Fishing in St Brandon: a national sport

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4 May 2010

“In St Brandon, there is no need for bait: the fish will jump right in your boat. » Those aren’t the exact words Armand (administrator of the archipelago) used upon our arrival, but that’s the general idea. 10 days later, our daily diet is composed mainly of fish and rice. Skill, however, has nothing to do with this.

The day after our arrival on the southern island, two fishermen climb onboard Tara to visit the ship. They kindly set up a fishing line with sturdy nylon and a sizeable hook, “to catch the “baboons”, the local delicacy which is related to the grouper.

Julien, our cook, is the first to try: the fishing lines are cast overboard. Before we can count to 20, something is already thrashing at the end of the line. Caught on our hook is a grey fish with black stripes of about 50cm long, which would vaguely resemble a shark if it weren’t for the large sucker adorning the top of its head.

It’s a remora, a harmless suckerfish that sticks to other fish and rids them of their parasites. Its flesh is perfectly inedible. The gluttonous remoras hang around Tara’s hull, only to rush over in large groups when the remains of what is left on a plate are tossed overboard. It’s impossible to throw a line without catching them, so we decide to put our dreams of fishing on hold until we stumble on a more promising opportunity. As compensation, Armand brings us a large babonne, which Julien prepares for us, marinated raw in coconut milk, lemon and spices.

Our second attempt takes place in the North of the archipelago, using a fishing rod and a lure. By throwing the line sufficiently far away from the boat, we should avoid catching remoras. Once again, only a few seconds later something tugs on the line. A long fish, with a slightly menacing aspect is struggling on the deck. It’s what the French refer to as a « crocodile needle fish ». These fish, with their long indented beak, swim very close to the surface. Their skin shimmers with blue, silver, green and yellow highlights, and they are chockfull of bones.

This time, we are saved by two fishermen cruising along in their boat, who trade us a large babonne for two cans of soda. In these isolated islands, money isn’t the best currency. And indeed, what can money buy, if not the few supplies in Armand’s grocery store? The one true treasure here, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, are the goods transported by cruise or leisure ships such as Tara: cans of fruit, chocolate cookies, sodas… anything that will distract fishermen from their everyday diet.

There is no exchange rate here. Values are indexed according to the warmth of human exchanges. Noël, Armand’s cook, welcomes us to Raphael Island with a mountain of delicacies made of fried fish and cod. On our way back, we come across two lobster fishermen. They show us the inside of their rowboat. “Not much in the way of success today », they were driven away from the reefs by the rain. “That means they’ll only give us a few small ones”, apologizes Armand, with a smile on his face. Small? The two men stuff 20 lobsters of quite honourable size into a bag.

Can you guess what happens when Ruby, our Mauritian scientific observer spends a few hours onboard the refrigerated ship that delivers the fish caught in St Brandon to Mauritius? Every single fish she touched is given to us for our dinner!

That’s right; there is no need to know how to fish if you make friends in the right places.

Sacha Bollet