Changing Planet

Listen to Your Elders: Wisdom from Papa Joe, Barbuda’s Oldest Fisherman

This past weekend I spent an afternoon with Barbudan fisherman Josiah “Papa Joe” Deazle and his family. 82 years old, still fishing, lucid, and so wise. I interviewed him as part of the Waitt Foundation’s Barbuda Ocean Initiative, and it was an honor. He was in the midst of his children and grandchildren who jogged his memory and gently debated fisheries management. His great-grandchildren came and went, playing marbles and toting iguanas on leashes. It was enlightening, heartwarming, heartwrenching, and inspiring. I am in love with the people of Barbuda, and ever more committed to figuring out a way to make fishing here sustainable.

Interviewing Josiah “Papa Joe” Deazle.


Here are some of Papa Joe’s words:

“Things are getting very bad. What you all are doing is trying to help us. This is no joke. This is a serious serious serious thing. If you’re in a country and you mash up your own livelihood what is going to happen? People don’t seem to understand that things are getting worse. If it go good, it’s good for everybody; if it goes bad, it’s bad for everybody. It’s everybody’s business.

There is much less lobster now, much less fish. I used to go get conch in water shallower than my knee. There are no more there now. You have to go into deeper water now, use SCUBA. It’s a mess.

Parrotfish is my favorite fish to eat because I have no teeth anymore. How I’m going to eat boney fish? … But catch of parrotfish should be banned. People are taking so much of them the reef is gonna die.

Boy with pet iguana.
One of Papa Joe’s great-grandchildren with a pet iguana.

Fewer people are using traps now. Young people don’t want to do it. Fish pot wire is getting expensive and young people don’t want to spend the money. Instead they go diving and take the lobster out of other people’s traps –steal the lobster and the traps. We are interfering with one anothers’ traps. That’s the worst thing to happen: piracy. So when you go out you don’t get anything. We are hampering one another.

People are always fishing in the shallow waters. We need to move out into deeper waters and give the shallow waters a break, then the fish would increase again. I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a mess.

Need to get the younger people to understand that things might na done, but they get scarce. They get so scarce it’s like it done. You can over do it. I’m an old man. My time is limited. Need to get the young people to come in and say this [Barbuda Initiative] is for the good of everybody. It’s a serious thing.

You have to eat. You can get things worked out, but the people just have to make up their mind to do it. If ya can’t get no fish, what you going to do? If you can’t produce no fish, can’t produce no lobster, what are you going to do? It’s not a joke. “Too late, too late” will be the cry.” 

There is supposed to be a solution to every problem.”

Papa Joe's great-grandchildren playing marbles.
Papa Joe’s great-grandchildren playing marbles.
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, policy expert, conservation strategist, and Brooklyn native. She is founder and president of Ocean Collectiv, a consulting firm for ocean conservation strategies grounded in social justice. She teaches at New York University as an adjunct professor, and was co-director of partnerships for the March for Science. As executive director of the Waitt Institute, Ayana co-founded the Blue Halo Initiative and led the Caribbean’s first successful island-wide ocean zoning effort. Previously, she worked on ocean policy at the EPA and NOAA, and was recently a TED resident and Aspen Institute fellow. She envisions and works toward a healthy ocean that supports food security, economies, and cultures. Find her @ayanaeliza.
  • Cleopatra Isaac

    As a Barbudan, and a lover of language, it must be noted that I was able to hear the voice of Josiah in this piece; well known for repeating for emphasis – thanks Ayana. In another light it is amazing to hear the view point of an individual who holds first hand knowledge that spans over the past sixty plus decades. He confirms for me experiences that seem myth like when he refers to an era where one could wade into the shallow and collect a bounty of conch. For the past two plus decades such luxuries are unheard of and it leaves one to wonder if this time is altogether lost or if it could possibly return. I would love another generation to experience such simple accessibility. His brief yet very critical overview of the health of the habitat and the counter productive practices of local fishermen was much apprciated. Much of a difference would be made if even a notable handful is as mindful as he. The short-term suggestions offered were also priceless. Thank you Ayana for sharing the wisdom of Papa Joe.

  • Cleopatra Isaac

    Wow, how and when did we become so careless and reckless? Are we even fully aware, some what aware, slightly aware or unaware?

  • Al James

    Found this article while doing some family genealogical research. Thank you for this story that features my Uncle Josiah. He passed away a few months ago but it’s great to see his wisdom and love for Barbuda is recorded and documented. I hope the younger generation of fishermen heed his wise counsel.

  • Al James, my sincerest condolences to you and your family on Papa Joe’s passing. It was truly an honor and a pleasure to meet your uncle. His counsel was very wise, and I hope we will all heed it. I am so glad you found this article and enjoyed hearing a bit of him.

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