Half a Century of Fishing Tales
French Harbour Man Recounts Rise and Fall of Island Shrimping

August 19th, 2013
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Truman Jones poses with memorabilia at an August 10 shrimp boil at his Brick Bay home commemorating his 50 years as a shrimper.

Truman Jones poses with memorabilia at an August 10 shrimp boil at his Brick Bay home commemorating his 50 years as a shrimper.

Truman Jones (aka Captain Benbow, a nickname inherited from his father), a fifth-generation Bay Islander from French Harbour, recently celebrated 50 years in the shrimping business at a shrimp boil at his home overlooking Brick Bay. We sat down with him there two days later to talk about his half century hunting shrimp and lobster.

BIV: How did the shrimping business get started here, and how did you get into it?

Truman: It started probably about 1956. An American guy and two friends from around Tampa Bay, they came down here with a couple of old wood shrimp boats looking for white shrimp on the Honduran coast by the rivers. When they came they found a lot of shrimp. So they started a small packing plant in Guanaja. So then the guys in Guanaja started in on it. Now them Hydes in 1963, around the end of May, bought their first shrimp boat, that was Lady E. They brought it to French Harbour. She went out in June.

She made two trips out using crew from Bonacca (Guanaja). And then when she came back in off the second trip, the Bonacca guys got off … That’s when I got on her. … She was the only shrimp boat in French Harbour at that time. … I asked Allan (Hyde) for a job, and he already had all the crew. He told me if I wanted to go, I could go, and maybe he could give me a job next trip. That’s how I went the first trip. We were gone 28 days … And he hired this American guy as the rig man. … That was Floyd Holtz. … I learned enough from him in three months that I based my whole fishing career on that. He taught me the shrimping business. … That was 1963. And I went captain in ’66.

BIV: How did you get to be captain of your own boat?

Truman: I had left the Lady E. and went to work on a cruise ship out of Miami. …When Hyde bought the second boat, he named it Mr. B. … I decided to come back. … I brought her from the States in June 1965. Kern (Hyde) was the captain. But Kern didn’t know anything about shrimping. But the boat belonged to them. So he went captain and I was doing the rigman job … And we brought her down from St. Augustine to here. And Kern went out but he had never been shrimping. He stayed about seven months, but he didn’t like it. So he got off (to become captain of a freighter transporting seafood to Florida). Then I went captain.

BIV: How did you come to own your own fleet of boats?

Truman: All of my boats I bought with bank loans. My first boat I bought with finance for eight years at 8.5 percent, from a Honduran bank through AID in Washington. They lent it through Bancasa. I worked the boat very hard. I ran her non-stop for 18 months in Honduras and Nicaragua. It was only $70,000. I paid the loan off in 18 months. When I came in, I took enough out to pay whatever food my wife was credited to the store to eat and give the rest to the bank. I felt as long as I had the loan the boat was not mine; the boat was owned by the bank. As I kept going, the loans went up to 9 percent, 12 percent. The last one I borrowed was 19. It took me five years to do the same thing. That was ’88. … I don’t think the banks is even lending money to buy boats anymore.

BIV: How many people do you think were living off the shrimp industry back in ’63?

Truman: Well, ’63 was just the first time it started in French Harbour. The ’80s was the peak. By ’83 we had like 170 shrimp boats fishing shrimp and another 100 and odd fishing lobster. French Harbour was the biggest.  We had some in Oak Ridge and Bonacca; about five boats down in Utila.

We had two packing plants 20 years ago that had about 300 women packing shrimp here. Each one had around 150 women working there, and probably about another 50-60 men. At first it was probably mostly island women. They kept a coming and kept getting bigger and there wasn’t enough islanders to do the job. The islanders were running the boats and the Spanish people came from the coast to work in the packing plants.There wasn’t no tourism here, no construction. They came basically to work at the packing plants. That’s when Los Fuertes got started. I remember when there wasn’t a house in Los Fuertes, about 1970.

BIV: When and why did shrimping decline?

Truman: My peak season was about 1989. That’s when I bought the last boat. … What happened was the farmed shrimp and the price of fuel. They could raise the farmed shrimp and sell ’em for around 80 cents a pound. It takes me $2 a pound to catch ’em. And the price of fuel went up…. I would say about from 2000 up to now we had a lot of problems price-wise. … Nobody wanted to buy the shrimp in the States. They’d buy ’em but the price was so low. The plants couldn’t pay me enough to catch ’em and make profits, so they stopped buyin’ ’em.

BIV: So it wasn’t an overfishing situation?

Truman: There’s as much shrimp out there today as there was in 1963.

At first we didn’t have no seasons. We’d work through. We’d tie the boats up in April and May, leaving them in dry dock. And then we’d go back out.  But as we got up around 50-60 boats we realized we needed to have a shut-down period. So they can reproduce. April and May the shrimps are just hatching. In a couple of months everything comes back. … I worked very hard with President Callejas when he was minister of natural resources to start the season.

BIV: How many people did you employ at the peak?

Truman: I’m only operating two boats right now. I had at one time five. I sold two; one burnt down…. We had two lobster boats that took 12 men, so that’s 24. And the other three boats, the shrimp boats, had six. So I had about 50 guys. There were a couple of guys around the dock. We’re down to about 12 now.

BIV: Is that typical of a lot of the operators?

Truman: Yeah, a lot of them had to cut back, you know, they sold some of their boats. We had like 180-200 boats fishing shrimp in the ’80s. It dropped down to 120. The fleet kind of shifted over to lobster, and it left shrimping. … There’s no room for no more new boats.

