At sunset, the streets of Port-au-Prince bustle with activity. It is loud and dusty. Smoke fills the air. Trucks, tap taps and motorcycle taxis roar past in traffic as gas powered generators growl loudly supplying food vendors with a light bulb or two so people can see what they are ordering. Food vendors thrive at this time serving commuters hot, freshly cooked meals at the end of the day. Cooks prepare food over coal or kerosene stoves in big steel pots full of diri ak poi (beans and rice), vyann ak sòs (meat with sauce), or bannan frit (fried plantains) and other fritay items served with pikliz (pickled cabbage and carrots).
But seafood is rarely seen on street food menus. Some street vendors sell lambi (conch) from big metal buckets that they carry on their heads. They serve it in little cups with a good dose of hot sauce, unless otherwise instructed. But lambi is a special treat, sold in small quantities, or at restaurants and on beaches where people expect to splurge. The same is true of woma (lobster) and eskevet (shrimp), equally popular shellfish. Like most island nations, Haiti is home to a vast population of fishers. But fish and shellfish are far less commonly consumed compared to other agricultural food stuffs.
Despite the country’s reputation for poverty, and the countless organizations who address its problems with hunger, Haiti’s local seafood economy is largely geared toward luxury consumption. Fish in general is more expensive than chicken or pork, and the majority of Haitians eat on a very tight budget. When street food vendors do sell fish, it is usually imported, previously frozen mackerel known as pwason pepe or pwason miami, both translating as foreign fish. Local fish, or pwason peyi, is rarely available outside of formal restaurants because it is much more expensive than pepe mackerel. Three imported mackerel cost about ~100 Gourdes, compared to three local fish for ~250G. Most market vendors and street vendors choose to sell the cheaper fish because they are able to serve a larger consumer base.
But pepe mackerel is notorious for its strong, unappealing scent so cooks scrub it with citrus to ‘clean’ it and make it more appetizing. Many consumers are especially weary of farmed fish out of concern that producers use chemicals to ensure preservation and growth in these unnatural environments. Consumers largely prefer pwason peyi, and specifically pwason woz (red snapper), for its taste and quality but buy foreign fish simply because it is more affordable. This is true of a lot of imported food commodities in Haiti. Local tastes better, is healthier and safer to eat. But cheap imports are more accessible.
In Haiti, persistent problems with soil erosion and drought, as well as a long history of political corruption severely limit agricultural production. Furthermore, the USA has a habit of dumping surplus commodities on the country. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration negotiated a tariff reduction for subsidized rice. Bill later apologized for the decision when local rice farmers lost their livelihoods to the competitively priced diri miami in the thousands. The story has become legend in Haiti, just one of many examples where food ‘aid’ initiatives failed to fulfill their purpose. When the State Department offered to donate surplus peanuts from the US last month, local activists reminded the politicians that free and cheap imported foods create more problems with hunger than they solve.
It is unclear how imported fish affects local fisheries. I expected to find that fishers would have concerns about cheap pepe mackerel similar to those of rice farmers. But the fishers I spoke with tolerate the imported fish, contending that local fish have added value because they are so much better than the cheaper alternative. Fishers in Cite Soleil, an extremely impoverished coastal community within the nation’s capital, also oppose narratives that suggest imported fish makes up for a lack of fish in local waters. They agree that they could and want to sell more pwason peyi. If only they had better infrastructure.
Currently, the fisheries sector in Haiti is categorically ‘small scale.’ Fishing technology consists of handmade paddle-powered boats and fishing lines tied to blocks of wood. Divers rarely use oxygen tanks, which makes this type of fishing extremely dangerous. If they had bigger boats with motors and better fishing equipment they could fish further out to sea for pelagic species. If they could freeze their fish, they would have a much easier time transporting it to markets. If they could catch more fish and store it, then they could sell pwason peyi at more affordable prices. Though many inshore species are at risk from careless fishing practices and voracious human appetites, large scale overfishing, as seen in other nations with more industrial fisheries sectors, is a comparative luxury that Haitian fishers, for better or for worse, simply cannot afford.
Lillian Brown is a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology and Food Studies