Pro Spearfisherman Lazaro Cabrera Hunts the Fish That End Up on Florida's Dinner Plates

In the Atlantic Ocean, 17 miles southeast of Miami and 100 feet under the surface of the water, Lazaro Cabrera reaches the sunken remains of a steel freighter and swims inside. The lean 41-year-old, in an army-green camouflage wetsuit, scans for movement. Thirty seconds pass, and then he sees it: a four-foot barracuda glinting in the refracted sunlight.

He raises his spear gun and shoots, and a tiny red cloud bursts in the water. He has impaled the creature. He pulls the spear out of its body and stabs the back of its head behind the eyes to end its life.

It's now been almost two minutes since Cabrera last took a breath.

Cabrera clenches his jaws and blows any leftover air from his lungs into his middle ear to equalize the pressure. He oscillates his flippers quickly, like some underwater creature. After ascending 80 feet, suddenly his long plastic fishing line twirls around his left ankle, yanking him down. It's caught on a plummeting anchor. He looks up and sees the shadow of a boat overhead. The surface — just 20 feet away — is in fast retreat.

Tranquilo, tranquilo, Cabrera tells himself. It's been three minutes since he last inhaled. If his heart rate increases, his body will need more oxygen. If that happens, he'll surely black out and drown.

With his right hand, Cabrera reaches for the folding knife tucked at his waist. He tries to cut the line but becomes disoriented and drops the knife.

This is it, he thinks.

A few carbon-dioxide bubbles dribble out of his mouth — a sign that he is running out of time. Dios, por favor, ayudame, Cabrera prays. No quieromorir. God, please, help me. I don't want to die.

Cabrera kicks frantically. Finally, his $150 long-fin flipper shakes off and he's free.

That was two years ago. Cabrera was too unnerved to go back in the water that afternoon, but the following day, at 4 a.m., he woke up and took his boat to the Matheson Hammock Marina to spearfish once more.

"I was born to do this," Cabrera says, discussing his career at his home in Hialeah. "It's the only thing I've ever done that was mine and I was good at. It's not just my livelihood but my life."

Cabrera is one of about six commercial spearfishermen in South Florida, making a living killing fish one by one. Now that the demand to fill restaurants and fisheries with local, fresh fish is higher than ever, Cabrera goes out six days a week — risking entanglement, sharks, and blackouts each time.

Fresh water or salt water, 140 feet or 30 — he excels in all conditions. He can hold his breath for four and a half minutes, but his true talent is anticipating his prey's movement. For these reasons, Cabrera has finished at or near the top in almost every spearfishing contest he's entered. He hopes to represent the United States at the world competition — once he gets his citizenship.

"If all goes as planned," he says, "I'll be an American competing in the 2018 Spearfishing World Championship — and I'll win."

On a Saturday in November, Cabrera wakes up early in his charming three-bedroom home behind Westland Mall in Hialeah. It's decorated with year-round Christmas decor and more than 40 of Cabrera's spearfishing trophies. He hooks up his 23-foot fishing boat and pulls away in his shiny red 2010 Dodge Ram pickup, which sports a spearfisherman sticker on the rear window. His girlfriend and four children from their blended family are still fast asleep.

By 7 a.m., Cabrera is charging east on the water. He lowers his UV glasses over his eyes and pulls the throttle. Two friends — Rudy Morejon, a soft-spoken middle-aged handyman, and Octavio Soler, a thin, well-postured businessman — join him. They clutch the railing until they reach a dive site known as Blue Fire, three miles offshore from downtown Miami. Directly below is a 175-foot Cuban passenger freighter that shipwrecked in 1983.

While Morejon mans the wheel, Cabrera and Soler squeeze into camouflage wetsuits (wearing plain black ones is more likely to scare fish away), long-fin flippers, masks, and snorkels. Then they take the plunge. Soler peters east, Cabrera north. Morejon watches their snorkels.

A few minutes pass. Cabrera stops in the water. He takes 12 slow exhales. Then 13 long inhales, packing as much oxygen as he can into his bloodstream just short of hyperventilating. He disappears, flicking his flippers in the air on his way down.

