It's drizzling and it's cold. It's 5 a.m. and we’ve just left the first fishing port of Ecuador, in Manta. Junior Ramiro Pérez, 28, is navigating his boat through the waters with familiarity among the other small boats. Inside his, he prepares the bait; 350 pieces of bottle fish, there under the soft rain, at dawn, as if nothing is happening.
As soon as the light of day appears, we move away from the port and approach the destination to cast the hooks. Quickly we found ourselves at a depth of 40-50 meters. The blue color is intense, and the waves mix with a silence that only the sea gives us.
“One has respect for the sea. Sometimes the sea gets very rough, high waves, strong wind. But we have always worked here, nothing has happened to us,” says Junior, who started fishing at the age of 12 in the company of his father. Currently, he goes out to do the job from Monday to Saturday, at dawn.
"What can I say? I like fishing. Aside from working, I like it. And then luck. Fishing is about being lucky,” explains Junior.
He talks about Ecuador’s closed season, which bans fishing of certain species for a few months to help stocks recover to more sustainable levels.
“The closures are, for example, when the dorado (Coryphaena hippurus) is closed (from July 1 to October 7), it cannot be taken ashore. During that time, the dorado is in reproduction, and they do not let you capture it; It is a species that is protected by the laws. The ban is fine. If they did not do that, maybe there would not be so many fish anymore, there would not be in abundance…”
Ministerial Agreement 070 establishes a bycatch allowance percentage during the closed season. For artisanal fishers it is 8% of the volume in weight of the landing. In other words, they can land dorado, in a certain percentage (while targeting other species) during the closure.
“It seems good to me, because at that time it mates and there are already shortages of several species of fish here in Ecuador. The hammerhead is rarely seen anymore. But yes, the ban harms us [economically] as fishermen and for that reason, the Government should help us,” claims Carlos, another fisherman from Manabí.
He implies that there should be a fixed price of fish, to have a guaranteed salary, as a way to help the fishing sector. As for now, the prices go up and down according to availability of the fish, and so does the salary of the fishermen.
But while conscientious fishermen like Junior respect the ban, they also find themselves in a dilemma when, during that time when dorados are not allowed to be caught, one of these large, bright blue fish falls into their nets or hook.
“This fish, perhaps 15-20 pounds, is good for you if you can sell it for between 20 or 30 dollars. Mostly people who work do not let them go. If they get hooked – shoot, sometimes we do take them. Not in quantity. Sometimes for one's own consumption. All fishermen do that. It is a temptation, to cover expenses.”
Small boats, like the one Junior owns, are made of fiberglass and use a 15-horsepower motor. Generally, there is no control back on shore with the catch that they as fishermen bring from the sea, he says.
“Sometimes you go fishing, you do not catch anything. We do not have a salary, when you do not catch, you do not earn anything."
The size of the artisanal fleet in Ecuador is not known for certain. According to the National Registry of the Ministry of Production, Foreign Trade, Investment and Fishing, the artisanal fleet in Ecuador has 11,323 vessels. But for example, according to a census carried out by the Federation of Fishing and Similar Organizations of Ecuador (FOPAE) they counted 55,000. An important difference. In any case, because of the high number, unmanaged artisanal fishing represents a significant environmental impact, says Pablo Guerrero, Director of Marine Conservation of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Ecuador.
“Artisanal fishing is not well regulated in Ecuador; there are so many – the fishermen – and that is a problem. It is very complex. It represents poorer sectors, and they are votes [in reference to the fact that during the elections they represent important votes for the candidates]. That is why the situation is like this”, says Pablo Guerrero.
We continue to the port of Jaramijó, located just 10 kilometers from Manta – but at a significant psychological distance; the port in Jaramijó seems to be another world.
According to the last fishing census, 2016 inhabitants of Jaramijó are dedicated to fishing activities, it is the main activity of the place.
One of the artisanal fishermen from Jaramijó who entered the fishery at the age of 15 decides to share his concerns and experiences with us. We will call him Carlos, to protect his safety, as we cannot reveal his real name.
"Fishing is not like before," he says. He confirms what other fishermen in Manabí have told us.
“Fish are quite scarce. Currently, due to contamination and everything they say about damage to the environment, the fishes no longer enter as they used to, they have moved further away. Here in Ecuador, we say we are protecting the environment, but it is a pure lie. There is a lot of pollution everywhere. That is why it affects us a lot here. I think that, due to so much pollution, the fishes are already looking for another place, migrating to other places; we ourselves damage everything. We are the ones who are destroying everything.”
