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Guanaja... By Alfonso Ebanks

...where it all begun

Boats running between the Bonacca Cay and the main island. Open cockpit dories and boats are the preferred and sometimes only way of getting around the island.

The wind was from the east, the sky was clear and the pilot of the lead vessel went about checking the course when someone yelled, "Land ahead." The pilot entered the captain quarters to inform him that the lookout had sighted land.
This was the fourth voyage of its kind to this part of the world for the Great Captain and, though he was ill, he made an effort to come out on the deck to see yet another island. When they had approached to within a half mile of the island the pilot spotted a reef and signaled a halt to their forward motion. The ships turned into the wind and the crews began dropping their anchors in the crystal clear water just as the sun came up over the verdant hills. The reef appeared to extend the full length of the island, but dead ahead a break in the reef appeared with a blue inlet that turned and curved inward to the beach. A few hundred yards behind the reef the observers could see the opening in the white sands of the beach, which meant the outlet of a river. The crews began launching small boats in which they would negotiate the channel, traverse the short distance to the beach and be able to refill their water barrels with drinking water.
As they loaded their small boats with the barrels, they spotted another vessel coming up from the west. The pilot and the captain recognized it as a native canoe. But something was different about this canoe: it was not only huge but also decorated and adorned in a manner not seen before by any of the officers or the crew. The canoe came straight away to the lead vessel, which had anchored a little closer to the reef than the others. The Great Captain was impressed with this canoe and commented that it was as large as a galley. These canoes did not make use of sails; all the propulsion was by paddles and this one had 40 paddlers and room for plenty of trade goods.
With the help of a few natives from other islands who accompanied the great captain on his ship, some sort of communications was possible with the natives in the large canoe, who were from the mainland. They had come up from the south and west to trade with the inhabitants of this island. The Great Captain was invited to go ashore in the native canoe instead of one of the small boats loaded with water barrels. The Great Captain was joined by his young son and they came ashore a little east of the outlet of the small river. Here they disembarked and, as the Great Captain questioned the captain of the large canoe, his men went about filling the water barrel with sweet water. While the Great Captain found out about the lands to the south and west his young son frolicked in the blue green water of the beach with some young islanders who had come out of the bushes. Though initially approaching him with some trepidation, the islanders and the captain's son soon became quite friendly.
The native captain complimented the Great Captain on the huge size of his vessel and inquired about how it was built and from what material the sails were made. During the difficult discourse the Great Captain was offered an earthenware vessel filled with an aromatic concoction. Feeling it would be unfriendly to refuse, he tasted the brew and found, to his great amazement, the exotic flavor of the brown liquid to be captivating. He was told that the brew was called cacahuatl, a common drink among the natives.
After the crew of the ships had filled all their water barrels and finished some trading, they bid farewell to their gracious host and departed the island. After the Great Captain's vessels cleared the island and headed southward, the Great Captain commented that the island should be called the Isle of Pines because it was covered with huge pine trees both on the northern and the southern sides.
The year was 1502 and Christopher Columbus had discovered Bonacco, from which he had first sighted the mainland of the American continent. The large canoe was a Mayan trading vessel coming to trade with the Pica Indians who lived on the island. They mostly traded earthenware, animal skins, horns and antlers in exchange for shells and pearls.
These early inhabitants of Bonacco did not know it, but this first encounter with Europeans would spell doom for them and their ways of life. Within a few years the Europeans were coming more often, sometimes stopping for water but always taking whatever they wanted. Because of their increasingly trying life in the years that followed, the Picas moved away from the island. The last aborigines to populate the island were the Payas. The Mayans still visited and on some special occasions, such as a ceremony held on the island at a cave the Mayans deemed a "cave of creation," brought dignitaries in their large canoes from the mainland. This could only mean that when the cave was discovered by the Mayans they found artifact that predated their culture.
From 1502 until somewhere around 1611, the Bay Islands were in the possession of Spain. In 1611 or 1612 English pirates discovered the many harbors, the plentiful timber available and the numerous springs of clear sweet water. Naturally, they decided that this was the place to rendezvous and outfit their ships, and so took full possession of all the Bay Islands. After many failures, in 1650 the Spaniards succeeded in driving the pirates off the Islands. This was the same year that the Spaniards removed the last remaining natives from the island. Those who did no go back to La Mosquitia were carried by the Spaniards to Amatique in Guatemala. The islands were populated by Europeans off and on for the next hundred years or so. By 1762 the English had returned, had taken formal possession and had fortified some of the islands.
Sandy Bay on Guanaja's south shore. The beaches of the big island are still mostly undeveloped.

