey must have eaten fish most of the time, but Homer chooses to have them eating beef, pork, and lamb *all* the time. Fish was just not heroic enough. The comment near the top that fish flesh is looked down upon because it doesn’t have much fat is probably on the money.

44 Claude Emer August 5, 2013 at 12:20 pm

6. Fish is everywhere, nothing special to it. Lobster used to be famine food, no?

If people really wanted to eat fish but infrastructures made it difficult, they’d smoke it, like they do in Africa and Asia.

45 Hazel Meade August 5, 2013 at 12:33 pm

Couple of points I have noticed:

1. Fish is expensive. Perhaps they are selling the best of the catch for export.

2. Fish is usually cooked and served very simply. Not a lot of fancy marinades or sauces. It’s usually served as is, a piece of fish on a plate.

46 dearieme August 5, 2013 at 4:48 pm


47 prior probability August 5, 2013 at 12:57 pm

I love how it everyone tries to answer this question through anecdotes and conjecture, but without bothering to collect any real data

48 enoriverbend August 5, 2013 at 1:44 pm

Ask and ye shall receive.

Latin America and the Caribbean (lumped together, unfortunately) eat 9.9 kg/person of fish. The world average is 18.4. Interestingly, the least-developed countries average 11.1 while industrialized countries average 28.7 kg/person — although do remember that protein intake of all sorts is generally lower in poor countries . (FAO State of World Fisheries)

As for why not more fishing in the Caribbean, part of it is that that fisheries have suffered in recent years (see Stallings 2009 on big fish in the Caribbean, for example). But also compare and contrast the job appeal of being a fisherman versus alternatives such as resort work. Imports of fish have been rising, so it’s not simply that they don’t like fish.

The alternative of fish farming is only generally financially rewarding if you have inexpensive land, which in the Caribbean means land with no view, which is not common on the smaller islands; cage farming in open seas is a possibility but with greater exposure to sea-borne pests and infections.

For normal fish farming you also have to consider the inputs, meaning feed — the species that require fish-based feed would need a supply nearby such as inexpensive menhaden, and the species that don’t would generally need a supply of fertilizer, which the Caribbean mostly imports.

49 Hazel Meade August 5, 2013 at 3:24 pm

Good point on the view.
I wonder if the extensive tourism industry makes even offshore areas too valuable to use for fishing. Maybe the tourists don’t want their scuba-diving, boating, surfing, cruising activities cluttered up with ramshackle fishing boats. Nevermind the dolphins.

50 Bob Knaus August 5, 2013 at 1:25 pm

Most of the answers here are wide of the mark. I live in the Bahamas on my sailboat, so I can see the reasons why firsthand.

It is primarily a problem of population relative to geography, compounded by the low nutrient level (=low productivity =great coral) of the local waters. The littoral zones on most Caribbean islands are quite narrow, and have been fished out for generations. Even in the Bahamas, with a small population and a vast area of shallow banks, the reefs near any of the settlements have few large edible fish. There is a Bahamian fishing industry, but it is dominated by a few families who have the skills and capital to build boats large enough to travel to areas where small boat fisherman cannot.

Bottom line, it has been more productive to raise chickens, sheep, and goats than to go fishing.

51 Urso August 5, 2013 at 2:30 pm

Interesting point. Stunningly clear water + crystal white sand beaches = poor fisheries. But good for tourism!

52 GW August 5, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Perhaps there is a more international insular phenomenon at work here — also, in many Pacific island groupies, a dominant food source is imported meat, canned meats in particular. Are these prestige items or due to overhang from colonial-era trade restrictions (the local agricultural monocultures certainly are, and it is not hard to imagine that colonizers controlled the dried fish trade (as later, the US controlled Spam distribution)?

53 Jim August 5, 2013 at 4:53 pm

“also, in many Pacific island groupies, a dominant food source is imported meat, canned meats in particular.”

It is a specific imported meat – Spam. And the explanantion for the preference for that, joking or not, is that it is a replacement for the now forbidden human flesh, and now unavailable since inter-clan warfare has been supressed. Cooked human and pork are pretty hard to distinguish apparently.

54 GW August 5, 2013 at 5:24 pm

Jim, in the Pacific Island nations, there is absolutely no evidence of widespread cannibalism, let alone evidence that Spam replaced human flesh. Instead, Spam accompanied the US military, firms, and missionaries and coincided with the integration of the islands into a more global economy as service sites for the military and single product exporters. Moreover, the preference for canned meat is neither limited to Spam (Brazilian and Argentine meat products may be even more widespread) nor to regions of primarily US influence.

55 Larry August 5, 2013 at 2:42 pm

Compare the Caribbean to Asia/Pacific. Fish is widespread in diets throughout the region (for those who can afford it.) Chinese consumption of shark fin soup costs 70 -100 million animals per year, threatening numerous species with extinction.

I suspect something biological, or even genetic, comparable to lactose intolerance, but that’s a pure SWAG.

56 GW August 5, 2013 at 5:28 pm

Larry, there is a major distinction to be made between Asia and the insular Pacific here. The relative lack of fish — indeed the relative absence of any relationship to the ocean beyond recreation — in the the formerly colonized Pacific island countries is striking, particularly when compare with Japan, China, Korea or the SE Asian countries.

57 Larry August 5, 2013 at 9:35 pm

Certainly SPAM is big in places like Hawaii, but fishing is everpresent, too.

58 Cheryl August 5, 2013 at 4:11 pm

This is a curious discussion. Just because some meat dishes are more commonly known or recorded in recipe books it does not correlate to the fame nor not of fish dishes. It means that the fish eaten in the Caribbean are not commonly found outside the Caribbean, unlike chicken and pork. Sport fishing is more lucrative. I agree that overfishing has depleted resources. I will add to the comment about anecdotes – there is very little data. People go to the beach and eat shark. That data is not collected. People help fishermen pull in the seine and get a few fish as payment – that data is not collected.

59 Andreas Moser August 5, 2013 at 5:28 pm

Fish are much harder to catch than a pig.

60 Tom Heffron August 5, 2013 at 6:07 pm

Forgotten in this is that fish in tropical waters aren’t as healthy as those in cold waters. Why do countries located in colder latitudes located next to water eat so much fish? Look at Japan, Iceland, the Scandanavian countries, native Alaskans, and on.

61 David C August 6, 2013 at 7:32 am

I had a very “Huh???” reaction to this post. We spend a lot of time in the Caribbean, and in our experience people there eat a LOT of fish. Tyler’s points about storage and “saving” are certainly valid, but almost every island has a flourishing fish market. The Japanese have contributed a lot of aid to construct fishing ports and marketing facilities on some islands, and I am sure this has increased the size of the harvest.

Our favorite place to buy fish is the island Marie Galante, part of Guadeloupe. At the market there you can buy enormous tuna steaks at very reasonable prices, always extremely fresh.

62 William August 6, 2013 at 12:54 pm


Upwelling supplies nutrients to fishes. You will see on the map in that article that the Caribbean has no upwelling, therefore few fish.

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