Fish and lobster in Cuba are like the king’s deer during the age of Robin Hood. In 12th century England, up to a third of the country was off limits to hunting by anyone other than the king and his designees. The same could be said of fishing in Castro’s Cuba.
Now that the U.S. government allows its citizens to take their own boats to Cuba — if you qualify for one of 12 categories of “general license” for legal travel — the question is: Can we fish Cuban waters? Generally, the answer is no. Fishing in Cuba is a government monopoly, which isn’t to say that boaters aren’t catching dinner on occasion.
“Basically the rules are no fishing, but nobody’s enforcing it,” says Don Barr, who has spent 18 winter-spring seasons exploring Cuba on his sailboat. Barr’s daughter Cheryl used these trips to research her Yacht Pilot’s Cruising Guide to Cuba. “We see fewer patrol boats every year now. They have very few boats that can get away from the docks.”
Jose Escrich, commodore of the Hemingway International Yacht Club on the outskirts of Havana, parses the risk thus: “Ninety-nine percent of the time you could catch fish and you would be OK, but there’s always that small chance that you could be boarded, and then you would be in trouble.”
“The only trouble I’ve had was when we came into a port with about six conch on deck,” Barr recalls. “The officials made us throw them back.”
That’s not to say there is no recreational fishing for foreigners. Every year the Cubans run the Hemingway International Billfish Tournament off Havana, and this year more than a dozen U.S. boats participated.
Anglers also can also book guided excursions with one of six Avalon Cuban Fishing Centers, including one in the spectacular Jardines de la Reina on the south coast. Avalon and a growing number of “people-to-people” fishing programs fall under one of the general license categories for legal travel to the island. Another way is to fish from one of the boats that serve guests at many hotels.
One issue remains unclear. Cuba’s territorial waters extend just 12 miles from shore. Would a U.S. boat — whether en route to Cuba or moving from port to port there — that has landed fish outside the 12-mile limit face inquiries on arrival? Prudent anglers should keep that in mind when debating whether to keep that mahi or not.