Though the English were driven out again in 1780, they returned in 1797 with two thousand Black Caribs from Saint Vincent to the island of Roatan. For the next 50 years the island was sparsely populated by the English, so that by the year 1860 at least one hundred persons were living on the south side of Bonacco. A thriving farming community was established on the fertile soil of the island, and vessels came from far in search of agricultural products. Among these vessels were always several turtle boats from the Cayman Islands. The crew of the turtle boats carried back such glowing accounts of this island that several dozen families immigrated to Bonacco, both freed slaves as well as their former masters. The island maintained many ties with the islands of the Caymans. Trade was mostly in agricultural products for dry goods and medication from England, but also included Grand Cayman's only products--thatch rope and straw baskets. The traffic in goods and people between the Islands of Cayman and Bonacco continued for many years without any visas or permits required, based on the fact that the people were of common ancestry and more than likely cousins to some degree.
The attitudes of the Caymans people have changed towards the Bonacco people, however, and I attribute this to the fact that they have forgotten our past history. The nickname "Bonacco pirates" actually came about when a group of freed Negroes plundered a British ship which had gone aground on one of Bonacco's reefs. At the time the incident was called the raid of the Caymans Pirates, but Bonacco got the name and has kept it. Even today, the older heads from the other islands call us "Bonacco Pirates." By this time Clark Cay had replaced North East Bight as the Capital of Bonacco and was the main spot for social events and religious gatherings. The main island was populated by a black blood-sucking insect whose bite is the most painful and its sting last longer than any other blood sucking insect on the island. The bottle (blotch) flies were the reason that the early settlers decided to move their dwelling houses to the nearby cays.
At first the settlers only went to the cays to sleep but eventually they moved bag and baggage to the little cays. The two lower cays were small but were separated by shallow water and this was ideal for building houses on pilings. The former masters lived on Hog Cay and the rest lived on Shin Cay. What is ironic about this separation is that Hog Cay was purchase from persons living on Shin Cay. Eventually the two cays were joined together as the space between them was filled in with millions of reef rocks and thousands of tons of bar mud.
In the 1880's the United States became a trading partner of this island. In 1883 this island sold fruit valued at 87 thousand dollars. It was during this period that the Adventist religion came to the island and from here to the rest of Latin America. After the Second World War prices improved and during any one month at least eight ships could be seen making port-o-calls for any kind of produce including coconuts, pineapples, bananas, plantains and the like.
Bonacco was an active and progressive place. Of the three mayor islands Bonacco was first to have many modern commodities and devices. The first ice plant in the Bay Islands was erected in the early nineteen fifties. The first juke box came in 1953. The first meteorological station in 1955. By 1956 the first landing strip was in operation and Bonacco became the first destination for fly-in tourists coming primarily from El Salvador and Guatemala.
About the same time shrimp were discovered in commercially viable amounts off the eastern coast of Honduras. And it was Bonacco that became a pioneer in the seafood packing business in Honduras.
Lobster fishing came next, and at one time four packing houses on the island were packing and exporting seafood bought from locals and from other fishermen throughout the Bay Islands. While the fishing industry brought prosperity to Bonacco, it also brought lots of laborers and the attention of the Honduran government, which declared that the official name of the island was Guanaja. With the exception of few, these new immigrant laborers were poor, uneducated people looking for a living who took more than they gave to the island. Their immigration started in the early nineteen sixties and continues until this day, even though the availability of jobs that once existed has long ago dried up. This influx of people has reached such proportions that the local native-born, English descent population is now a minority.
Guanaja remains a beautiful island. Of all the Bay Islands it is the only one with an abundance of year-round fresh water springs, small rivers, creeks and even waterfalls. The encompassing coral reefs are unequalled and even Roatan advertises their scuba diving beauty by using photos taken on the reefs of Guanaja. The island is the dive destination of many dive operations from other islands. But the coral reefs are not the only resource the island has: At least three archeological sites bear looking into, each appraised by their discoverers as being of huge importance to deciphering the pre-Columbian cultural history of these islands and maybe of all Central America. The importance of these sites has been forgotten, however, and they have been robbed of thousands of artifacts over the last few decades.
Many have attempted to make Guanaja a bona fide tourist destination. As yet, though, all their attempts have failed. Some of these ventures operated well for a while before eventually going bankrupt. In at least two of these ventures the investors came with just enough money to purchase some land and then proceeded to borrow money from local banks using the land as collateral. This is not a completely unheard-of procedure, but at least two of these operators tried to maintain their operations (kitchen, salaries, bank payments etc.) with the monies from the sales of alcoholic beverages in their bars. The monies collected for the vacation packages sold to guest remained in the USA. Here the old adage, "you can't have your cake and eat it too," applies.
Guanaja is in trouble, we have long since been left behind by the other islands in this archipelago. From three airlines we are down to one; from three banks we now have one; and from four packing houses we now have one that is 100% operational. The fishing industry is struggling to survive, but the end is in sight. And when that day arrives there will be nothing left for us at all. This island is ripe for tourism, but for some reason we have not been able to break in to the modern tourist trade. Some people think it's the difficulty we must experience to travel between the mainland and the island which hampers our desperately needed tourism business from getting going. I believe the reason lies with the local gentry, who are having a hard time breaking with tradition and are still borrowing monies to purchase fishing boats.
This island came into the twenty-first century with less than what we had in the nineteen sixties. The pride of being a Bonackian is lost on the new people who populate this island and the people who placed this island in the forefront in past decades are no more. The future of Bonacco/Guanaja looks bleak.

