Fishermen caught in Lobster trap

Jangada setting out lobster fishing with traps

Jangada setting out lobster fishing with traps

On the horizon, out over the calm tropical sea, the sun is just beginning to burn through the dark. Its five in the morning, my husband is sailing out to his lobster traps, the warmth of the sun taking the chill out of the wind and spray.

It sounds so romantic but the reality is hard, and being made harder by the illegal fishing activity of a frightening number of boats, lack of control by the regulating authorities, a mess of bureaucracy for the legal fishermen to wade through and an apparent lack of willingness on the part of national and local government to deal with the problems.
For weeks my husband’s traps, like so many others, have come up empty, yet the crew of the illegal compressor boats, who circle like sharks, are always willing to show off their catches. Over his traps now, he begins to haul them in, pulling the line hand over hand, hoping that today, maybe today, he will be lucky. If there are no lobsters this time, then what?

The foremost fisheries management scientist Dr Daniel Pauly,  co authored a paper published in July 2007, demonstrating that the stocks of lobster in Brazilian waters were in crisis and on the point of collapse. Fishing effort needed to be reduced by 50% in order to prevent stocks being fished beyond the point of recovery.  [Dr Daniel Pauly, Katia. M. F. Freire, Villy Christensen. Pan-American journal of aquatic sciences July 2007]

On the 24th August 2007, the Brazilian government proudly announced that they would be buying back illegal fishing gear used in the capture of the Spiny rock lobster (P Argus). It was hoped that this was evidence that the government was finally going to tackle the problem of lobster over fishing.  The new law was heralded as strengthening the management plan that was put in place at the beginning of the year, with the potential of producing a considerable reduction in fishing effort. An additional 2 million R$ was also made available for enforcement of the new regulations governing the lobster fishery.

The buy back of illegal gear covered gillnets and compressors. Operators use a compressor on deck to pump air through a hose to a diver who walks the sea bed and systematically clears the area of all lobsters. They leave virtually nothing for the trap fisherman and worse, no stock to re-populate the area. This method of fishing is highly dangerous to the divers, every year there are severe injuries and deaths. Widows and orphans have no social protection because of the illegality of the divers. [René  Schärer  Instituto Terramar].

Despite problems with the implementation of the regulations, most observers were optimistic,  it was generally felt there was a new readiness to resolve issues.  Then suddenly, in October 2007 all controls (IE patrols and checks on vessels at sea) virtually ceased and even though it was still the closed season, Artisanal fishermen reported increased numbers of compressor boats. Since the start of the season in June, the numbers of illegal fishers have been steadily increasing and it is widely believed that many of these boat owners used the buy back scheme to hand in old equipment and purchase new.

Brazil’s spiny lobster fisheries are managed by IBAMA (Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources). They have three boats with which to patrol the 572km of Ceará’s coastline, an almost impossible task. Ridiculous as this may seam, Ceará is the only state in Brazil to have any patrols what so ever. In 2005 IBAMA identified 113 pirate boats fishing with compressors (hookah divers) in the state of Ceará, and more than 400 in Rio Grande do Norte, it is probable that the numbers are much higher now.
For the fishermen of Prainha do Canto Verde (PCV) on the North East coast of Brazil, trap caught lobster represents their greatest source of income and the majority of men have been fishing their area in a responsible manner for many years.
In May 2000, the men applied to the Marine Stewardship Council for certification. The criteria requires that the stocks of  the target species and the eco system of a fishing area are looked at as a whole. The MSC, while complimenting the fishermen on their fishing practices,  were unable to complete the process due to lobster stocks overall in Brazil being dangerously low.  This lack of tangible recognition, coupled with the financial hardship suffered by their conscientious fishing methods, made it harder to encourage other impoverished communities to follow their lead, yet the men have persisted.

In the last few years, a combination of diminishing stocks and competition from outsiders using illegal fishing gear, has seen catches steadily decreasing. As things stand the men are no longer making a return on their investment in traps. Despite the difficulties, or perhaps spurred on by them, the fishermen of Canto Verde were at the fore front of moves to implant an Marine Protected Area in their waters.
In 2004 the Brazilian government created a Management Group CGSL (Management Committee for the sustainable use of Lobsters) for stakeholders and government  partnership. Fishers and NGO´s participated and held the majority over fishing industry and vessel owners.