Another thing that everyone repeats, is that laws are not followed, and that authorities allow themselves to be bought.
“They do not enforce law. You just send money from below (bribery) and they take it and that is it. If there is a boat that is in a place that is not allowed, because it is in a protected place for instance, you just pay and that's it. This situation has affected fishing seriously,” says Carlos.
The issue of corruption is an open secret, admits Pablo Guerrero of WWF: "It is a structural problem in our country, not only in the fishing sector. It is a sad and unfortunate reality here."
Guerrero reaffirms the impacts of bad actions in the past: “There are species that have disappeared due to overfishing. Species that had no management. And the fishing fleet has increased a lot, now there is much more competition.”
Another fishing restriction is not to fish from mile 0 to 1, because that area is like the seedbed of the sea. From mile 1 to 8 only artisanal fishermen can work; semi-industrial and industrial boats cannot enter.
But many do not respect the prohibitions.
Then there is the issue of drug trafficking, another reality on the Ecuadorian coast and in the fishing sector. Generally, what the fishermen carry are cocaine and contraband products.
"Especially in Manabí, drug trafficking has a strong impact, because fishing does not provide enough money to cover the fishermen’s debts. Because of the contamination, there is no longer the fish that there used to be. Not anymore. People have no choice but to take illicit goods, because fishing is no longer enough to cover their expenses or pay their debts," says Carlos.
"We are humble fishermen. There are a lot of fellow fishermen because of the crisis and everything – they have had to do things they should not be doing, like drug trafficking, and bad things like that. If there were help for the fishermen, this could end. People would be able to live normal lives, so that they would no longer commit illicit acts at sea. We are going to be like Venezuela, Colombia, because the authorities are not in charge. We are living in a country where they say – you have your boat, you must bring this somewhere for me, and if you don't, I'm going to take it out on your family! Many of us are forced to do these things. I have many colleagues who are in prison, with sentences of 13-15 years, because without knowing or wanting to, they got into trouble. Everyone is going through this. The whole fishing sector – it would be different – if you had a way to get ahead, you would not mess with anyone and you would not bring things that you should not bring. All the time, I have been a fisherman – we have had practically no support from the government. You live like you manage to, you do what you want, out there. Out there on the sea.”
Carlos says that he used to fish 40 miles offshore. Now he is sailing up to 100 miles away.
"I'm going further out to fish because at 40 miles it's just for fun. I do not even get enough for the investment I make. I have to go further out and stay out for more days."
Carlos is also concerned about the situation in Galapagos and how it affects the rest of the resource in the sea.
"I think that if the laws were enforced, if various areas were protected, it would be different. In Galapagos, even in the protected area, you could see quite a lot of Chinese boats. If it were like in other countries, these boats would not be allowed. Those Chinese boats were catching a lot of fish and Ecuador said nothing, did nothing. It must be the highest authority, but it allows boats from other countries to enter, and it is almost impossible to work here.”
Everything is connected, especially in the oceans.
Then there is the issue of extortion, a subject that profoundly worries the sunburned fisherman:
"We are also suffering from piracy; we are losing many engines; I am not lying to you. We fishermen are suffering a lot of extortion by criminal gangs. To be able to go out fishing and for the mafia groups not to steal our engines we must give them a monthly payment. And even then, they take engines. They take about 10-12 engines every month. We do not know who they are, nobody shows their faces. That's why many fishermen have started to sell out of their things," says Carlos.
The testimony of Carlos is echoed by other fishermen in several other ports in Manabí. The amount is the same: US$120 per month per boat. It is the owners of the boats who are being charged.
They say that the money is being taken to the city of Puerto Lopez. They have also received information that the contribution will soon increase to 140. But since an engine can cost $10,000 depending on the size, they prefer to pay the monthly extortion.
On the day in February 2022 that we talked to Carlos, the news of a fisherman missing at sea, near Jaramijó, arrived on the coast. "It is for the same reason. For fear of pirates, we can't sail with lights. And it often happens then, that we crash into other boats. It is very worrying," admits Carlos.
The fishermen are frustrated because of the lack of intervention by the authorities. "Where is the law in Ecuador? There is no law here. We are experiencing these cases quite a lot. We have looked for the authorities, for the navy, but they offer no solution at all," says Carlos.
To be able to talk to other fishermen, they suggest that we do not reveal that we are coming from Quito. And that bitter feeling of contempt for the capital and the government is constant. Artisanal fishermen we spoke to for this story say they feel ignored or forgotten.
