Once again the village has been gearing up for the start of the lobster season, though with less obvious enthusiasm than usual, probably owing to the poor catch rate of the last 4 or 5 years.
Since 2006 Neu and I have kept accounts for the lobster season, these have shown a decrease each year in his catch rate and in the price paid per kilo of lobster with a corresponding decrease in income. The decreasing catch rates are mainly due to fishing pressure from the alarming number of boats which use illegal fishing methods (click here for more on this). In a recent meeting with an official from the Chico Mendes Institute, I was told that Prianha Do Canto verde is probably unique in that all the men here fish using only legal methods. While this is a credit to the village fishermen, it is a truly shocking state of affairs.
After talking with Neu and other fishermen here, I realised that non of them had any real idea of their profits or losses. Many of the fishermen are at best only semi literate and numerate, making any form of account keeping difficult. René Schärer of Instituto Terremar had told me that this lack of accounts made it very hard to plead the case of the artisanal fishermen, the only statistical information that had been collected related to catch rates which on its own does not give a clear idea of income.
Just before the start of the lobster season last year, I devised a pictorial accounts sheet which I showed to René, I thought it might help the men of the village to keep some form of accounts. René decided that with a few alterations and additions to the original spreadsheet it could make an interesting project. 11 boats were chosen to cover the different vessels that fish from Prainha, 3 catamarans, 2 jangadas (one of which was Neu’s) and 6 smaller jangadas known as paquetes. Two young men from the village who are doing fishing related courses, would gather the necessary information each week from the boat owners
At the beginning of the lobster season the fishermen were all extremely optimistic of a good harvest. The heavy winter rains that we’d had, are traditionally believed to herald a good season as the flood waters are loaded with nutrients, which the men say leads to an abundance of lobsters. Unfortunately the regulation of illegal fishing boats was once again virtually non existent, and within a few weeks it was evident that the only people catching at a consistently high rate, were those from outside the village illegally fishing with divers. At the end of July, owing to the extremely low catch rate, coupled with the low price paid for lobster (which was partly due to the financial crisis hitting America, the biggest purchaser of Brazilian lobster) Neu and most of the other boat owners were forced to remove their traps from the sea, the lobster season which officially runs until December, was effectively over for the artisanal fishermen.
When all the information had been processed, there was a meeting to discuss the results with the boat owners. The final figures though not a complete surprise, were far more depressing than even I had anticipated. Neu was in the red to a tune of well over R$1000. and his losses were replicated in the accounts of all the other boat owners in the project.
The lack of regulation which allows fishermen to use illegal fishing gear with impunity, understandably creates ill feeling amongst those fishermen who are following the law.
In the neighbouring community of Redonda in Icapui fishermen have taken the law into their own hands. Groups patrolling the coastal waters “arrested” 4 boats that were fishing illegally. The crews were released close to the shore, the boats were brought back to a beach and at least one was burnt.
This week saw the start of the lobster season. On Wednesday a boat that was using illegal equipment was intercepted by the vigilantes from Redonda. The boat surrendered to the vigilantes but not before shots were exchanged, a father and son working on the illegal boat were both shot in the leg (the father later needed hospital treatment to remove a lodged bullet).
In order to avoid being identified and therefore possible reprisals, the vigilantes released the crew, including the injured men in the shallow waters of a neighbouring beach. The case is being investigated by the Federal Police and an official patrol boat has been sent to the area.
There is a lot of support in Prainha for the men from Redonda. That the vigilantes acted outside of the law is considered by many fishermen here, to be a result of the authorities lack of enforcement. The fact that a patrol boat was sent to the area after the shooting is seen, rightly or wrongly, as confirmation that the only way to get the enforcement necessary, is by taking the law into their own hands.
There are only 2 governmental patrol boats to cover 573 kilometres of coastal waters, 3 more are due to come into service next week.
Neu has decided that unless there is a significant improvement in his catch rates this year, then this will be his last season fishing for lobster as a boat owner. All the men find the lobster season exhausting, but for Neu it will be especially testing. Since his diagnosis with chronic kidney failure nearly 8 months ago, his subsequent treatment and restricted diet have left him physically much weaker than he was. We don’t yet know if he will be able to cope with the demands of a seasons lobster fishing, but he is determined to try.
The men have been occupied getting their boats and traps ready, waiting for the seasons start date to be announced. For the last few years it has been the first of June, but this year there were calls (mainly from the industrialised sector) for the fishing to commence on the 15th of May. That date passed and the men were told that the most likely date would be the 1st of June as per usual. Then in the afternoon of the 19th it was broadcast on local radio that the season would start on the 20th after all. The men were caught out by the late announcement, some boats were out deep sea fishing, many boat owners had assumed the date would be later and had not yet finished preparing their traps. Some felt the late notice was deliberate, designed to keep them out of the water. That afternoon the beach was a hive of activity with men running hither and thither to get everything ready in time.
On the morning of the 20th, Neu left the house at 2.30 intending to set sail at 3.30. The men had been told they could leave the beach at 1am but high winds delayed the boats, with most finally setting sail around 5.
The next day the boats left the beach at 4 to pull up their traps. When Neu returned he said he was disappointed with the few lobsters they had caught. Later we discovered that his boat had the highest catch rate at 700 grams, many boats had returned with only one or two lobsters, in most cases nothing. The next day Neu came back with nothing and has had nothing since. We don’t know if the lobster have all been removed by the illegal fishers using compressors, or if the lobster haven’t arrived yet but it’s a slim hope.
Some of the men are saying that if the catch rate doesn’t pick up, then they will be forced by the end of next week, to take their traps out of the water.
Neu’s 700g will earn him roughly R$17:00 From this he must pay the crew their half and take out the cost of the weeks food.
We calculate he has invested R$750:00 in traps and boat maintenance for the season.
©Claire Pattison Valente 2010