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Crayfish and Culture

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by John Renton 16.JUN.06
Biology Teacher GHS

For some time I have been interested in scientifically describing the rich diversity of the living heritage of our streams and rivers in St. Vincent. I realized that I required the assistance of somebody who knows how to catch “crayfish”. On asking around the Vermont area, one name always came up – Mr. Alpheus Stevens better known as “Bashment”. Bashment is a professional fisherman who catches crayfish to order and is an expert on crayfish and river life. Bashment states that he learnt about the river as a youth from elders but he says that, regretfully, today’s youth are less interested in the mountain and the river than those in days gone by. He enthusiastically agreed to work with me on my river project, glad for the opportunity to pass on his knowledge of the river and its value to the public.{{more}}

So far, we have made several collecting trips to the Buccament, Cumberland and Richmond Rivers. Bashment expertly used the traditional wiss basket to catch fish and crayfish in the same way as the Caribs must have taught our fore parents in generations past.

In all, eight different species of crayfish were captured in our rivers; two species of bookie, glass bottle, malatar, river lobster, lobster leader, and two species which are unnamed. Our “crayfish” are what biologists call fresh water shrimp because they only have pincers on the two front legs whereas a true crayfish has pincers on the front three.

The largest species of crayfish we caught was the massive river lobster, Macro brachium carcinus, a predator that grows to over 200 mm long. The lobster must be handled with caution because the massive gundy or claw is capable of inflicting a bone-crushing nip. The malatar, Macro brachium heterochirus, is another smaller, common predatory shrimp. The bookie was by far the most frequently captured crayfish and is an Atyid shrimp. The bookie reaches a maximum length of 105 mm. In all crayfish the males are larger than the females. The Atyid shrimps have specially adapted front limbs with fine bristles at their ends like a brush. They use these to collect the fine particles of dead plant material on which they feed. The smallest crayfish found was the tiny lobster leader, which is only around 22 mm long. The lobster leader is difficult to handle as it frequently tries to escape by jumping.

Fish species are also numerous, with at least nine occurring in our rivers. These include the macark, mountain mullet, sand fish, crocro, opossum pipe fish, the bimouth sleeper, American eel, suck stone and grouper. Juveniles of some marine fish, for example Crevalle Jack and flounders, can be found at the river mouth.

The macark, Sicydium punctatum, a member of the goby family, is one of the most interesting river fish. It has a powerful sucker on the underside of the head that helps the fish to hold on to rocks in the rapid current as it grazes algae. The larvae of this fish are carried by the current to the ocean. They return to the river in the post larva stage, which we know as the local delicacy, tritri. Tritri are caught in large numbers at the mouths of rivers. The greatest catches of tritri are made between the months of August and December, usually three days after the last quarter of the moon. Bashment, like many others, still holds to the traditional belief that tritri are “born of lightening out at sea”.

Another interesting native fish is the tiny opossum pipe fish, Oosthetus branchyrunus. Its maximum body length is 125 mm long and it weighs only around 1 gram. The opossum pipefish is a relative of the sea horse and like the sea horse, it is the male that incubates the eggs in a brood pouch.

The mountain mullet, Agonostromus monticola, is one of the most common fish in the lower and middle reaches of our rivers. This fish can even be seen in the polluted rivers that run through the heart of Kingstown. Mountain mullet are omnivorous. They are good eating and can reach weights in excess of 41bs. It is the only true fresh water mullet. Bashment says that he has observed them breeding in the river.

Another edible river species is the river whelk, Neritina punctulata. This snail is found in large numbers in some rivers. They graze algae from the rocks and are closely related to similar snails found on rocks by the sea.

Unfortunately this fragile and precious environment is suffering damage. Bashment confirms that the river used to contain more life. Too many times he replied, “we lost that one” when I enquired if the species was found in the Buccament River. Threats to the river come from several sources –

• The use of pesticides to capture crayfish damages all life in the river.

• The introduction of foreign species, which eat or out compete the native river fauna. Tritri are extinct in Grenada possibly due to the introduction of a food fish called Tilapia. During this survey, we were alarmed to capture a red-eared slider terrapin in the Buccament River. The natural range of this reptile is the Mississippi River in the USA. It probably entered the Buccament River as a discarded pet released by an owner who had got tired of it. The red-eared slider terrapin is a voracious predator capable of eating all species in the river. This individual was a female in good condition – we can only hope she is alone.

• Nearly all species found in our rivers are tied to the sea in the early stages of their life cycle. Any activity that restricts the flow of water in the river has the potential to hold back the progress of the juveniles as they progress from the sea into the river system and will have a severe impact on river life.

• Increased urbanization, road building, resort development and deforestation along the riverbank all alter the nature of the river and degrades its value as a habitat for wildlife.

During these collecting expeditions, I was overwhelmed by the richness of our river heritage, not only by the many interesting organisms we saw, but also the traditions and culture associated with them. The fishing methods used, such as the wiss basket for catching crayfish, the flambeau, and trap of mapou leaves weighted down by stones on a crocus bag to catch tritri, are ancient and remind us of our ancestors. Local dishes like, crayfish and callaloo and tritri cakes, are the ones we make for special occasions and to send to relatives overseas who long for a taste of home. These traditions are uniquely Vincentian. If we allow the rivers to die, a special part of our culture dies with them. Please do what you can to preserve them for future generations of Vincentians.

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