Fossey Bush, 27, is responsible for keeping Bonacca canals free of debris. "The Municipality only pays me Lps. 300 for this," says Bush, "It is not enough."

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A Republic, not a Democracy by Thomas Tomczyk
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Fighting with the Feds

Owner of a Bay Islands Fishing Company Comes Home after Serving Time for Lobster Smuggling

While originally McNab's case was also to be treated as a civil case and settled, the charges resurfaced in 2001. McNab says that his US buyers, without his knowledge or permission, had used his company initials (C.D.C.) on boxes exporting additional shipments of undersize lobster. "They shipped them [the undersized lobster] to Panama, then to Canada," says McNab.
The payment from the 1999 shipments of lobster McNab received was considered as money laundering; and because the lobster sale involved a seller, broker and buyer, charges of conspiracy were also filed. In total, McNab was prosecuted on 31 felony charges. The federal prosecutors used a technicality to maximize charges against McNab, and the maximum sentence passed against McNab were brought based not on undersized lobster, but on the fact that the lobster shipments were packed in plastic sleeves- argued as a violation of Honduran law and US's Lacey Act- a 1900 law prohibiting the transportation of illegally captured, or prohibited animals.
Also convicted were two US importers and a broker who bought McNab's illegal lobster: Abner Schoenwetter and Robert Blandford from Florida and Diane Huang of New Jersey. While the judge gave two out of three the low end of the sentence, McNab received the high end of the sentencing guideline. McNab began his long ordeal traveling between jails and federal prisons across the southern United States. The harshness of his punishment brought regional media attention and he attempted to file for clemency with President George W. Bush.
McNab is angry and feels he was treated unjustly by the justice system. He feels he didn't receive right legal advice from his own lawyers and was betrayed by his American buyers. He feels that he was set as an example by the US government as someone who tries to fight for his rights and is punished for doing so. Originally, McNab thought that he could fight the federal government. What he says he didn't realize is that he was fighting a prosecution machine with a conviction rate of 97%.
Today, life of a Honduran lobster isn't much easier than it was seven years before. According to Steven Guillen, board member of APESCA (Honduran Fishermen Association) and a McNab's employee, the undersized lobster caught in Honduras by Honduran fishermen are still shipped to the US. The export happens indirectly, often via El Salvador. Lobster with tails less than five-and-a-half inches long are often chopped, making detection of the undersize lobsters impossible. "Mr. McNab's case has had no impact on the practices of the Honduran fishermen," says Guillen.

Henson McNab on the dock of his French Hoarbour Caribbean Fisheries Company.