"Now we wait," Morejon says in Spanish.

He's looking out at the five-foot waves crashing into the boat. "I make sure another boat doesn't run them over and look for them when they come up," he explains. Three minutes pass.

Soler pops up. Then Cabrera. When he does, he's smiling and waving two yellowtail snappers on his spear: "It's a two-in-one!" he shouts. Over the next two hours, he'll catch four barracudas, two hogfish, and two cobias. This is his day off.

In 1980, 8-year-old Lazaro Cabrera would slip out of his bedroom in the small town of Artemisa, 30 miles outside of Havana, with a fishing rod. He'd skip down to the lake and dip his pole in. He didn't like waiting for the fish to come to him. He wanted to jump in the water and pluck them out himself.

He noticed older neighborhood boys fishing with spear guns in nearby canals. He'd ask to tag along. They taught him technique —spotting fish, aiming, and reeling them in. Cabrera was constantly asking to borrow their spear guns until he saved enough money from Christmas and his birthday to buy a simple wooden one for himself.

When Cabrera would return from his daylong fishing expeditions, his father — a trumpet player who gave lessons and played with Arturo Sandoval — would scold him for disappearing and scaring his poor homemaker mother. Still, food was scarce, so the family — Cabrera, his parents, and a brother and sister who were 11 and eight years older, respectively — would eat the catch. Selling it was illegal on the communist island because it interfered with the country's system of rationing food to families. If apprehended by police, Cabrera could be fined or thrown in jail.

But after the Soviet Union collapsed and stopped sending massive aid to Cuba, conditions worsened. In 1990, Cabrera, then 18, decided he couldn't stand watching his family suffer anymore. He would turn to the black market.

"People were dying from hunger, and Fidel didn't care," Cabrera says. "What else was I supposed to do?"

In the daytime, Cabrera would pedal up the hilly, winding streets of Artemisa to the Agrarian University of La Habana. He had no real interest in learning about agronomy, the study of science and technology related to plants. Lectures bored him. But he went to class every day to make his father proud.

In the evenings, Cabrera would pedal back home, drop off his books, and collect his spear gun. Then he'd ride 13 miles to the sea. There he'd plunge into the azure depths. All the exercise strengthened his lungs, and he would hold his breath for minutes at a time. He'd mostly capture tilapia, about two or three each day, and then sell them discreetly on the side of the road. Since food was so limited, two tilapias could sell for as much as 750 pesos, which is much more than he would earn if he pursued agronomy. But since the economy was in shambles, Cabrera would often trade his fish for yuca and rice.

"I was never scared of getting caught. My mother was," Cabrera says. "It was the way of life at the time."

By 1993, when Cabrera was 21 years old, he had turned all his time to illicit fishing. After graduating university, he spent his days venturing out to sea. He was becoming more efficient and catching bigger and bigger fish. He raked in 2,000 pesos a week.

When he was 23 years old, Cabrera fell for a pretty, young admirer. The couple never married but had two sons. Eventually, he saved enough to purchase a ten-foot-long wooden boat with a small motor. His success was crucial because by the new millennium, Cabrera's brother and sister had both fled to Spain for a better life. He had to support his parents by himself.

"They did the same for me," he says. "It was my turn."

Cabrera dreamed of a better life for his family. He started taking his boat farther out to sea, imagining what it'd be like to never come back. Neighbors noticed. One day in 2005, a friend of a friend asked Cabrera if he was willing to drive his wooden boat to Key West and smuggle nine passengers.

Cabrera was terrified of being caught — and of the voyage itself. It had been just five years since Elián González had landed in Miami. But one day in January 2006, he told his girlfriend and parents that he'd come back for them soon and slipped out in the night with a family of four, plus five young men from his town. The 90-mile trip lasted 24 hours exactly. At one point, the waves were more than ten feet high. Some passengers began hallucinating. Others pleaded to drink the seawater. Cabrera wasn't sure he was going to make it, especially when the winds pushed the boat off-course.

They landed in Dry Tortugas, not Key West, which Cabrera says was a blessing. "I heard by the officials later that day that the Coast Guard was waiting for us in the ocean outside the Keys. They would've sent us back."