Jefferson Mero, who recently graduated as a biologist from the University of Manta, comes from a family of fishermen, like the vast majority of people in the city of Manta and the Manabí province. He tries to put into words that feeling of lack of confidence in the central government: "Fishing has always been a low regime; it is always the agricultural part that stands out. Fishing will never stand out. We only feel valued when other countries report large quantities of shark resources, for example, countries like Spain and Peru reported a lot of sharks caught from Ecuador, then they got worried, and this new Galapagos reserve came out and all that. But while other countries tell us not to come, Ecuador does nothing. A Quiteño (an inhabitant of Quito) is never going to understand what happens here; how fishing is practiced. They will never defend our way of life," says Jefferson Mero.
Back to Carlos. He recognizes upfront, as a fisherman, that the difficult economic situation makes some of them not always follow the laws. With his boat, he is generally allowed by the fishing authorities to return with approximately 100 sharks or equivalent to 5-10% of the total catch, although it is forbidden to catch shark by decree 486. But a certain amount is accepted, this is called bycatch. Bycatch is when fishermen unintentionally catch species that are banned.
Since 2007, restrictions on the fishing of different species of sharks in Ecuador have been in place, prohibiting their capture as a protected species. It is only accepted to arrive to port with sharks if it was incidental fishing. Fishermen who violate this law can be fined with 4 to 10 basic salaries, equivalent to USD 1700 to USD 4250 (which is the currency in Ecuador).
Then there is this detail. It may be a coastal custom, but all fishermen, all of them, use the word shark very little. They say for example hammerhead fish (to name the hammerhead shark, Cornuda Sphyrna Zygaena). Others call it "toyo," as a generalized word for shark. They name it fish, as something that can be caught.
And bycatch is not always really bycatch, Carlos explains: "Sometimes we are out there and there is nothing. No luck. What do we do? We as fishermen know where the toyo are. Sometimes we go out there and catch 300 or 400 of them. That saves us the trip. Blue toyo and mico toyo are what we catch the most. A boat, if it has an investment of $25,000 and sees that it is not going to cover its expenses with 100 sharks, it takes 400 of them. Yes, there are sanctions, but you can also pay the authorities and get rid of the sanction.”
"Shark meat is generally sold towards the Jungle and the Mountain region, but you're not going to find shark meat in the market. Or rarely. You will find it sold as: Corvina (which is legal to fish). Shark has no flavor, that's why mostly it is taken to Quito. Shark meat is cheaper than corvina and people there prefer it that way," says Carlos.
We go out to the dock and indeed we see some shark carcasses and next to them their respective fins. The scene is impressive. We also see a person from the fishing control, which are biologist responsible for checking and registering what is brought in by the boat. The person arrives quite some time after the boats have started to disembark.
"There is no choice but to catch toyo"
"Sometimes I tell my children that we must take care of the marine resources, because since I started, fishing is no longer the same. I started out on a boat; I was at sea for up to 10 days, we caught billfish, there were plenty of fish, why would we be catching toyo?" Carlos exclaims. Now I stay at sea up to 30-40 days and sometimes fishing is not even enough to earn my basic salary. It is really difficult. There is nothing left to do but to catch toyo. There is no other choice but to do that," he says with a look of desperation.
“There is a bit of a guilty conscience," says Carlos. “We are killing a lot of species... so what are we going to do in the future? I tell my children that when I started when I was 15 years old, everything was happiness, because it was all nice, you caught billfish, you came home with something for the family, but now it is not like that anymore. Do you think those times will come back, a colleague asked me recently. They do not come back...."
Billfish is one example of a species which the fishermen reports has decreased remarkedly the past years.
Carlos adds that he comes from a humble family, where his father did not give his children an education until they were 10 years old and then took them fishing. "The only profession I learned was fishing. If it ends..." – he pauses – and adds: "Fishing is what I have liked the most. Even though my family has told me, don't go out on sea anymore. But it is what I have liked the most. Even though I am now fishing more along the coast, what will be here in a few years? I wish there was help for the fisherman," he insists.
Faced with the situation, Carlos decided not to teach any of his four children to fish. As we walk along the dock and reflect on the heavy pressure that drug trafficking is putting on artisanal fishermen up and down the coast, Carlos admits that he spent two years in jail for drug trafficking. "I’ve got into this by working on the boat. There was no way to say no. That's why I do not want my children to get into fishing. I have not even taught them how to fish," he says.
