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Catching Hell: What’s Fueling Guyana’s Fishing Woes?

The Guyanese fisheries industry has a relatively brief history of formal regularization. Even within that period, it has been fraught with difficulty as unregulated fishing practices, poor resource management and overfishing remain key drivers in the depletion of fish stocks in Guyana. Today, factors like the impacts of pollution through human activity and the dumping of toxic chemicals into the oceans by multinational corporations also play a key role in ecosystem destruction. Ultimately, affecting marine habitats like corals, reefs and micro-organisms like plankton which are necessary to support a variety of marine life, many of which are of commercial and economic significance.

Guyana has over 900 species of fish in its waters and its marine environment lies within the Amazon Orinoco influence zone, an area of immense biological diversity and importance. There is an abundance of fresh, brackish and saltwater species that are commercially fished which contribute to a vibrant but troubled agriculture sector.

gilbaka caught in a boat
Gilbaka, a saltwater river fish, caught in Region 2 / Credit: Melina Harris.

Guyanese are only now starting to get a clearer picture of what lies beneath the surface of the “land of many waters”. A recent marine mapping exercise revealed the abundance of marine species including countless species of dolphins and whales. It also gave an insight into some of the factors affecting commercial species.

According to Maria Fraser, a Marine Biologist and Research Coordinator at the Guyana Marine Conservation Society (GMCS), fishing gears are playing a significant role in overfishing and the depletion of commercial and non-commercial fish stocks. During the mapping expedition, Ms. Fraser observed “about six to seven yards of fishing net” which had “a whole lot of fish entangled on it”.

The fisheries sector encompasses a marine, industrial, trawl fisheries fleet, an inland aquaculture subsection and small-scale artisanal fisheries carried out by coastal fishers in small wooden vessels. But following the historic collapse of the prawn resource (Panaeus ssp) in the 1980s and 1990s, owing to over-exploitation and general mismanagement of the resource, Guyana was forced to switch gears and move on to other resources in order to sustain marine industrial fisheries.

In 1984, Guyana began trawl fishery for seabob (Xiphopenaeus kroyeri) which grew exponentially in terms of vessels now trawling for seabob, the number of processing plants which shot up to cover demand for processing of the resource and impressive catch numbers were being recorded, having peaked around the year 2000. Guyana has since become the number one producer and exporter of seabob shrimp (Xiphopenaeus kroyeri) in the world, accounting for a whopping 45% share of the global market.

The government continues to try to better regulate this very important sector which significantly affects the lives of every Guyanese, directly employing some 20,000 workers and indirectly in excess of 30,000 workers through local supply chains and related industries, like manufacturing, where boat building has been a constant source of employment and income for residents of coastal communities.

But despite the introduction of legislation to demarcate fisher’s commercial zones, to record vessel ownership, fishing operations (prawn, seabob and finfish) and a requirement to land bycatch, fisheries is currently under severe threat of collapse as resource management and sustainable exploitation continue to plague the fisheries industry. Additionally, the rising cost of fuel, especially in relation to neighboring competitors, is a significant pressure point for the industry.

To this end, the government, in its attempt to subsidize industrial fisheries, came to an agreement with the trawling fleet and has allowed the association to procure their own fuel through creative means. According to Reuben Charles, Chairman of the Guyana Association of Trawler Owners and Seafood Processors (GATOSP), “due to the high cost of fuel, the government is permitting the trawling fleet, to acquire their fuel anywhere 12 miles from shore,” but once the fuel comes into territorial waters, it has to be declared to the Guyana Energy Agency (GEA), however “there is no duty on the fuel.”

Seabob catch from neighboring Suriname / Credit: Nathalie Steins (Marine Stewardship Council) via Flickr.

But despite the well-intentioned plan, there are arguments that fuel subsidies in particular, encourage overfishing and contribute to the over-exploitation of the fish resource. Mr. Charles however noted that “in Guyana, it doesn’t lead to overfishing and it’s a means of dealing with the competition,” stating further that “we are in a market where the cost of production would have been greater without that aide,” and that “we are in competition with Suriname where their fuel is substantially cheaper.”