Henson McNab went to prison as an energetic, confident business man in his late forties. On Roatan he was seen by many as an example of a community leader and benefactor to local causes. In the US he became known as a convicted ringleader of a lobster smuggling operation and served seven years and one month of an eight-year-one-month sentence and paid a $800 thousand fine. While the US federal prison system didn't break him, it definitely changed him.
Before the affair began, McNab operated the largest lobster fishing operation in the Western Caribbean. McNab had 800 people on 30 boats worked for him in 2001. Now his Caribbean Fisheries company has shrunk to 22 boats and 300 people. It all started in 1999, when agents of the National Marine Fisheries Service, acting on a tip, seized one of McNab's lobster shipments in Alabama. They found that about three percent of the lobsters were undersized and about seven percent either contained lobster eggs, or showed signs that the body parts on which eggs are found had been clipped off. McNab suspects that the tip given to the US authorities came from one of his competitors.
McNab was prosecuted by Southern Alabama US Attorney's Office with the assistance of the Wildlife and Marine Resources Section. While other, bigger lobster smuggling cases have been settled out of court, United States vs. McNab became the biggest lobster smuggling case tried in court.

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Record Setting Fish

While West End Carnival and Fishing Tournament is great fun for the Island Community, Bill Fish Continue to be Killed for Fun and Little Else

"That's what happens when sun shines on dog's ass. You got to be lucky to hook a fish like that," said Kevin Wesley, captain of Miss Trisha, and winner of the second place catch - a 275 Marlin, "I feel happy for him." DV Woods brought in a third place prize with a Marlin of 270 lbs.
While the Marlin meat was cut up and given away the day after the tournament, during Honduras' Independence Day, the rest ended up as feed for six-gilled sharks. "I've got at least 200 lbs. from the carcasses," said Karl Stanley, owner of a submersible, who sunk the marlin skeleton to a depth of 1,000 feet.
The caught marlin, while a record setting one for Roatan, will not be entered in record books. Organizers didn't have certified scales, nor certified judges to enter the marlin in the record books. The winning marlin, a female around 20 years old, was likely already caught in one of the catch-and-release tournaments in Belize or Mexico--released so it could live, reproduce and grow to this size.
While the fish is the biggest marlin caught in memory on Roatan, it is far from a Caribbean record. In April, off the coast of Tobago, an 11-foot 3 inch, 890 lb. blue marlin was caught by a high school student who was rewarded a cash prize of $415,000 by the tournament organizers. According to the International Game Fishing Association, the all-tackle record for the Atlantic is 1,402 lb, 2 oz (636 kg). Male Marlin are smaller and may live for 18 years, females as long as 27 years.
Fortunately, the West End carnival was more than fish. Sixteen businesses paid Lps. 500 each to sell their products in booths lining the West End strip. Susie Ebanks and Aaron Etches, were the West End patronato coordinators responsible for the carnival celebrations. Amongst what was one of the most frequented carnivals in years, several prizes were given out. Tournament queen was Tamela Johnson, 19, from West End. "Underwater Enchantment," a West End Community float won the "best float award" and the $300 prize. "Mango papaya chutney fish," prepared by Coconut Tree Restaurant, won the first food prize and $100. Best decorated booth prize of $200 went to "Fosters Bar and Restaurant in West End."
The biggest winner of the entire celebration was Jose Francisco Lovo, who won the lottery auctioning the 2008 Harley Sportster auctioned by the Roatan Women's Club.

In front of the winning fish: Gary McLaughlin (captain), Pasquale Paonessa, Robert Van der Weg, Claudio Miloni, Ricardo Flores Gomez, Lois Ebanks.

While bill fishing catch-and-release tournaments in Mexico, Belize and Costa Rica attract international boats, Roatan continues to be shunned by anglers not interested in supporting this catch-and-kill fishing event. Despite earlier promises by Roatan Municipality officials, and a catch-and-release tournament begun on Utila, this year's IX annual West End fishing tournament proved no exception. "People don't like change, but we need to change [to catch-and-release]," said Congressman Jerry Hynds, who took part in the event.
The tournament's winning marlin was hooked at 8:47am on September 13, the first day of the tournament. Using a Lbs. 50 test line the six man crew of Mad Max, one of 51 boats that entered the tournament, fought the fish almost four hours bringing her to the surface twice. "I was on a ladder and I was still five feet away from the scale. It's 700 pounds, or a bit more," said Pasquale Paonessa, one of the reelers who brought in the giant blue marlin. While the Mad Max crew was smiling at catching the big fish, some of them were also realizing the damage they were causing. "I will not enter the tournament next year if it is not catch and release," said Robert van der Weg, one of the reelers of the winning boat.

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