It is difficult to talk with official voices or authorities about this issue, Alejandro Giler, Manabí correspondent for the Ecuadorian media, Extra and Expreso, says. "There are many cases of pirates here in Manabí. The problem is that nobody wants to talk because they are threatened and extorted. There are few reports of engine theft for the same reason. And the authorities generally do not talk about it," says the Manabí correspondent.
We have contacted the Captaincy (which function like the police at sea) in the city of Manta requesting an interview and data for this article, but our request was answered with: denied. As a reference, according to the Captaincy of the neighboring province of Esmeraldas, 850 engines have been reported stolen in the past five years, just in Esmeraldas.
Indeed, it is a very complex situation, confirms Jimmy López, president of the Federation of Fishing and Similar Organizations of Ecuador (FOPAE): "They criminals give bullets for denouncing these things. If you denounce in the Prosecutor's Office, half an hour later they call you to cancel your complaint. And yes, they have killed several comrades. But we must talk about it, because if we don't, it will continue like this," says the fishermen’s president.
In addition, he is equally concerned about the strong presence of drug trafficking on Ecuador's coast. He estimates that 40% of Ecuador's artisanal fleet pays these monthly payments to criminal gangs. Similarly, the strong presence of drug trafficking in the region has extracted a high price from them, he recognizes. According to López, there are more than 3,000 Ecuadorian artisanal fishermen in prisons in foreign countries such as the United States, Colombia, Costa Rica, Peru, and El Salvador, incarcerated with drug trafficking convictions, related to trafficking of cocaine.
The visit in San Mateo
On the other side of Manta, we visited the fishing village of San Mateo. Apparently, this is a place with more control by the authorities. Or at least that is what the fishermen say.
Ignacio Valverde Santana, originally from Jipijapa, has worked as a fisher for 40 years. He has three children who have all studied at university, "thanks to fishing," as he says.
"Yes, the law is applied here, regarding closed season and the shark ban. As an artisanal fisherman I agree with the law, it should be the same for everyone, because if we do not take care of the species, imagine where we are going. Let us be consistent. If I do not take care of the resource, for the future of tomorrow, our children, what will they be able to fish? We have to be understanding about that."
And the shark issue also affects artisanal fishermen here in San Mateo.
"The hammerhead fish, if it reaches the net, it is released, you cannot take it, because they sanction it and they can put us in jail. Of course, I agree because it is a very vulnerable species. This comes from studies by scientists, and if they say so, it is for a reason. Although a hammerhead may represent a value of 70, 80, 100 or 150 dollars, we are not interested. We are interested in taking care of these species! We are aware. Besides, I am God-fearing, and he cannot be fooled. Here, they do not catch hammers, because they would get problems then. First, when you arrive from outside, the fishing authority comes to check what you are bringing on shore. They see what species have been caught. It happens very little. The people here don't want problems, they don't want to be sanctioned," says Ignacio, from the floor of his boat where he sits under the strong coastal sun.
Ignacio is also concerned about the situation of Asian ships in Galapagos, and how this situation has influenced the fish population.
"Here in Ecuador, tuna boats come here, Chinese boats. They come in to take the fish. But that is no longer one's fault, it is the fault of the national politicians, because that comes from above. They are destroying the marine fauna. They mainly take the squid, and squid are the sustenance for the fish, because you know, where there is meat, fish is there!"
We are moving south, some 100 kilometers. Narciso Baque Piguabe, 60, has lived in Machalilla since he was eight years old and has been fishing since he was eleven. He is wearing a T-shirt with a romantic drawing of sailboats. The table where we are sitting was a place of rescue for what the local population now refers to as the solitary penguin, recalls Narciso. It arrived some time ago with a broken foot and was taken to a rescue center. He was later reintroduced and is still hanging around these parts. As well as several other species, sharks, sea lions, turtles, says the Machalilla resident with pride.
A car passes by with a loudspeaker "net for shriiiiiimp." Everything revolves around fishing here. Absolutely everything.
Narciso also denounces the corruption related to the control of fishing.
"We have laws, but they are corrupt – referring to the authorities – they only care about the money. Here we have a National Park where fishing is not allowed. But the authorities have no way to control. Sometimes we are bothered by the other fellows who have their boats, the semi-industrial ones, who have to fish in other miles. They should give us the opportunity to exercise our activity without having to compete with them. We are taking care of the marine ecosystem. We are not predators of species, rather we take care of them. But sometimes boats from elsewhere come here to our natural pool. Our ecosystem is not as depredated as elsewhere, that's why they come here," says Baque.
