Tuna fishing is always conducted in the presence of sharks. Photo: Ronald Suárez Rivas

PINAR DEL RIO.— “Shark!” someone shouts, and the crew is on guard. Very close to the stern, an enormous fish approaches the surface and shows its dorsal fin, in a gesture that for years has been interpreted as a threat.

For the men on board, however, this is simply part of their daily ritual in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

In fact, Víctor Martínez, a fisherman with fifty years of experience, assures that, “if a shark doesn’t come close to the boat, neither do the fish.”

Thus, while the movies have repeatedly presented them as the bad guys, Víctor says there is a lot of fantasy behind such stories.

In real life, at least here, it is not true that sharks charge boats, or pursue those traveling in them.

“We fish with 10, 20, and even 40 sharks surrounding us, and that has never happened,” he explains.

Leonardo Méndez, who has been fishing for about 35 years, states the same. “In time, you see them as a normal, everyday thing, and so far we have not had any scares with them.”

Both are part of the La Coloma industrial fishing enterprise, the largest of its kind in the country, located in the province of Pinar del Río, and devoted to catching fish of the tuna family (bonito, albacore and tuna fish) in the deep waters of the Gulf.

According to experts, this is the hardest type of fishing conducted in the waters surrounding the Cuban archipelago, as it involves two tasks in one. First, catching the bait, from among mangroves, shortly after dawn, and hours later, catching the fish at sea.

Luis Alfredo Martínez, of the Bonitero 01 boat, explains that the working day begins around 6:00 am. “We have to reach the keys near the Isle of Youth, and with the water at our waist and a net, catch the bait and throw it into a tank on the boat, so that it stays alive.

Then we sail several miles, skirting the Isle, and around 3.00 pm we leave for the Gulf, to fight it out.”

Apart from a fright, nothing has happened to those fishermen who have fallen overboard. Photo: Ronald Suárez Rivas

The first task is to locate the fishing spots, something that for decades was done using binoculars, following the trail of seagulls, and some reference point, there in the distance, on the coast. But in recent times, the boats have installed GPS, with which they mark the main fishing spots and set the route to reach them with ease.

On a kind of balcony that the boats have on the stern, ten men (including the skipper, who fishes with one hand and steers the rudder with the other) grip their rods and bring up the fish which take the bait.

As soon as the boat is placed in front of a school of fish, a system similar to a sprinkler is turned on, which launches fine streams of water, and at the same time the 11 crew members begin to drop the bait.

The water is stirred, the fish confuse the hooks with the bait, and they are caught.

But without sharks, none of this happens. “It’s them who direct the schools of fish,” Luis notes. Therefore, when the catch begins, one man dedicates himself exclusively to throwing the bloody entrails of the fish that they have already taken out of the water back, to attract as many sharks as possible, and to concentrate the school of bonito.

Hence many fishermen consider sharks their allies, and instead of hunting them, protect them.

“Those of us who spend the whole year fishing, we even mark them, to know from what spot they are,” Leonardo comments.

“There is one we call ‘white lips,’ because it has a snout of that color, another we call ‘the amputee,’ because it’s missing a piece of its fin, and another is ‘the one with the ring in his neck,’ because it seems he was eating something, and there was a ring that hooked onto him.”

On several occasions during their maneuvers, men have fallen into the water; however, apart from the shock, nothing has ever happened to them.

Víctor Martínez is one of those who has experienced such a chilling incident.
”That was about 18 or 20 years ago. I was working as a majuero (throwing bait), I slipped on a sardine and fell overboard. But falling and climbing up the corner of the balcony was the same thing. A colleague grabbed me by the collar of my shirt and pulled me out.”

Víctor notes that he is not the only man aboard to have fallen in. “Another compañero, a tuna fish took to the bait and pulled him into the water, and people have also gone overboard while sailing, but no tragedy has ever happened.”

Despite this, back on land terror has been sown regarding these fascinating predators over decades (at times with good reason), such that many people around the world think twice before going into the sea.

In countries like Cuba, certain tourist agencies have clarified in their publicity that shark attacks on humans are very rare.

In the past 50 years, for example, only four cases have been reported in the waters surrounding the archipelago, and none has had a fatal outcome.

Not even in the Gulf of Mexico area, where Cuban vessels fish for tuna, does anyone remember a fisherman dying in the jaws of a shark.

Quite the opposite. The men who sail among them all year insist that their presence is essential to their fishing.

“That’s why we take care of them, as they are the sustenance of what we do,” Leonardo stresses, “If anyone were to do them harm, we would be out of a job.”