Features — 01 August 2018
Pristine going from Haulover Creek and Belize River

The Wikipedia says it is believed the Haulover Creek got its name “from those who had to ‘haul’ their cattle over the creek with ropes prior to the construction of the swing bridge in 1922.” Ordinarily, okay, almost every day, the creek, which divides Belize City north (side) from Belize City south (side), is a dead body of water. There is nothing pretty about it. No one is tempted to drink from it. On the hottest of days you seldom see any kids splashing about in it.

I know there was a time when the creek had activity, plenty fish. I don’t know the names of many fresh water fish, but I heard people call some of them – pupsi and tuhba and kraana. I know the one called sheep head (sheepshead). That’s a fish with black and white stripes and the shape of a porgy. And of course there were a lot of a notorious fish that is called kyatoh.

For sure, fifty or so years ago there was much life in the Haulover Creek. We know it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as alive as the time when the Mayan ancestors were the only tribe here. Belizeans who lived here in the 1800’s must have inherited a relatively pristine creek too. Clearly, the Haulover Creek at no time had the beauty of a running stream. It’s a flat creek, passing through mangrove swamps. Mangrove swamps are rich habitats, but the tons of leaves that fall and decay in the swamps, stain the water with their dye.

Sometimes, in the vibrant month of March, the Haulover Creek, where it passes through Belize City, comes alive. It happens when the powerful southeasters drive the sea up the creek. If you look closely then, you see the water has a greenish tinge, instead of the regular drab brown, and with the wind whipping up more than twenty knots you can smell the salt in the air, see major ripples on the surface of the creek, and find seaweed more than half a mile in.

During this period, sea birds, the gulls and the pelicans, and occasionally a man-o’-war, fish the river for sprat and billam, and long gyaad (needle nose fish). I remember, as a boy, how pleasant the river was then, with the refreshing sea all mixed up in it. But I don’t think all those at the creek mouth shared the joy. I’m thinking about the fishermen who moor their boats at the market. There are “No Wake” signs in the creek, for motor boats. But when the southeasters are blowing into the city, the creek is choppy between the sea and the Swing Bridge.

When the southeast wind is whipping the creek, the waves laugh at the No Wake signs. They know that only one man alive can make them behave, and He doesn’t work for the local Coast Guard.

There was a chemical spill (cyanide waste from a nail and roofing factory) in the creek (early 1970’s), and it hasn’t recovered. The story was in Amandala. The morning after the spill, kyatoh and sheep head and pupsi and kraana and tuhba were floating all over the place.

Toxic wastes and algal blooms cause fish kills in the New River in Orange Walk almost every year. The New River passes close to the sugar factory in Orange Walk Town and the river suffers from all the smoke pollution caused by the processing of sugar cane.

There hasn’t been any study done on the Haulover Creek (none I’ve seen), but simple observation says the waste from the nail factory doesn’t deserve all of the blame for the low “observable” fish population. Daily there is a lot of motorboat traffic on the creek, and for decades the old electricity plant on Magazine Road spat out grease and oil and diesel into the water. Maybe worse than all of that, the creek was used for all the waste from the belly of Belize City.

I watched the Belize River the other day, way up Young Gyal way, and I didn’t like what I saw. When the river is at its pristine best, it is green. This time of year, even though it’s not in flood, it would be a little brown. It looked sickly yellow to me.

There are some major agricultural activities on the banks of the Belize River. There’s a lot of corn, and there is Santander and its vast fields of sugarcane. There is also mining of sand and gravel on the islands in the river. But the islands I know should be mined out and in the resting phase right now. If the sand islands are over mined, over exploited, they might never recover.

The Department of Geology gives out mining licenses but I don’t know how much monitoring they do. Monitoring is absolutely necessary. I remember a miner getting a license for an island in the river near my village, and he was to deliver some loads of stuff in return for our village supporting him to get the rights to mine. As a member of our village council, I made it my business to visit the head of the Geology Department, a man named Dr. Rajanathan, to find out about our responsibilities under the license. He advised me that our village would have to do the monitoring because his department didn’t have the human resources to make sure the miner didn’t kill the resource.

I know it’s not pushover work to make policy in AC rooms. But I wonder about the amount of sweat our people do in the fields. If you’re going to do the monitoring, you have to trek in the fields.

Harry Vernon, a Belizean scientist, says the Belize River could never become like the New River, and that’s because of the terrain. The New River flows through flat land, while the Belize River rushes through hilly country. But there are spots, deep areas, where the water sits a while before getting on with its journey to the sea.

Rivers and creeks don’t get the love that the sea gets. Maybe that’s because there are no splendid reefs in rivers and creeks. But rivers and creeks are more important because they are the source of our fresh water. And when they are pristine they are, for many of us, every bit as stimulating.

Most notorious fish in Belize

The most notorious fish is the kyatoh, a “downgrow” catfish that is found in the Haulover Creek. Fresh water catfish, called baaka in Belize, can weigh up to a hundred pounds. The biggest kyatoh won’t weigh much more than a pound.

Kyatoh is more closely related to the salt water catfish (hard head catfish, slime mouth catfish, sea baaka) than the catfish (baaka) found up river. Sometimes, when there’s a lot of flood water from the rivers going out to sea, you catch sea baaka, where you usually catch snappers. A snapper hunter can’t pull up anchor fast enough, and get the hell out of there, when he finds himself in a school of those worthless bohgaz. It must be good to eat. But nobody who works the sea has a hankering for salt water catfish.

Kyatoh was pretty plentiful at the time when George Price said that if haad time kom we will eat tuhba and kraana. Some people would call that discriminatory, and some would say for a very good reason. The kyatoh is a notorious scavenger.

George Price didn’t have to scorn kyatoh to not mention it in the haad time menu. If Price had said, we’ll have to eat kyatoh, his political career would have been on the comal. Belize people tolerate a lot, but such an insult would not have been let by. George Price wud a mi get the sense. And Belize would still be a colony.

Hn, with all these gill nets raking the sea, fish are not so plentiful anymore. I don’t want to bring suspicion on anyone but some people who love panades are not so sure about fish panades in Belize City anymore.

Ouch, there was a story about new Chinese Belizeans in the cooking business, and their burgers. The word about was that their culture very eagerly disappeared kyats in frying pans. Belizeans don’t eat kyats and they don’t eat kyatoh.  We don’t want no kyat burger and we don’t want no kyatohpanades.

We’d take kabeeyo (cobia, lemon fish) in our panades, and our burger, every day. I don’t think the kabeeyo is that close a relative of the river baaka, but it has a lot of the look. Fish flesh doesn’t come any better than kabeeyo. Their steaks are as prized as the steaks from the barracuda and the king fish.

It is not a common fish, so Belizeans who love fish for dinner were very happy when investors set up kabeeyo farms off Robinson Point and Holmes Cay some years ago. I think that project crashed because of Hurricane Richard, though I’d heard that there was some difficulty with the economic stocking rate. The story was that the fish were suffering much physical damage inside the cages.

Kabeeyo in the wild are as uncommon as the kingfish. But barracudas, considered by most as the greatest fish for a “boil up”, are regular at the fish stalls. We are coming on to August, the time when barracuda (from certain areas of the sea) are sometimes poisonous with the ciguatera toxin, so lovers of “barra” are just a little wary. (Experts say other fish might have the toxin too.)

Food poisoning isn’t like the influenza. Food poisoning from fish is very rare. Still, in the month of August some are just a little bit wary of eating barracuda. Most people aren’t scared, though. Those who are, will go thru August without eating fish, if the only other fare is the kyatoh.

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Deshawn Swasey

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