Sustainable Travel in Cuba: Seafood Considerations

When it comes to traveling, one of the most significant and sustainable things you can do is to learn where your food comes from in order to make informed choices.
Sustainable choices

Bait and Switch

When it comes to traveling, one of the most significant and sustainable things you can do is to learn where your food comes from in order to make informed decisions. This includes understanding the different kinds of sourcing used to access products and resources, and learning about the various industries regions depend on economically and culturally. As a consumer and traveler, knowing how your specific food choices impact the communities you visit can have a greater impact than you think.

Cuba is a country surrounded by water, so I naively assumed fish would be omnipresent. Turns out, accessibility to fish is a bit more complicated.  While I had the privilege of tasting a few different types of delicious seafood while I was there, in speaking with locals in various parts of the island, I learned that not all Cubans are able to afford or simply have access to seafood in their homeland.

I was met with a range of explanations for this lack of access and affordability. Some shared that much of the seafood, particularly lobster and shrimp, are purchased for government exportation or are redistributed to government hotels.  While another group of local fishermen offered their observations about the fish populations based on what they caught.

When I asked them about the decline, they explained that they were not immune to the overexploitation and overfishing that many coastal communities face worldwide, and that coupled with climate change, hurricanes, and the destruction of coral reefs they were put them in a precarious economic situation, as much of their livelihood was dependent on the fishing industry.  

In response to a declining fish population, in 2019, “Cuba’s National Assembly passed the country’s first fisheries law, bringing in a new era focused on ending overfishing, recovering depleted stocks and strengthening the economies of coastal communities.” The fishing industry is responsible for at least 50,000 jobs on the island. However, I will admit, I had a difficult time understanding how effective this law was years later in the context of the present day economic landscape, or how the newly imposed aquaculture management guidelines were really impacting the lives of fishermen and all Cubans overall.

I could see how in various areas of the island, many were struggling to keep their heads above water. 

North Eastern Coastal Fishing Towns

In my brief experience of spending just under a month in Cuba, I noticed that various types of seafood were inconsistently available across the island. Seafood appeared more frequently in private businesses like restaurants and some casa particulares, whereas it was less common in local homes that weren’t operating private businesses. In these homes, where I was graciously invited to dine with them, I was often offered chicken or pork alongside rice, beans, and a side of sliced tomatoes.

In small coastal fishing towns like Gibara and Baracoa, I observed that there wasn’t as much of a shortage of fish available in restaurants or in the homes where I stayed. This is likely due to their proximity to the coast and their status as fishing towns, enabling both hosts and other private businesses to acquire fish more easily.

On the other hand, I encountered some restaurants, like those in Guardalavaca, that occasionally ran out of fish, as did the nearby government-run hotel, according to reports from Canadian guests that week. During conversations, one individual mentioned the scarcity of birds, aside from vultures, in the Guardalavaca area, interpreting it as a possible indicator of a limited fish supply nearby.

All that being said, fishing today remains a large part of the livelihood for many in small coastal towns such as Gibara and Baracoa and many were happy to speak with me about the resources of their regions. 

A friend shared his experience catching the Cangrejo Colorado, blue crabs, in the forest with his father–crabs that tend to come out in the night. He also shared a delicious local dish made with blue crab, named Jabita Rellena or stuffed blue crab. Common ingredients include blue crab meat, garlic, tomato paste, annatto, onion, oil, and pepper. 

Some of the more popular fish in Gibara include Augja or Needle Fish, and Dorado, also known as Dolphinfish or Mahi Mahi. During spring and summer Cojinúa, Blue runners, are caught in Gibara.  Down by the fishing docks, a man stepping off his boat told me he often tries to catch octopus a bit further out in the water. 

Seafood Highlights

One of my favorite dishes in Cuba was a crab dish at the restaurant, La Perla. I enjoyed it on the much welcomed, breezy terrace overlooking the sea. In the backdrop of the permanently slanted wind, pine trees blew. Another first for my palette, included Pescado con queso, a fish with grated cheese spread over it.  

In one town, seafood was found in street food offerings and foods that were sold door to door. It was not uncommon to hear locals calling out the name of foods they were selling, such as garlic bread, street crackers, cookies, fish and more. One street vendor displayed crab and shrimp cocktails available in his cart. Though I will admit, I wasn’t feeling quite so brave about trying these given my concerns regarding food safety and the length of time they may have been out in the heat, coupled with the lengthy car ride I had in the near future. 

Another favorite was a dish made with the tiny (less than an inch in length) transparent Tetí fish, unique to this area of the island in Yumuri Bay on the very far east of Cuba. This dish was prepared with coconut milk, cooked tomato and onions served with sides of lightly salted banana chips, salad, rice and beans at an outdoor restaurant, just a few feet from the beach.

In the Yumuri river, one of the most beautiful places in Cuba, I was able to spot some of these easy to miss Tetí while cooling off in the water.  They are typically caught in the bay, where the river connects to the sea, after the fish make their way downstream. 

Seafood & General Food Considerations for Travelers in Cuba

For travelers going to Cuba, it may be worth considering the following:

  1. Review recently updated endangered species list and avoid consuming those listed. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch  is a great resource to help identify seafood recommendations based on sustainability in various parts of the world. 
  2. Check what is in season when making food selections. Oftentimes, it will not be offered if it is not in season, but it doesn’t hurt to check. 
  3. Support locals when deciding where to eat. For Americans traveling to Cuba “in support of the Cuban people”, you are not technically allowed to make purchases from the government, so this should be a given. When possible, purchase fresh foods directly from the farmers or locals.
  4. People are happy to try to accommodate tourists, but it can be very difficult to find certain foods at times, so be flexible and keep an open mind about expectations, trying new foods, and what is available based on location, present day economy, and resources available. 
  5. Currently, foods along with most other resources are quite expensive for Cubans, so when staying with local families try to be mindful of the cost of foods they are providing you and make sure to compensate them well.
  6. Keep in mind, if you have certain diet requirements or follow a specific diet (Eg: Vegan, Vegetarian, Heart healthy, Gluten Free, Low carbohydrate, etc), it may be a good idea to familiarize yourself with commonly available foods and foods in season based on when and where you will be. Develop a plan ahead of departure to ensure you are well prepared. Some diets, such as gluten free, will be easier to follow than others, but most everything is doable with a little preparation. 

When it comes to traveling with sustainability in mind, being aware of and educated on where your food comes from and choosing to source ethically are just two ways we can honor and respect the communities and regions that depend on these resources. My journey exploring seafood in Cuba revealed a more complex reality than expected. While I enjoyed many seafood delicacies, I also learned that not all Cubans have easy access to the foods they harvest. 

Conversations with locals highlighted challenges such as overfishing and environmental threats, despite efforts to regulate the industry. As travelers, it’s essential to understand the impact of our food choices on the communities we visit. Through such awareness, we can engage more meaningfully with the places and people we encounter, contributing positively to sustainable practices and communities.

To increase your sustainable travel and foodsystems IQ, check out my Cuban food adventures, check out our blogs on Agrotourism in Cuba and Regenerative Travel. To learn more about Create Joy’s Sustainability Pledge, or to plan your own food-focused adventure, plan a call with us today.

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