You don’t mess with a Trinibagonian’s belly. Food is all important here and we take it very seriously. But with the recent news headlines about diminishing shark populations and subsequent conservation efforts, could Trinis soon be forced to give up one of their favorite dishes? In order to get the real bake and shark story for you, LargeUp had to do some heavy research so we packed our sunblock, beach mats and a few Stags for the road and made our way to Maracas Beach to talk to some of the vendors behind this dish personally.
On a Caribbean island, the observing of Lent is not too tough on a person, especially when it comes to the change in diet. How lucky can you be to be surrounded by beautiful waters teaming with a variety of fish and shellfish during this period when most abstain from meat? One business that definitely sees an increase in patrons is the bake and shark shops around the island, particularly those of the North Coast.
Bake and shark may be bizarre to the rest of the world — the Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern even featured the dish on his program Bizzare Foods — but it is practically the national beach dish here. You cannot hit Maracas or Las Cuevas Bay without getting one of these sandwiches stuffed with shark meat (Great white and Mako sharks are the preferred species), pineapples, veggies, and a dozen different condiments including mango chutney and tamarind sauce. This is more than Trini food, this is Trini culture. We’re getting hungry again just thinking about biting into one while sitting on the sand watching the tide come in.
But this may not be so easy a thing to enjoy this year. Local and international conservation bodies are up in arms about this delicacy. It seems shark numbers are dwindling worldwide due to overfishing and the capturing of young sharks that have yet had a chance to breed. It is even being estimated that the species may be extinct by 2050 — which could lead to a major aquatic ecological imbalance.
On arriving at Maracas Beach, this is what we noticed:
Long lines of people standing at every stall. Business is apparently going well and when we spoke to the cooks at Richard’s Bake and Shark we were told that demand for the delicacy had actually increased even though they had been receiving less goods due to the shortage of the meat from suppliers.
Options. There is more than shark on the menu at these stalls. Shrimp, salmon, flying fish and even kingfish are also offered with bake (the popular bread which, despite its name, is actually fried), depending on who you patronize. However with there being a large price difference between shark and these other meats, people tend to stick to their guns and order the original. Kingfish and shrimp seem to be the most popular second options but their cost could mean spending $15- $20TT extra. That’s the equivalent of two Stag beers!
At Asha’s Bake and Shark, another very popular spot, we found that vendors are being asked by marine ecology groups to use lionfish, an invasive species currently threatening the health of the Caribbean’s coral reefs, as an alternative. Campaigns are being launched to educate and encourage the public to use this alternative but according to Melissa Tulsie of Asha’s:
“One lionfish gives you half the amount of meat and people are not up to eating it because it is considered poisonous. Trawlers are picking up less sharks too, so instead of being able to buy 5,000lbs of meat, sometimes we only get 2,000lbs or a few hundred. At this rate, by the end of this year there may be no real shark meat available to sell. ”
With Carnival over and the Lenten season upon us, it is safe to say that the consumption of bake and shark is at its peak right now locally. With this dish so beloved by locals and tourists alike, the question is: do the sharks stand a chance against the masses demanding this delicacy daily, especially at this time of year? Only time will tell.