Tourists waved and clapped when the group was ushered through the national park. They were provided clean clothes and food, and the following day, they took another boat to Key West. There, Cabrera's grandmother picked him up and drove him to Miami. It was the first time they'd met.

"I just stared out of the window in awe," Cabrera remembers. "I saw the fancy, brand-new cars and I knew I made the right decision."

Lazaro Cabrera (left) and Octavio Rivero catch barracuda, hogfish, grouper, and snapper three miles offshore from Miami.
Lazaro Cabrera (left) and Octavio Rivero catch barracuda, hogfish, grouper, and snapper three miles offshore from Miami.
Photo by Adam Hendel

A year after arriving in Miami, Cabrera longed for the water. He hated the long hours and the asbestos of the construction job he had taken, but it was the only way he could afford his dismal efficiency in the Shenandoah section of Miami. In the evenings, he'd drive to marinas and offer to scrape barnacles off the bottoms of boats.

He and his girlfriend in Cuba had grown apart. On weekends, he'd go to Las Tabernas de Wancho, an intimate club on the top floor of an office building in a Hialeah shopping plaza. The place played salsa from the '80s, and it reminded him of home. Cabrera had no patience to learn music like his father had, but he loved to dance. That's how he met Cecilia Gonzalez, a young Dominican woman who worked as a secretary at a clinic.

A month later, Cabrera moved into her one-bedroom apartment in Miami Gardens. It was crowded with Gonzalez's two teenaged daughters. So the family spent every weekend at Hallandale Beach. Gonzalez and the girls would lie out on the sand. Cabrera, though, would swim as far as he could with his spear gun and snorkel, then lug the fish he caught back to shore.

"He was always proud of how much he caught," Gonzalez recalls today. "I told him that he had to pursue this to make a living."

"See, it was all her idea!" Cabrera jokes.

But spearfishing in America is more complicated than in Cuba. Necessary licenses can cost as much as $50,000 each. A boat is expensive too, and connections to fisheries and restaurants are hard to acquire. Cabrera had none of those.

For the next year, he would fish only in his spare time. Once he had $17,800 to buy a used 23-foot boat, he put in his two weeks' notice at the marina. He was able to lease a permit from someone who had retired.

"I was so excited. This was my passion," Cabrera says. "Of course, I was nervous it wouldn't be enough to make a living and support my family."

He had reason to be nervous: It was 2008. A financial crisis had thrown the country into a recession, and Cabrera wasn't the only person trying to profit off the sea. Furthermore, Gonzalez was pregnant. This made Cabrera determined to set himself apart from the dozen or so spearfishermen he considered competitors.

He'd go out six days a week. Sometimes his partner, Dreice Chirino, whom Cabrera had known since childhood in Cuba, was unavailable and Cabrera would have to go out by himself, which was dangerous. "I don't recommend that anyone goes out by themselves," he says. "That's how serious problems happen."

But Cabrera didn't have a choice — and he still doesn't. His family depends on his selling fish to buy groceries, pay rent, and make car payments. Even if it's raining or the waves are especially high — or if no one is available to drive his boat — Cabrera still goes out. "It's my livelihood."

Over time, Cabrera made connections at a fish market in Opa-locka. Through word of mouth, seafood brokers and restaurants started reaching out to him. Now, Cabrera makes about $36,000 a year by selling fish that end up at markets in Opa-locka as well as at high-end restaurants like Michael's Genuine and those at the Mandarin Oriental.

He hunts whatever the sea yields but recalibrates based on demand. So if a market wants more yellowtail snapper, Cabrera will adjust his spot and technique accordingly. Most days he catches yellowtail snapper, black grouper, red snapper, cobia, tilapia, and hogfish.

"We get the best-quality fish from local spearfishers," says chef Jimmy Lebron of 27 Restaurant & Bar in Miami Beach. "It's sustainable, coming right here from our ocean. Most people don't ever get the chance to try fresh fish that's never been frozen and isn't waterlogged."