In more recent years, there have been positive developments through numerous ongoing efforts to regularize industrial trawl fisheries; for example, GATOSP was granted the Marine Stewardship Certification from the Marine Stewardship Council in 2019, an international Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) that champions sustainable fisheries. Mr. Charles was able to add that through that certification process, the association had to implement a number of measures. These include the introduction of the Harvest Control rule in 2014 and with this in place, seabob vessels are restricted to 225 days at sea.

In 2015, a vessel monitoring system was implemented and by catch reduction devices were made mandatory on all seabob vessels and prawn vessels which were also equipped with closed-circuit television (CCTV). Mr. Charles further went on to note that turtle monitoring devices were also introduced, along with more data collection on species caught in nets, bycatch landed, released and so on.

Seabob and prawn fisheries are the only commercial species which are restricted by official zoning rules and in 2019, a second stock assessment of the seabob resource was conducted. The seabob management plan was introduced with the aim to ensure that the seabob was better managed, and through a number of government initiatives in collaboration with NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the fisheries department of the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) has sought to issue guidance aimed at sustainably managing commercial fish stocks.

The Fisheries Management Plan 2015-2020 was constructed in partnership with the WWF and the fisheries department and there is now another partnership between the two entities to produce the current fisheries management plan as the previous expired in 2020. Unfortunately, these plans have not affected the reality of a rapidly declining sector.

Over the course of the last five years, there have been significant reduction in catches, reported by fisherfolk from both the artisanal and industrial fishing sections; this is also supported by data tracking the decline in tons of fish landed per year, but also in size and weight of species. For instance, the National Budget 2020 noted that in 2019, 20,442 metric tons of seafood products were exported from Guyana, a decline from 24,131 metric tons in 2018 and 26,377 metric tons in 2017.

Reports from fishermen across all coastal regions are clear; they are experiencing their worst years in fisheries history. The 2020 and 2021 seasons have been the worst, according to several fishermen.

“I feel last year and this year are worse than all other years, we aren’t catching anything to clear our expenses,” said Latchman Latchman, a fisherman from Region Two, Pomeroon-Supenaam, which is a major tributary of the Essequibo River.

The Pomeroon-Supenaam Region is well known for its abundance of fresh, brackish and saltwater species with commercial varieties like gilbaka, trout and snapper ordinarily in abundance.

Vice Chairman of the Guyana National Fisherfolk Organisation (GNFO), Deonarine Singh, a resident of Region Two who comes from generations of fishermen, has been very vocal about the changes in fish stock and the overall reduction in fish catches. He stated that, “as it is right now, we are seeing a decrease in everything,” especially “since last year August when ExxonMobil started dumping toxic water [into the ocean].”

Mr. Singh admits that because there are no proper regulations (which are being enforced) for the number of vessels allowed to fish in any one area at a time, “everyone can just do as they feel like.” But with such intense efforts on the resource, overfishing is bound to happen but for these fishing communities, there is no other way to survive and to sustain their livelihoods.

a mixed catch in a crate
A mixed catch from Region 3 / Credit: Melina Harris. 

GATOSP too has also noted their concerns publicly about the prolonged period of reduction in catches. Mr. Charles stated that “seabob has been declining” and despite natural fluctuations “what makes this one serious is that it seems to be prolonged, maybe 18 months or more we’ve had this kind of reduction.”

However, according to the 2021 Mid-Year Report presented by Dr. Ashni Singh, Senior Minister within the Office of the President with Responsibility for Finance, there has been growth recorded in the production of seabob shrimp, a surprising and direct contrast to what Mr. Charles has espoused. No reasons for the reported growth in seabob production was proffered in the report.

The report also noted that over the review period, the production of white-belly shrimp fell dramatically by 75.5% and finfish by 26.3%. The cause for the contractions were noted as lower catch rates for finfish and lower white-belly shrimp stock, which, according to the report, is attributed to a change in the salinity of coastal waters.

