Changing Stories

The fisherman with his catch. It is a classic photo, taken countless millions of times from the days of black and white film to the smartphone selfie era. We have scanned dozens of photos of fishers and fish on St. Martin from days gone by. Aside from the grain of the film and the faded colors, many could be taken yesterday. But a few stand out. A photo of a dead hammerhead shark is one of them.

A shark out of water.

The St. Maarten Nature Foundation is leading Shark Week activities right now, celebrating the importance of sharks. Sharks were long feared and despised, but now we have learned that they keep our oceans healthy and preserve a balance of marine life. They help us have fish to eat and vibrant reefs for scuba diving and snorkeling. 

But Shark Week isn’t just a chance to celebrate these majestic animals. It’s also a reminder that they are threatened by overfishing. The fate of sharks, and ocean life in general, depends on actions to protect them. Dutch St. Maarten has done that, protecting all sharks in their waters. Hopefully more of the Caribbean will follow.

It is amazing how much our attitude towards sharks has changed, and how quickly. Diving pioneer Jacques Cousteau and his team once killed sharks and viewed them as an enemy. The movie Jaws made people terrified of sharks. But today, if you shouted “Shark!” on a scuba boat, the divers would jump into the water to see it.

When our knowledge and values change, how does that change the way we tell stories about the past? We need to consider what it meant to catch a shark back then, and also what it means today. Fishing to feed a family is certainly different than trawling the ocean with miles of net. The seas themselves were different before commercial fishing depleted them.

The fishing that sustained villages like Simpson Bay and Grand Case is an important part of the history and culture of the island. For thousands of years before that, the Arawaks harvested conch, whelk and other foods from the sea. As far as we know, this was done sustainably. Many generations ate fish and shrimp from St. Martin ponds. Dying reefs, overfishing, pollution and invasive species like the lionfish are all relatively modern threats. 

Can we honor the past while also promoting current values? In many cases, we find ourselves looking to the past for the solutions to the problems of today. How do we farm without hurting the land? How do we live without generating tons of plastic waste? In other cases, we may simply acknowledge that the circumstances of the past were not the same as today. 

What parts of St. Martin’s past seem different to you today? Share your thoughts by writing in to The Daily Herald or [email protected].

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