Please don’t get me wrong because I am not trying to encourage the hunting of manatees, a mammal in the wild and protected for good reasons. However, twenty five years ago they were hunted and quite understandably so. In the days of no refrigeration, there was no meat on the Island, and the villagers did have a craving and a need for meat. Well, you guessed it right. The closest thing to beef or pork was the manatee meat known locally as “carne de manatin”.
Every so often, perhaps every month or two, a fisherman would prepare his boat, harpoon, ropes and other equipment and prepare for this hunting trip which was an expedition and adventure. The first thing he did was to announce it around the village so that he would ensure a good sale.
The most popular site for manatees was about five to six miles off the north west coast of Ambergris Caye, sort of between the island and the mainland. When you got to the area you started going in circles hoping to see the trail of a manatee. If you did not spot the body of the mammal with its nose outside the water, then you would try to locate the trail of mud created by the animal as it gently swam along the shallow water with its huge, flat and horizontal tail. Fishermen knew that if the trail of mud got lighter, you were moving away from the manatee, and logically, if the trail got brighter, you were getting closer to your game, kind of the same with footprints when hunting for wild pigs and deer. Incidentally those latter two were not prohibited either, but only most fishermen were not skilled in deer hunting except for one or two who had hunting as a hobby.
I shall refrain from talking about the actual catch of the manatee out of respect for this protected species. The meat was processed into fillet, five inches wide by half an inch thick. Once the word got around all villagers would go to the beach at the lagoon side to purchase their week’s supply- some ten to 15 pounds. At ten cents for a pound it was easy to sell three to four hundred pounds in a day and the rest, if any, was corned or preserved with salt.
You knew when there was “manatin” in the village because its aroma was absolutely unique and delicious. When there was manatee meat on the island, you could smell it one block away when it was being fried. It was fried manatee in the morning, steaks for lunch and fried again with hot Johnny cakes in the evening. Manatee meat gradually rose from 10 to 20 to 40 and eventually 60 cents up until the time when it was made illegal. At that time beef was selling at one dollar a pound. Today, when you have a craving for nice meat, well you go to the meat shop and with $8 dollars you can get a pound of sirloin beef; it is not as delicious, but I urge everybody to do all that they can to protect these gentle creatures of the sea.
- by Angel Nuñez, Columnist