Furthermore, in the first half of the year, the fisheries industry contracted by an estimated 6.6% when compared with the same period in 2020 and the overall conclusion for the sector stated that fish and shrimp production fell by 22.1% and 8% respectively.

And in the way of government spending within the sector, during the first half of 2021, some GYD$10.7 billion was spent, nearly one half of the budgeted GYD$22.6 billion allocated to the sector, but there are cries from within the fisheries community that no money has been spent to their benefit. Mr. Latchman noted that the fisheries department has “made a lot of promises” but fisherfolk continue “to carry the biggest losses.”

The coastal communities that rely on fisheries as a means to support their families, lives and livelihoods, are under threat. The majority of Guyana’s population lives along the urban coastline and fish is the number one source of protein in Guyana. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO), Guyanese consume approximately 29.5kg of fish per capita on an annual basis as of 2013, a figure which is almost twice the global average.

But the differences between and within the coastal communities are pronounced, not only because of geographical realities but also through socio-cultural expressions of identity and differing ways of life. Nonetheless, there is a heavy reliance on the fisheries sector to feed Guyanese families.

From individuals in traditional Amerindian communities in the Upper North West District in Regions One and Two, Barima-Waini to Pomeroon-Supenaam, who depend on the river, not only as a source of transportation but also as one of sustenance and whose cultural way of life is heavily dependent on these riverine ecosystems, to the more urbanized communities in Regions Three and Four, Essequibo Islands-West Demerara and Demerara-Mahaica, the latter of which depend on landing sites throughout the coasts.

The main industrial ports in the capital city of Georgetown depend on the fisheries sector too to access fresh fish for their families and to sustain cottage businesses ranging from street food vendors to “fish shops”.

The fisheries sector is of critical importance to the coastal communities’ way of life in Guyana.

boats being constructed
Boats under construction in Region 6 / Credit: Melina Harris.

Then there are the international exporters and seafood processors who employ thousands of workers and service international markets, overall contributing to an export sector worth on average per year, approximately US$100 million.

Dr. Ashni Singh confirmed in Guyana’s National Budget 2021 that indeed “the fishing sector is projected to have contracted by 17.1% in 2020.” He went on to state that the “decline was largely as a result of fewer vessels going out to fish due to lower domestic and external demand stemming from the pandemic.”

The GNFO Chairman, Pamashwar Jainarine, a resident of Region Six (East Berbice-Corentyne), has stated that in relation to the reduction in catches that “we attribute it to more and more boats being put out with no quota or limit on the amount of boats,” concluding that the sector urgently “needs regulation.”

Artisanal fisherfolk receive duty free and value added tax (VAT) discounts on specific fishing gears, equipment and outboard engines, however the improper use of the equipment or the use of improper equipment could result in the depletion of fish stocks.

Poor fishing practices like the entangling, cutting and dumping of fishing nets have huge potential consequences for fish stocks. It causes a number of interrelated issues to occur when nets become entangled, meaning that they have to be cut loose, which results in losses and contribute to more waste reaching into the ocean, damaging ecosystems, entangling protected species like marine turtles and other non-directed commercial species, and overall contributing to the depletion of stocks in other ways like interfering with spawning areas and nurseries.

Ms. Fraser was also able to describe how these microplastics eventually make their way into the food chain and how they contribute to “fish kill” in most circumstances.

  • Learn more: Watch Melina Harris' documentary, Catching Hell, to hear from affected communities in Guyana.

Then there are the changes which are yet to be assessed and were largely brought on by the new oil and gas sector which is currently reported to be responsible for Guyana’s growing GDP. ExxonMobil, head of the Hess Corporation and China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) consortium, has been dumping produced water from its operations into the Atlantic Ocean.

Produced water is a brackish/saline type of liquid that comes up with the oil and natural gas which is being extracted from miles beneath Guyana’s seabed and, according to the permit issued to the consortium by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the produced water is supposed to be treated before being dumped overboard, but with reports from several stakeholders and the government on changes to the salinity of Guyana’s waters, it may be safe to assume that the treatment of the produced water is not happening as it should.

