By Tricia Johnson
As we drove up to the artificial reef, two separate boats of fisherpeople were waiting for us. They had begun fishing at 6am and even though it was only 10 am, their hats did little to protect them from the strength of the sun’s rays. We pulled up along side the boat of Noél and his nephew and fishing partner, Mauricio, and saw that their ice chest was already half way full with a variety of snook, mojara, and red snapper.
Both boats of fisherpeople are a part of the cooperative “ACOPILARES,” one of nearly a dozen cooperatives that EcoViva works with to support sustainable fishing in the Bay of Jiquilisco. Using medium-sized hooks and fishing lines, these fisherpeople fish over artificial reefs made of submerged tree trunks or cement frames.
José Noél Lara Gonzales, known as Noél, began fishing at the age of 8. After leaving school in the 3rd grade, he worked in the open ocean. From the open ocean, he transitioned to blast fishing in the bay, a practice he learned from his father Eleuterio. After a few years of fishing with explosives, Eleuterio and Noél began to notice their catch diminishing- they were using more and more bombs to catch less and less fish. They would spend 10-12 colónes (or a little over a dollar) on supplies for bombs but would sometimes have to throw 8-10 bombs to gather a sufficient catch.
Then the police caught Noél and Eleuterio blast fishing. They were fined $5,000 colónes ($571 USD), spent a few days in jail, and received 3 years of probation, which was later reduced to one year. In the end, blast fishing offered too many risks for too few returns. In addition to worrying about the authorities, they faced an even bigger danger- losing their limbs or their lives. The combination of the personal danger posed by fishing with explosives, the threat of the authorities, and their diminished catch over the years, left Noél and Eleuterio looking for other alternatives.
These days, Eleuterio works as a volunteer wetlands ranger on the bay patrolling for people practicing illegal fishing methods, including blast fishing, keeping track of activity, and working to educate community members on the importance of environmental conservation.
Noél is a member of the cooperative “ACOPILARES” and goes fishing three or four days a week with his nephew Mauricio. They fish from 6am to 4pm, alternating two to three hours of work with resting and eating in a shack the cooperative built, located by the reef and raised over the water. On slow days, he earns $15 USD, while on a good day he can bring in a catch worth up to $50 USD.
The reefs, installed and managed by the cooperatives, provide a habitat and refuge for the fish allowing the fisherpeople to work from a set location. The fisherpeople’s medium-sized hooks ensure that they only catch fish of a certain size, leaving the small fish to continue to grow. They refrain from using fishing lines with multiple deep sea hooks, where sea turtles can get caught, as well as fishing nets that indiscriminately collect fish of all sizes, suffocating them before they can be released. The cooperative also provides vigilance for the area, ensuring that other people do not practice blast fishing or other destructive practices.
The support of their family, friends, and neighbors in the cooperative ensures that the fisherpeople have the knowledge and collective experience to continue using sustainable methods and enables them to work together to maintain the fishing areas. Noél and Eleuterio provide a perfect example of how the organization of local communities in the Bay of Jiquilisco works to provide a sustainable livelihood for the fisherpeople, with an emphasis on protecting the richness of natural resources in the region.