Barbados’ National Fish Is In Hot Water

I run the risk of revealing my age when I say that my formative years were punctuated by a plethora of moments associated with the iconic flying fish— the national fish of my country, Barbados.

Vivid memories flood back from boat trips of my childhood, observing the silver herring-like fish, gliding in swarms, “wings” outstretched over placid waters… or in other instances, jumping around, succumbing into heaping nets on colorful wooden fishing boats, and destined for fish markets, such as the famous Oistins, where I would watch in awe as vendors skillfully de-boned them, ready to be seasoned, marinated and consumed alongside cornmeal porridge otherwise known as cou cou, which my mother would make with okra.

Cou cou and flying fish was and is Barbados’ national dish, but the mild and flaky flavor and texture was also enjoyed in so many other ways: battered and fried alongside breadfruit chips or macaroni pie, sandwiched between two pieces of salt bread (known as a cutter), or deliciously fried in the signature seasoning of Barbados’ most popular fast food joint, Chefette, where it seasonally graced our menus.

Sadly, Chefette discontinued its legendary flying fish sandwiches ages ago… And that’s exactly where this story begins…

When I was a child, flying fish accounted for the vast majority of annual fish landings and the highest value-added benefits of all local catch. The sheer numbers would make flying fish synonymous with Barbadian culture and identity. But alas, just as those days are long gone, so is the abundance of the staple to which I was once so accustomed…

According to a 2022 study conducted by Dr Nathalie Butt from University of Queensland’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and published in journal, Ecosphere, flying fish “are becoming increasingly exposed to climate change-related stressors” and are among the most vulnerable of marine species to a variety of environmental impacts affecting the ocean.

Due to a variety of influences on migratory tendencies and spawning behavior, climate change has indirectly impacted the quantity of flying fish in Barbadian waters— and to no small extent.

Land of cou cou and flying fish | We national dish | I am a Bajan, I’m a Bajan.

In 2011, the same year that Bajan singer, Rupee released his hit song, “I am a Bajan,” sargassum seaweed began to inundate the waters of Barbados. This migration of seaweed from the coast of Brazil— which scientists partially attributed to climate change induced warming waters— resulted in a 51.5% decline in mean monthly flying fish landings (2019).

The significant influx of algae experienced annually since then (2013 has been the only exception thus far) has become the new norm f0r the region. And while there is no evidence that flying fish populations as a whole are being negatively impacted by the sargassum, University of the West Indies’ marine ecologist, Hazel Oxenford says that the algae is causing behavioral change among flying fish that is reducing fishers’ ability to access catch using traditional fishing techniques.

Peak catch periods for flying fish (December through to June) have coincided with the periods of significant influx of sargassum to the region— to the great detriment of fishing activities, given that flying fish have been using sargassum as a habitat for spawning, instead of the floating Fish Aggregating Devices used in traditional fisheries.

But 2011 wasn’t the first time that climate change affected the population of Barbados’ favorite fish. In the early 2000’s, migratory patterns of flying fish began to change due to warming waters, causing the species to move further south into the territorial waters of Trinidad & Tobago. Given that Barbadian fishers were so heavily reliant on flying fish catch, they followed the fish into Trinidad waters, sparking an infamous dispute between the two countries that was ultimately resolved in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Netherlands.

Despite having taken place many years ago, this dispute has remained in the psyche of both Trinidadians and Barbadians to this day, and was recently brought to the fore in an Instagram post made by Nikki Minaj, in which her friend and famous Barbadian songstress, Rihanna alluded to the rift, stating that conflict over flying fish caused Trinidadians and Barbadians to dislike one another.

“They draw a line in the ocean over flying fish,” said Rih Rih in jest.

Rihanna and Nikki aside, the culture and economy of Barbados has been dominated by flying fish for hundreds of years and despite its decline, it continues to be just as inspiring of national pride as the famous Barbadian songstress herself.

Speaking of Rihanna, the Bajan icon and national hero has made no secret of her love for the delicious fish.

It is no wonder that with so much love, and such little supply, Barbadian fishers are feeling the heat. With more than 6,000 people benefiting either directly or indirectly from Barbadian flying fish fisheries and tourism-related activities, the decline is impacting lives and livelihoods.

Last year, Vernell Nicholls, President of the Barbados National Union of Fisherfolk Organisations (BARNUFO) lamented to Barbados Today Newspaper that “A lot of the people [fish vendors] are not working because they are not landing the flying fish… The bulk of employment in Barbados in the fishing industry is the vendors that work with the flying fish. If you go through the market, you would see the market, in a sense, empty.”

During the 2023 Christmas season, fish vendors were forced to sell packs of 10 fish for between $17 and $22 US dollars in order to turn a profit on the $125 per pound that was being charged by fishers who were spending long periods of time at sea in search of the scarce commodity that was in such high demand.

To put the price increase into perspective, in the late 1990s, chattel house-shaped cardboard boxes of frozen de-boned flying fish were all the rage, selling at the Grantley Adams International Airport at the premium price of about half of the current selling price, which travelers would cook and enjoy at their respective destinations.

With the escalating cost, it’s hard not to miss the irony that Barbados’ silver dollar features the iconic fish; a fish that is quickly becoming a delicacy rather than the bountiful staple that was once enjoyed by all.

According to Iris Monnereau, a specialist on climate change and fisheries in Small Island Developing States, “There will be few if any ‘winners’ with regard to commercially important fish resources as climate change progresses in this region.”

Climate change-induced flying fish migrations, changes in spawning behaviors, sargassum influxes and other environmental stressors such as extreme weather events continue to create increasing harvest and post harvest losses for Barbadian fishers, particularly within a context of rising fuel and maintenance costs.

Dr. Shelly-Ann Cox, Barbados’ new Chief Fisheries Officer has responded with hopeful optimism, announcing an ambitious goal to take the fisheries sector from 0.07% of the gross domestic product to 5% of GDP within a 10-year time frame, but advising— in her words— that there needs to be an “all hands on deck” approach to climate change.

As oceans absorb the vast majority of excess heat generated by rising emissions, the fisheries, economies and culture of Small Island Developing States such as Barbados continue to be the most vulnerable to unparalleled cascading effects— with fisher folk, coastal populations and the iconic flying fish— a symbol of Barbados itself, feeling the greatest impacts.