BIV: Has there been enough jobs created because of tourism to offset what was lost from the shrimping?

Truman: No, no, no, I don’t think so. … The shrimp thing was a lot farther ahead with employment than the tourist thing is today. We’re lucky, happy that the tourist thing is here. That took up a lot of slack once the shrimp went down … The tourist thing came in when the shrimp was right at its peak.

BIV: When was the last time you went out to sea to shrimp?

Truman: About five years ago.

BIV: You’ve also fished lobster. That’s also not nearly what it was before is it?

Truman: There’s a lot of boats fishing lobster. Some years is almost as good. Some years is real bad…. I never went diving. That’s the only part of the business I never did.

BIV: What sort of changes do you think the shrimp industry brought to the island during that 25 years that it was booming?

Truman: What it brought at that time, a guy at my age at that time, 17, all left right away and got into the shipping business, went into the merchant marine in the US. I had three brothers ahead of me, and that’s what they did. In ’63, I was geared to do the same thing.

Most of those (shrimp) boats was captained with boys out of French Harbour. All kind of learned from one to the next. … I took different friends on the boat and taught them …It give you a chance to build your house … it really helped the young men of French Harbour from 1963 on. All through the island.

At that time it was 90 percent islanders crewing the boats; a few Indians and Carib (Garifuna). Then the Spanish guys started coming slowly afterward. I worked with all of them. We used quite a bit of the Moskito Indians too. They went big time into the diving. But a few of them worked on the shrimp boats.

BIV: Does shrimping as opposed to merchant marining involve less time away from home?

Truman: When I first started out, a 30-day trip was normal then, because you’d run out of ice. They’d come back and they’d load ice. Now when they got the boat with the freezer system, they’d go out for 40, 50, 60 days. Now normally it’s 100 days. The guy that went away them days (in the merchant marine), he’d be gone a year. Here we got home at least 50-60 days at home. But you was only 24 hours away from home. Some problem with your family happen, you could always get home pretty quick. For a guy who was over in England, Africa or something, he was farther from home.

I’d come in from a 50 day trip, try to get home on a Thursday. Spend the weekend at home and go out again Monday for another 50 days … I spent about three months a year at home. …My oldest child was seven years old the first time I spent a Christmas at home.

BIV: How many of your four kids were born while you were away?

Truman: I was not there when neither one was born. … When my son was born, I was fishing. They sent a message out to let me know on the boat. Somehow I did not receive the message. About 10 days later, I heard he was born. A friend of mine called and congratulate me on having a boy. I thought he was pulling my leg. He said, “Your wife had a baby a week ago. You didn’t know?” I said, “No.” I came in right after that.

BIV: What were the benefits to you of the shrimping life?

Truman: I bought a couple of small pieces of property. I sent my kids to school. A lot of guys did the same thing. … I think I did okay. …  I don’t have no regrets. It was a good life. … I’m a fisherman. I love the fishing. I was born and raised 50 feet from the sea.

BIV: What was your formal education?

Truman: I went to fourth grade Spanish school. Here in French Harbour Spanish school only went to third grade. And the last year what we had was a couple of old ladies that had got a good English education in Belize. They used to teach English in their parlor. So I went to them. I went to the fifth book of the Royal Reader.

We used to work in the night and sleep in the day when you’re fishing the pink shrimp. So what I generally did, we’d get through about 6 in the morning, get the boat cleaned up, eat breakfast, by 10 O’Clock we’d be done. I would get my book, and I’d read til 11:30-12:00. Go to sleep. Between 3 and 4 O’Clock we’d get up. And I would read a little bit again. … I would say, most days on the shrimp boat I’d read at least a good two hours. I’d read a book in a couple days. When I went to the States I’d go to those, where you buy the books so cheap, 10-15 cents a piece second-hand, I’d buy a whole damn box full of them. … I read thousands of books. I read also good books. A lot of history.

BIV: What’s your advice to young people on the island today who want to have a successful life here?

Truman: To make it, I think find something that you like to do, and work at it hard. If you want to work in the tourist thing, find something, and try to climb up the ladder. The only way I know to climb up the ladder is by hard work. … Today the shrimping thing it’s not as easy to make it. I think I did okay. But it’s a lot harder with the competition from the farmed shrimp. There’s still a living there. But to jump in it and buy a boat, get money from the bank … I know it’s pretty hard now to get a loan to buy a boat.

BIV: What are your plans now?

Truman: Hopefully I can retire after this season. I’m thinking 50 years is enough. … I’ve reached the age where I’ll be living in the shade of my life. Hopefully I can live in the shade that I’ve built with my life. I’m satisfied with my shade, and I hope the Good Lord will bless me some years to live in it.

My closest friend … Jerry McLaughlin … we growed up as friends, and I got him a job on the boat ’64. … He went captain, he bought boats, he did the same thing basically what I did. … He used to say his grandfather would take a knife, get a little piece of wood, they called it whittlin’.  We’d be out there some nights talkin’ … on the CB radio … and he would always say to me, “Benbow, man, when we get old, me and you got to get a knife and a little piece of wood, sit down on a log on the beach and whittle … We’ll whittle and talk about the good times and the bad times.” … He didn’t make it. He died at 54. Cancer of the pancreas. And I remember that a lot. I think about it a couple nights ago. …  I’ll have to do the whittlin’ for me and him.

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