For the past three years, Cabrera has worked with Jorge Figueroa of Trigger Seafood. Cabrera catches the fish and sells them depending on weight. For example, a one- to two-pound snapper Cabrera can sell for $4 to $8. Figueroa and other markets, in turn, supply them to restaurants that will prepare and cook that same fish, serving it for $16 to $35. In the past decade, though, Figueroa has noticed a decline in spearfishing even though the demand for local fish is greater than ever before.

Figueroa knows of only five men other than Cabrera who do this professionally in South Florida. He blames the government for making permits difficult and expensive to obtain. Spearfishermen like Cabrera have to obtain a federal license to fish more than three miles offshore and a state permit to fish within those three miles or in inland rivers and canals.

There are 1,200 federal gulf reef permits — a fixed number — on the market. These allow commercial fishermen to catch fish that live around reefs (i.e., most fish except snapper and grouper). The going price for a permit is about $50,000. Fishermen can lease one from anyone who has one for about $7,200 a year, which is what Cabrera does.

"The federal government is trying to make fishing more sustainable, but all the restrictions and permits only make restaurants more likely to import from other countries — mostly in South America," Figueroa says.

Thanks to the government's slashing the number of permits and shortening commercial seasons, spearfishermen are catching fewer fish each year. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, more than 56,000 pounds of hogfish were caught off the coast of Florida in 2011. This year, fishermen will be lucky to breach 20,000. A spearfisherman would be lucky to catch 20 fish a day.

"It's getting harder and harder to do this kind of work," Figueroa says. "There's no young crowd to do this in the future. I'm afraid it's a dwindling industry."

Fishing with sprawling nets or traps is illegal in the United States. Scuba diving with spearguns is one alternative, but the hum of the tanks can scare fish, and divers can stay under for only a few hours without risking the bends. That's where spearfishermen come in.

"People criticize spearfishing for damaging fish and the environment," Cabrera says, "but it's sustainable and less damaging than the alternatives."

He says it's worth the close calls.

"It's very difficult work," he says. "I don't recommend it to anyone unless it's their passion. That's the only way you can succeed in this business."

In 2010, Cabrera and his partner, Chirino, were 20 miles out at sea. Cabrera was manning the boat, while Chirino reeled in a barracuda he had just speared. Suddenly a 14-foot bull shark dove out of the water to take the fish. Chirino's arm was bitten along with it.

Blood poured everywhere. Cabrera grabbed a shirt and tied a tourniquet around Chirino's forearm. It took 25 minutes for Cabrera to drive back to the marina. Ambulances rushed Chirino to surgery. Scars from the shark's teeth are still visible on his arm.

"I wouldn't be alive if it weren't for Lazaro," Chirino says in Spanish. "He's good under pressure — figuratively and literally."

Cabrera doesn't like to tell his girlfriend or children these stories because they worry. In fact, he's never told them about the time he was caught on the fishing line underwater two years ago. "Cecilia will worry more than she already does," he says. "It's not fair to her."

One time, a few years ago, Chirino wasn't available to drive the boat. Gonzalez, Cabrera's girlfriend, offered to take his place. The current was especially strong that day, and the waves were five feet tall. On one of Cabrera's dives, Gonzalez lost him. She was frantic and drove around in circles. Miraculously, she had reception on her cell phone. Coast Guard and helicopters took half an hour to arrive. Hours passed with no sign of Cabrera.

"I was crying and thought he had drowned," she says. "I was sure he was dead."

Nope. He just spent four hours floating idly on his back, clinging to a buoy. He tried to wave to the helicopters, but since he was in a Neoprene wetsuit, he was hard to see against the water. Eventually they found him. The trick, Cabrera says, was staying calm.

"The sea is my environment," he says.

"No. It is not. You're not a fish. You can drown," Gonzalez quips.

"I'm at peace there," Cabrera says. "A whale is at home in the water even though it needs to come up for air too."

Gonzalez shakes her head.