It remains to be seen what the overall impact of dumping these toxic chemicals will be as there are no locally published studies which have been conducted with the aim of drawing a connection between the decline in fish stocks and offshore deepwater oil exploration and extractive activities.

However, a confidential source associated with the oil companies was able to confirm that baseline studies have been carried out by the consortium and reveal that out of all the territories where ExxonMobil operates, Guyana has by far, the highest number of fish species in freshwaters, brackish waters and salt waters with a plethora of corals and reefs which are waiting to be properly discovered, recorded, researched and assessed.

building of a fishermen's cooperative
Guyana's fishers pleas to the government to conduct studies, offer financial assistance and better monitor the fisheries sector have gone unanswered / Credit: Melina Harris.

For instance, the recent Ichthyofaunal (fish) Assessment of Barima-Mora Passage Special Protected Area study, conducted in September 2021 by the GMCS, noted the significance of ecosystems of Region One as “biodiversity hotspots where over half a dozen IUCN Red listed animal species live” and that they are “important nursery areas for fish, crabs, shrimp and other aquatic species, which local coastal communities depend upon for generating income and subsistence survival for their families.”

The survey assessed the current state of fisheries, which included a number of species and their community composition, commercial importance and conservation status. It found a total of 329 fish from 32 species representing 10 families and noted that at least one commercial species, Megalops atlanticus (the giant Cuffum) was classified as vulnerable, indicating that the species is near threatened.

The study further noted that “the salinity was extremely low” in the river and “a few sites closer to the Atlantic Ocean were characterized by higher electrical conductivity indicating more saline conditions.” Fisherfolk reported “greater effort is expended to capture some species, especially the moracut.” The study concluded that, “greater fishing efforts indicate that shifting habitats due to increased anthropogenic activities in the river and in the open sea” and while the “gear types and techniques are sustainable, the local market demand for the moracut threatens the sustainability of this species.”

There are calls from organizations like GATOSP, GMSC and the GNFO for further studies and assessments to be conducted in order to ascertain what the prolonged and alarming reduction in catches must be attributed to. The GNFO has also been lobbying the government to include them in their consultations surrounding the management of waste disposal from oil and gas and for inclusion in discussions surrounding Guyana’s Oil Spill Management Plan. They have had little success.

In the way of monitoring and enforcement as a means to ensure that regulations are being followed, the fisheries department in 2019 procured a coast guard vessel at the cost of GYD$99 million, which at the time drew heavy criticism owing to the cost of the vessel, its tiny size and intended use. It was commissioned as an observation, monitoring, control and surveillance vessel to ensure fishing boats are working within regulations and utilizing their gears in the correct manner. The vessel was also earmarked for research purposes.

The intention behind its purchase was that through collaboration with the Maritime Administration Department (MARAD), the Coast Guard, GEA and the Marine police, aerial reconnaissance operations would be conducted multiple times per year. However, when contacted, a confidential source at MARAD could not confirm that any surveillance activities were being carried out by anyone at the agency.

The GDF Coast Guard, despite countless telephone calls and a number of emails, could not be reached for an official comment, however Sergeant McDonald from the Marine Police was only able to confirm that the Marine Police would be providing a security detail on any monitoring exercises. He, however, could not confirm if any had been carried out so far. And despite weeks of countless calls, messages and emails, no one from the MOA responded to any questions stemming from the contents of this report.

Guyana’s fishers are catching hell and despite lobbying the government for studies to be conducted, financial assistance to be rendered and better monitoring of the sector and its resources, nothing is being done as the nation watches a beloved sector and source of income for thousands of Guyanese families gradually disappear before their very eyes.

This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the Pew Charitable Trusts. It was originally published on 7 November 2021 in Kaieteur News and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. A broadcast documentary was aired on 14 November 2021 on HGP Nightly News

Banner image: The fisheries sector significantly affects the lives of every Guyanese, indirectly employing in excess of 30,000 workers / Credit: Melina Harris.