His son Javier Baque Quimis, 28, wearing a necklace shaped as a turtle, sits next to his father at the penguin table. "It is a delicate issue, because the big boats have a lot of money – and contact with the authorities. It is very difficult to mess with these people with a lot of money. They do not listen to us, and we're there. They are fishing, occupying our areas. It is also forbidden to use screens or lights (which is a tool from industrial fishing) to attract lots of fish. It is one of the worst things I can mention. They hire the small fishermen to put lights and screens, and they take a percentage as payment for that. It is the lack of opportunities that forces us to these bad practices. There are no alternatives, when there is no fishing, or when there is a closure,” says Javier.
Narciso's boat is entering the sea. We are near the beach known as Los Frailes, in Machalilla National Park. Narciso started fishing when he was 10 years old. His father taught him.
"This is the real life of an artisanal fisherman," he says, as he reaches for his net, a trammel net that is his preferred fishing gear here. He usually fishes from 4 to 10 am, every day.
Machalilla is also on the so-called "Route of the Valdivia culture," Narciso says. Valdivia is a pre-Columbian culture that existed from approximately 4400 to 1450 BC in what is now the west coast of Ecuador.
"The first bandits that passed through here were fishermen," Narciso laughs.
The sea is immense, but the fish are not everywhere. It's down to luck.
"Sometimes we can earn 10-20 dollars in a day – sometimes nothing – and we just get burned from the sun. Eventually they must come to help the fishermen, because we artisanal fishermen are like those who ride bicycles, while the industrial fishers ride big cars. We are suffering," says the fisherman.
Narciso also reflects on the prohibitions, and what will happen the day they ban the trammel net, a fishing gear he uses. "It would be like a ban on artisanal fishing. But I think we can take care of the sea without losing the tradition," he adds.
Narciso has also recently ventured into the area of tourism, as an alternative to fishing. "I have supported my children for the 40 years I have worked at sea. But now I'm going to give them a new alternative, since fishing is becoming scarce and will not provide for new generations. Because artisanal fishing is very risky and damaging. I am happy because thanks to the sea I have always been by my family's side, I have not gone anywhere else to work. I have been a worker of the sea. But as an artisanal fisherman I have always had to fight against the current." Narciso's voice echoes along with the loud sound of the waves, as if blending with the sea.
"I have fed from the sea. The sea is a source of global wealth. Those of us who fight for the cleanliness of our oceans must be grateful for all it has given us; we must always keep it clean, its beaches, not throw garbage into the sea. If we do not act with conscience, we are going to have problems with the animals, sea lions, turtles, that can ingest the garbage. The sea gives us to eat, let us take care of it, let us pay back something to the sea," replies Narciso from Machalilla.
Many other boats come to ask us out there if we have been lucky in this place. You can tell there are a lot of boats. A lot of competition.
"We fishermen are taking the fish out of the ocean. The species have their functions to feed the bigger fish. Here, the ones doing a lot of damage are the industrial vessels – they catch a lot of fish, with their technology. What we will catch in a year they catch in a day," says Narciso.
The 60-year-old fisherman is tired. He is grateful for what the sea has given him – but he has no more strength. "It is just that the artisanal fisherman does sweat his shirt off. Imagine if I go on fishing – I'll last maybe ten more years. I don't have the same strength anymore. Where did I leave it? At sea. Why not look for a better way for a living? If I stay on land, my children will not go fishing. A thing such as tourism – to do something else – could create an alternative, the possibility to have a better life. Instead of letting them end their lives like their father at sea”.
In 2020 tourism in Ecuador contributed with USD 705 million as the sixth post to the GDP in Ecuador. Shrimp is the most important and third comes other products from the sea. Artisanal fishing is typically a much smaller percentage to GDP, than those mentioned industries (WWF estimates it to be some USD 150 million per year).
Night fell over our boat at sea. Suddenly, the rastreros, chinchoreros or shrimp trawlers appear, who go to mile five instead of eight and contribute to overfishing. They are coerced by the boat owners (who are normally on land), we are aware of that," Narciso says.
All around us there are lights from boats in all directions. We know they are the chinchoreros. But even so, the sea does not lose its poetry.
"Look at all the lights from the boats. They are like stars that have fallen into the sea.”
This story was produced with support from the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in Spanish in Espacio Angular on 25 February 2022 and republished in Baudó Agencia Pública on 22 March 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Portrait of Narciso Baque (60) as he leaves his community of Machalilla, province of Manabi, to go fishing. After almost 50 years in the trade, he recognizes that the challenges fishermen face currently force them to look for all kinds of ways to maintain a minimum economic income in order to survive / Credit: Andrés Yepez.