Lazaro Cabrera weighs his fish at a 2014 spearfishing tournament with his girlfriend, Cecilia Gonzalez. Cabrera's 16-year-old son, Mario (right), can barely lift the amberjack, hogfish, red snapper, and grouper he speared.EXPAND
Lazaro Cabrera weighs his fish at a 2014 spearfishing tournament with his girlfriend, Cecilia Gonzalez. Cabrera's 16-year-old son, Mario (right), can barely lift the amberjack, hogfish, red snapper, and grouper he speared.
Photos by courtesy of Lazaro Cabrera

Fishing with sharp, spear-like weapons dates back to early human civilizations. Sharpened sticks were used to catch food in shallow rivers and streams. Some time in the 17th Century, Dutch fishermen began plunging into the water with tridents. That's considered the birth of spearfishing. In the 1930s, formal competitions emerged in the French Riviera, where divers would compete over how much fish they could catch as well as the depth of their dives.

By the 1950s, a Laguna Beach man named Ralph Davies had founded the International Underwater Spearfishing Association and helped create a rule book for setting spearfishing world records. Over the next decade, he helped launch competitions in Mexico, Algeria, and New Caledonia. His ultimate goal was to make spearfishing an Olympic sport. He died in 2001, when he was 83 years old, before that happened. It's still not an Olympic sport today.

In organized competitive spearfishing, there are four club teams in South Florida with more than 50 members. They compete every month or so for a spot in the national competition. If they rank in the top ten there, they have the chance to compete at the world competition, held in a different part of the world every two years.

Since 2000, there has been a push to beat the record for freediving, just one aspect of spearfishing — holding one's breath the longest. Cuban-born Francisco "Pipin" Ferreras broke the world record when he dove 531 feet in 2000. Two years later, Ferreras' wife, Audrey Mestre, broke the record for both genders when she reached 561 feet. However, her balloon to help her quickly rise to the surface failed to inflate and she died from lack of oxygen. Currently, Herbert Nitsch of Austria holds the world record — 831 feet in 2012.

The average spearfisher can hold his or her breath for more than a minute and dive 30 feet. But to win, most competitive spearfishers must hold their breath for four minutes and dive deeper than 130 feet.

"Competition is a whole different ball game," says Dennis Haussler, director of Underwater Society of America. "It doesn't matter how outstanding you are; competition requires a lot of work and preparation, an incredible amount of strategy. It all comes down to experience."

There are obvious dangers, like blackouts and oxygen deprivation. In July 2004, Gene Higa competed in the Spearfishing Nationals in Hawaii but never returned in time for weigh-in. His kayak was found anchored and his body underwater. His wife and toddler son waited at the shore.

At Shake-A-Leg marina in Coconut Grove, ten or so men huddled around a hogfish. It was June 6, and the Art Pinder International Tournament had come to a close. Cabrera and about 30 other spearfishermen lugged in bags of cobia, grouper, and snapper. Time for weigh-in.

It was Harolf Dean's turn. An exceptionally tall Cuban man, Dean is Cabrera's biggest rival. As Dean laid his last fish on the scale, it weighed just enough to bump Cabrera from first place. Cabrera studied the creature; to him, it looked under 12 inches, too small for tournament rules.

Dean and Cabrera leaned in. An official came over and measured it: 13 inches. Dean won. Cabrera came in second.

Nevertheless, Cabrera's girlfriend and other competitors were shouting baseless accusations at Dean. Such trash talk is common in competitive spearfishing.

"You're not allowed to put the fish on ice!" Gonzalez shouted at Dean. "Why do you do that?"

She was accusing Dean of having caught the fish before this tournament, storing it on ice, and trying to pass it off as a fresh catch.

"You only won by a hair the last time," Gonzalez said.

She was right. If Cabrera had only remembered to unload his spear gun onboard, he would have been the 2011 champion.

August 4, 2011, had been the last day of the National Spearfishing competition at Tavernier Creek Marina in Key Largo and had drawn more than 50 of the country's best competitors. But this was Cabrera's turf and his chance to make a name for himself. He had dominated competitions since he started entering them the previous year, and now he wanted to win the national title.

He aced the first day, catching 14 fish that weighed more than 63 pounds total.

