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

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.


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