Story & Photos By Jody Rathgeb
Alvin Parker is busy conching, so he probably doesn’t hear the music of his day. Nonetheless, it is there: an irregular calypso formed by the tap-tap-tap of his hammer as he knocks the conch, the clatter of heavy shells being thrown into the boat, the steady purr of his 200-horsepower Yamaha outboard, the slap of waves as he keeps the boat close to his divers. But for Alvin, the best music of all is the clink and rustle of cash as he makes a living as a South Caicos fisherman.
His boat, Big One, is one of many that have left Cockburn Harbour this morning. Conch season has just begun, so everyone has gone out with “royal” thoughts, in search of the Queen Conch that figures in so many delicious local dishes. For now, only one seafood plant on South Caicos is open, and it is paying $1.15 per pound for conch. Alvin hopes to bring in about 600 pounds. “On a real good day, I can do about 1,000 pounds,” he comments.Working with him are two Haitian divers, Raymond and Michel. Alvin used to dive himself , though born on Provo, he grew up on South Caicos and has done this sort of work all his life, but now that he’s a bit older he can delegate that part of the job.
Other boats are gathered in one area not far from the harbour, but Alvin steers past them toward deeper water, stopping at one point to don a mask and take a look at the sea bottom. He’s looking for a grassy bottom where the conch like to graze for food. Finally, he finds a suitable area about midway between Long Cay and Six Hills Cays, the bottom about 18 feet down. Raymond and Michel gear up, eat some food for energy, and slip over the side of the boat.
That’s when the music begins. The divers bring up about four or five conch at a time and heave them over the gunwale with a crash and clatter. Then Alvin gets busy, too, ‘knocking’ the conch. He picks up each one and, using a hammer with a pointed head, quickly knocks a hole on the shell’s spire, between the second and third row of nodes. The hole provides access to the tendon that holds the animal in the shell. Cutting it out, though, will wait for later. For now, the fisherman just makes the hole and begins stacking the conch in the boat.
As he works, Alvin also must keep an eye on the divers, and he interrupts himself frequently to circle the boat around and stay close to his workers. He moves back and forth between the conch and the outboard “tap-tap-tap-tap, rrrrrr!” and it becomes clear that even this part of the process is far from easy . . . fairly messy as well. Alvin quickly becomes spattered with conch slime from the knocking.
However, there are no complaints from any quarter. The divers seem tireless as they dive, surface and toss conch in the boat. Alvin follows his own rhythm of knocking, stacking and moving about. “It’s hard work,” he admits, “but you can make some money. Some of these younger fellows say you can’t make money fishing, but I make money every day. It’s just that they spend everything they make. I’m a bit more careful.”
One reason he is “more careful” is that he is supporting a large family: 20 children, ranging in age from 28 to 12. Many of them have gone to school abroad, thanks to the conch and lobster of South Caicos waters.
Nor is fishing Alvin’s only occupation. When bad weather keeps the boat in harbour, he turns to construction work, and has also done repair work for the government. In his opinion, though, the more lucrative venture is fishing. Besides, he says, he likes the freedom of being his own boss on the sea.
As the sun gets higher in the sky, the day settles into its musical rhythm and the boat fills with conch. By 10:30 AM, there are 339 of the critters in the boat, Alvin has been counting them as they come in, so he knows the number exactly. He has bent and hammered 339 times, and hopes to triple that number if he can.
There are only a few other boats near Big One, but one is consistently nearby, its captain doing the same things Alvin does, providing the music in stereo. It turns out this is Alvin’s brother Walter; the two often work near each other, arriving at their day’s destination without spoken communication. Alvin explains: “The rocks under the sea are like houses on the land to us. Every fisherman knows his sector, knows where he’s going.” What appears as a vast, blank expanse of water has for him a very specific geography.
When the divers indicate that the conch below are becoming less plentiful, Alvin gestures them into the boat and tries another area, then another and another, as he pushes to get a good load of conch to take in. He comments that good spots for conch can be changeable and capricious, though he sees no evidence of overfishing. “The conch come up, I don’t know where they come from sometimes,” he says. Occasionally, he relates, he has left an area after working it for some time, thinking that it has been depleted. But only two weeks later, he’ll hear from another fisherman that there are plenty there. By mid-afternoon, Alvin decides his day on the water is done. He heads back to shore . . . then anchors a way out from it. It’s time to separate animal and shell.
He, Michel and Raymond each take a knife and begin to cut. Alvin is obviously the quickest and most experienced. Making it look incredibly simple, he slides his knife into the hole he’s made, and with a deft cut and a very slight twist, he’s able to pull the conch away from the open end of the shell. The shell gets flipped into the sea and the conch dropped back into the bottom of the boat. It takes just seconds, and with three of them working, the heap of shells is reduced to a slimy mass of meaty seafood in less than a half-hour.
Then it’s into the dock at the plant, where Raymond and Michel are given a flat shovel and milk crates so they can scoop up the catch to be weighed. Meanwhile, Alvin gets off the boat to do the settling up. The Haitian brothers bail out and clean up a bit, then take the boat around to the dock again, and the day’s work is over.