After three minutes, Cabrera pops out of the water waving two yellowtail snappers on his spear: "It's a two-in-one!"
After three minutes, Cabrera pops out of the water waving two yellowtail snappers on his spear: "It's a two-in-one!"
Photo by Adam Hendel

On that last day of competition in 2011, Cabrera's group reached its spot, three miles from the Tavernier Creek Marina. Cabrera and two of his teammates plunged into the clear water with spear guns. Cabrera was diving 100 feet. He went up and down more than 20 times during the three-hour window, flinging one bloodied fish after another onboard. The deck was slippery from their guts. After three hours, the bell sounded and the crew headed back to shore for weigh-in. Cabrera didn't say a word.

According to tournament rules, competitors receive one point for each fish they catch and a point for each pound (however, the limit is 15 pounds per fish). Cabrera brought in 16 fish that weighed 54 pounds total. It was not as high as the day before, but the number, he thought, was high enough to earn a top ranking: 147.28 points.

He watched anxiously as the judges tallied the other competitors. Osmany Cuellar: 131.11. Miguel Guinovart: 131.18. Cabrera was in the lead. Then it was Harolf Dean's turn. Cabrera held his breath: 147.07.

Cabrera had won by .11 of a point! Gonzalez jumped up and down. Cabrera smiled. The shiny fish trophy was his.

But then, a referee from another boat threw a flag. He alleged that Cabrera's spear gun had been loaded while on the ride back from the dive site. Judges deliberated and, by watching video, determined that it had.

Cabrera shrugged, confused. A friend translated: Rules mandate that spear guns be transported back to shore unloaded. It was a slight error — but one that disqualified Cabrera and ripped the national title from him.

Gonzalez cursed the judges. Cabrera had to hold her down.

"He deserved to win!" she insists, even today.

But no — Harolf Dean had won.

Dean and Cabrera have considered each other rivals ever since — although when they aren't competing, they share beers and talk on the phone. But competitions are different. Before the tournament, they trash-talk each other. They point fingers in the other's chest, accuse the other of cheating, and dismiss each other's catch.

"Spearfishing is an extreme sport, and the rivalry is real," Cabrera says. "But when we're not competing, we can be the best of friends."

After Cabrera's disqualification, Dean went on to represent America at the world competition in Vigo, Spain. Dean came in 45th out of 59 competitors. The USA team came in 12th, with Spain, Portugal, and Croatia taking top honors.

Cabrera intends to change that. He plans to become a citizen in 2016, qualify in the national championship, and represent the United States in 2018.

"I'm nervous about the English test — I'm still not very good," Cabrera admits.

Now that Cuba and the United States have begun to normalize relations, Cabrera is planning a return visit to Cuba. It's been a decade since he left. His son who stayed there is now 14. Cabrera is anxious about seeing him for the first time in ten years. He also wants to see his parents, who are ineligible for a visa and too frail to travel by boat.

"It will be bittersweet," he says. "Realistically, it's the last time I'll ever go to Cuba. America is my home."

On a Sunday in August, Cabrera takes his eldest son spearfishing. Mario, now 16, bears an uncanny resemblance to his father — lean, with wavy brown hair and twinkling brown eyes. He jumps into the water with fins, snorkel, and spear gun. Cabrera jumps in beside him. The two swim in opposite directions.

Once Cabrera notices that his son has already dived down, he does too. Usually, Cabrera's eyes are peeled for fish to hunt on his descent. But now Cabrera is having a hard time concentrating. He's looking for Mario.

Cabrera can normally spend minutes underwater before he needs to come up for air. Now, it hasn't even been a minute, but his heart is racing and he needs oxygen. Cabrera climbs on the boat and desperately scans the surface for his son but doesn't see him. His thoughts flash with worst-case scenarios.

Finally, he spots Mario's snorkel and exhales.

Cabrera had dreamed that one day his son would join him spearfishing — but never anticipated the stress that would accompany it.

"The waiting is the worst," Cabrera says. "I keep thinking that he's trapped underwater or blacked out. I don't want that life for him."

Instead, Cabrera urges his son to bulk up and join the soccer team. He wants him to attend college and land a cushy and safe white-collar job.

His youngest son, John Carlos, is only 7 years old. He hates going on the boat with his father. "He drives too fast," Gonzalez explains. "John Carlos stays in the middle of the boat and holds on tight. The poor thing doesn't like it at all."

Cabrera considers that a relief.

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