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How Sunshine Makes A Living From Conch
by Prem Chadeesingh

Sunshine, also known as Shine, only fishes for conchs and shells these days. There was a time, some twenty to twenty five years ago, he’s not sure exactly when, that this Jamaican fisherman did spearfishing for a living. That was before that horrible day, deep in the sea off Discovery Bay when a tiger shark wanted the big fish he had shot, and felt that it would be best to get rid of the competition by sinking its teeth into Shine’s right thigh, an injury that required twenty-five stitches to make his leg whole again.

conch man, shine,paddling into Silver Sands villas Jamaica on his windsurf board
Shine, paddling in to Silver Sands, on his converted windsurf board.

Shine has never done spearfishing since, but he still dives off Jamaica's North Coast, deep into Caribbean Sea, up to fifty feet, even though he has already burst both eardrums while doing this dangerous and physically demanding job. These risky dives have become necessary as it is getting increasingly difficult to find
, close to shore, the conch, which he harvests for the meat and shells. Shine thinks this is due to the fact that younger, inexperienced fishermen unwittingly throw the dead and broken conch shells back into the Caribbean Sea, a practice that he believes makes the living conch move away from the territory.

Shine has converted an old windsurf board into a fishing vessel by strapping onto the deck two bright red plastic drink crates at the front and a sun-bleached brown one at the back. At sixty-two years old, when the sun begins to emerge over the Caribbean Sea, he launches this craft from the Fisherman’s Beach next door to the gated villa community of Silver Sands, siting on the often-patched deck between the crates, with a home-made wooden paddle in his muscular arms and his legs stretched out in front. His limited equipment includes a shortened machete, a small knife, a snorkel, a dive mask, and a very worn full wet suit which a generous tourist brought to the island as a gift for him.

You will see Shine paddling into the West Beach, aka Derby Beach or Shell Beach, at
Silver Sands villas around mid-morning, back from his fishing expedition. He likes to sort through his catch on that mostly deserted beach where he spends hours extracting the meat and cleaning up the shells that he thinks are pretty enough to sell to tourists. Shine knows exactly where the soft spot is on the grass conch shells and strikes them there with his cut-off machete, easily making a hole, into which he pushes the small blade to cut the conch meat away from the shell. Fresh conch meat fetches about three to four United States dollars per pound.

While extracting the meat, Shine will remove the conch worm, aka the prime or pistle or pistol, and eat it raw. He believes this makes him fit, and that it is a natural aphrodisiac.

conch on sand -these shells will be cleaned up to sell to visitors to silver sands villas  shine, the conch man, on the beach at silver sands villas jamaica
The day's catch - conch for the meat and the shells on the sandy Silver Sands beach. Shine, above.

The more rare and arguably more beautiful king and queen conch however pose a more difficult challenge as, in order to sell their shells to tourists, he needs to extract the meat without damaging them. So Shine spends a great deal of time taking each of these potential souvenirs in his right hand, lifting it overhead, and then flinging it down to the sand with all his might. He bends over, his black skin glistening in the bright sunshine, picks it up, and repeats the process. This back-breaking work continues until the meat is dislodged from the shell and Shine can extract it with his small knife.

conch man,sunshine, cleaning shell on beach at silver sands jamaica  throwing the conch to the sand at silver sands beach jamaica
Shine, cleaning a queen conch and throwing one to the sand to dislodge the meat.

However, the job is not over yet, as the shells are usually covered in moss and dirt, and a careful cleaning process is required to get them to look like something you would want to place as a decoration in your home or a paper-weight on your office desk. Shine uses his small knife to scrape away the moss, he rubs the shells with sand, and washes them in the sea, repeating these tasks as often as necessary to get them clean. When he takes them home, he may have to use sandpaper to smoothen out and polish difficult areas. Finally, he rubs them with coconut oil and wraps them in paper, leaving them to dry. The average price for one of Shine’s conch shells is five United States dollars. If he is lucky to find a broadleaf or a trumpet conch, he will get much more for those. Shine sells his shells to visitors at Silver Sands and the market vendors in the nearby tourist resorts.

grass conch harvested by shine at silver sands jamaica  rare trumpet conch
Grass conch, left, and the more rare trumpet conch, right.


While Shine is happy with this work, he will readily tell you about the days when he did what he truly loves. At age sixteen, then a schoolboy known as Phillibert Murray, he was hired by the Kaiser Bauxite Company in Discovery Bay to play cricket. This medium-pace swing bowler also played for Club Caribbean, Long Pond Sugar Estate, and the Parish of Trelawny. With a twinkle in his eyes, he will tell you about the time in Port Antonio when he got a hat trick. Sometimes he will still get a game, but for now, he must earn his living by fishing for conch.

Watch this short video of Shine in HD by changing the 360p at the bottom right of the frame to 1080p:

 

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