Posted by: genghisprawn | September 20, 2008

Death by Poison in Jamaica’s Rio Grande

From the New York Times (“In Remote Valley, a Grim Redefinition of ‘Fishing’,” by Marc Lacey, February 15, 2008):

Map of the Rio Grande region (The New York Times)

Map of the Rio Grande region (The New York Times)

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, Jamaica — Catching freshwater shrimp in the legendary Rio Grande here in the forested hills of eastern Jamaica used to be done at night with a homemade bamboo torch in one hand and a sharp spear in the other.

Wave the flame low over the water and the shrimp eyes glow. Aim the spear with a steady hand and throw. It is painstaking work. The results, though, are worth the effort — succulent shrimp, known locally as janga, that can be the size of lobsters.

Elders recall going down to the river just before dinnertime and plucking out as many shrimp as were needed that evening. The creatures were thrown in a pot with coconut milk, tomatoes and plenty of spice. The smell alone would bring the children to the table.

But those days are fading. Shrimp are getting harder to find on the Rio Grande, and those who live by its banks now eat more chicken and goat. When they do eat the shrimp, they must inspect them carefully inside and out for signs of poison.

. . .

Any toxin will do. Some favor the pesticide used to keep insects off the coffee plants. Others use the potent solution used to rid cows of ticks. When subjected to the poison, the shrimp — large and small — float right to the top. So do the fish. Catching them is as easy as scooping them up before the river washes them and the poison away.

Full article here, with unsurprising though unsettling details about human illness and wildlife decline — as well as the emerging backlash by conservation agencies and locals.  Overall, the report had an all-too-familiar breakdown: the fading bounty of a fondly-recalled past, short-sighted hunger for profit, and the painful, inescapable interrelation of man and his ecosystems.  While reading, the parallels with cyanide- and blast-fishing in the maritime tropics were inescapable; indeed, I saw towards the end that dynamite, too, was being used in the Rio Grande.  The faking of puncture marks on poisoned janga reminded me, albeit more darkly, of the Louisiana river shrimp trappers who would sprinkle their catch with pressed cottonseed cake to fool buyers into believing that their Macrobrachium ohione had been caught on something less objectionable (if actually less effective) than decayed meat.

Janga (Atya sp.) from Jamaicas Rio Grande. (Jamaica Clearing-House Mechanism, R. Love)

"Janga" (Atya sp.) from Jamaica's Rio Grande. (Jamaica Clearing-House Mechanism, R. Love)

The “janga” in question seem mostly to be Macrobrachium carcinus (Decapoda: Caridea: Palaemonidae, perhaps the largest freshwater arthropod native to the Western Hemisphere), but the term is also applied to smaller Macrobrachium and filter-feeding shrimp of the genus Atya (Decapoda: Caridea: Atyidae).  Jamaicans (as Huxley notes) are not alone in referring to large Macrobrachium as “crayfish.”


Macrobrachium acanthurus (peppered shrimp, Jamaican-style). Recipe at image source:

Jonga, a genus of small Atyid shrimp from Neotropical freshwaters (including Jamaica) may have its roots in the colloquial term.

This 3-part documentary from The Nature Conservancy (12 minutes) fits quite nicely with the article:

A parting note: In claiming noticeable declines in janga (and thus Macrobrachium) populations, this article seems to mirror anecdotes from throughout the Americas.  If true, I suspect genetic effects beyond — perhaps well beyond — the poisoned localities.  More elaboration on this later.


Lacey, M. (2008, February 15). In Remote Valley, a Grim Redefinition of ‘Fishing’. New York Times. Retrieved from


  1. very interesting, i’m going to link to this on my blog.

  2. […] 20, 2008 · No Comments I came across this blog post about the prawns/shrimps/janja of the Rio Grande in Eastern Jamaica and how they used to be so big […]

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