The day Milton McPhee found himself taking home $3,500 after just one day of fishing, his fate as a fisherman was sealed.
“I made $3,500 for myself and I was just getting a 25 percent share after expenses. We left Nassau about 4 a.m. that morning, we arrived in Andros at about 5-5:30 a.m., and we began diving like around 6 a.m.; by 10 a.m. we were back in Nassau and I made $3,500 for myself after expenses.”
His single-day financial haul was an enticing catch. It did not help that he had been fascinated by the water since he was a child.
McPhee, a fisherman of 22 years, is one of thousands of Bahamians unable to earn a living after the country shut down in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19.
The first in-country case was confirmed on March 15.
Without the ability to engage in his fishing profession, the father of nine says seven weeks into the country’s state of emergency, which is accompanied by weekend lockdowns and a 24-hour curfew, that life has become hard.
“It’s kind of a nail-biter because fishermen, for the most part, live on a day-to-day basis,” McPhee told The Nassau Guardian.
“We have no allotted amount that we make, and for the most part, we have to make our own ‘sunshine’. With that being said, we haven’t been able to go fishing so there is no ‘sunshine’. There is nothing but ‘rain’.”
Emergency orders by the government forbid the retail sale of fish at docks. Fishermen are only allowed to engage in subsistence fishing during daylight hours.
What savings he had, McPhee says has been exhausted as the bills continue and have to be paid, but no money comes in.
“I had a couple dollars put aside, but I’ve burnt through that because it’s more than just me; and then I have to still take care of my equipment. I’ve got three boats,” he said.
McPhee is not a fan of waiving bill payments either.
“We have to play catch up and it’s kind of hard because we would have to pay bills that we are living and creating now, along with bills that we would be living and creating then, so it’s a double whammy. And I’ve got quite a few children.”
McPhee makes a comfortable living as a fisherman, so-much-so that he says that over the years there has been a trickle-down effect with him helping to support extended family.
“We’re not the millionaires per se [but] some fishermen are well off and have a few bucks, and for the most part, we do more than just take care of our households. We tend to take care of a cousin down the road or we help with our mothers’ bills, our children’s bills, so it’s a trickle-down effect. If I can’t produce any finances, that means it’s more than just me who suffers. And I don’t have the money to take me through for however long. As it stands now, my resources are just about depleted.”
The Bahamas has 89 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 11 deaths, 26 recovered cases, eight hospitalized cases, 52 active cases and completed 1,485 tests as of Tuesday, May 5. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are 3,525,116 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 243,540 deaths worldwide.
The fisherman says just allowing his boats to be idle presents another set of financial problems.
“The thing with boats is if you don’t use them you lose them [boats], they rust and corrode. We have to run them from time to time. If we get to run them then we can save a lot of the problems, because a carburetor outboard engine, as it sits, the gas settles – when the gas settles, sediments collect at the bottom of the carburetor, clog the high-speed jet and then you’ve got a problem.”
McPhee who has fished full-time since 1998 says he fishes basically just about everything – snapper, conch, grouper and lobster.
He says he just wants to be able to get back to doing what he loves doing, which has enabled him to provide for his family for decades.
“It’s an adventure – no two days are the same,” he said describing what it’s like when he fishes. “You can dive in a particular area on a particular spot today and when you go back tomorrow, everything has changed. No two days are alike, and there’s never a boring day. There’s a saying – the worst day fishing is better than the best day on a nine to five. And back then there wasn’t so many stipulations and regulations and conservancy per se, so it was kind of lucrative.”
As he’s allowed to subsistence fish, McPhee now goes to get fish to feed his family. He also shares with neighbors and relatives, but doesn’t know how long he can keep doing that.
“If I can’t sell fish, I can’t maintain my operation. I can’t maintain my boats. I can’t even buy gas,” he said.
Prior to becoming a full-time fisherman, McPhee held a government job in Acklins in the Commissioner’s Office right out of high school. He left because he missed the water and returned to fishing for two years before venturing back into the mainstream workforce at Cavalier Construction as the storeroom manager and timekeeper, before he chucked it all in to pursue fishing full-time.