“Fishers of Prainha and Ceará NGO´s are again pioneering, there are only two other MPA´s functioning in Brazil, and ours will be the first one used to protect (recover) a commercially very valuable resource. There is world wide pressure to create more MPA´s – the Convention of Biodiversity has a goal to protect 10% of fishing areas around the world using MPA´s and Brazil’s government has signed the agreement reached in 2006. There is justified hope that as soon as the management of conservation units is redefined within the Ministry of the Environment (the new unit responsible for conservation in the Chico Mendes Institute) things will start to work more efficiently. The MPA of Beberibe will cover 54 kilometres of coastline including Canto Verde”. [Schärer]

The coast line of Ceará is ideally suited to a marine reserve. The coastal waters are shallow, reaching depths of only 50 metres for fifty nautical miles out towards the continental platform. The area has constant winds and small shoals of commercially valuable fish, these conditions make it ideal for sail craft (typically jangadas, a type of sail raft)  fishing for fish, lobster and prawn. Motorized fishing vessels are ill suited to fish in these waters, they are economically unviable (despite receiving fuel subsidies) and represent too much fishing effort.

Many of  fishermen from PCV feel the MPA is their only hope for the future, for most of the men there is no alternative employment. They know that the MPA will only work if the boats operating with illegal gear can be kept out of the area, they are less than confident that there is the will to accomplish this.

As the Jangadeiro’s and those on motor boats are competing for an ever decreasing stock, there have been increasing incidents of friction between them. My husband is not alone in voicing his fury at hauling  up his traps, only to find they are, as was feared, empty. To then be taunted by the crew of a near by compressor boat, showing off the size of their illegal catch, is hard to stomach. In reality there is nothing the artisanal fishermen can do to protect their fishing grounds or equipment, the jangadas are unable to out run the motor boats and the Jangadeiro’s know they could be run down and their boats sunk if an argument develops, they also have good cause to fear the motor boat crew being armed.

For me, seeing the look on my husband’s face every day is enough to tell me that, yet again he has no money to give me. The financial side is worrying but worse is seeing how, despite all his efforts, (believe me fishing from a jangada is not an easy way to make a living) my husband is unable to do what he believes is his duty and that is to provide for his family. We don’t ask to be rich but to pay our basic bills without worry would be nice.

The feeling amongst the men is of ever increasing frustration. At a recent meeting with a political candidate, the men expressed their anger at seeing the compressor boats in ever increasing numbers, often right inshore. They know their traps are being robbed, that their livelihood is in jeopardy, that the future of the species of Spiny Rock Lobster is at risk, yet they also know that a call to IBAMA is unlikely to have a positive result. It may take IBAMA two days to respond, and often when they do appear, the compressor boats do not.

Illegal fishing boat captured off Prainha

Illegal fishing boat captured off Prainha

Ze Ramo spoke on behalf of all the men, when he asked why IBAMA do not simple patrol the areas around the mouths of the few rivers where the compressor boats are known to come from, effectively stopping them from leaving port.

Members of IBAMA  explaining what will happen to the seized boat and its catch.

Members of IBAMA explaining what will happen to the seized boat and its catch.

To add insult to injury, the men are being told that in order to qualify for the unemployment benefit paid to them during the closed season, they must continue to fish throughout the whole of the six month season, even if they are no longer catching anything, this puts them in the ludicrous situation of having to pay to go to sea.

Ze Ramo  explained how at the beginning of the season he put fifty traps in the sea, each one cost him R$20:00. For the first two weeks of the season, catches were acceptable (though lower than the men had hoped) but owing to the falling value of the dollar and lack of confidence in the quality of Brazilian export, the price paid for lobster this year dropped from $R72:00 per kilo to R$38:00. A further decrease has brought the price down to R$32:00.

Of Ze Ramo’s fifty traps he has lost or had stolen nearly half; (it is common for the compressor divers to cut the lines leading to the traps, marking the position on GPS units they can return again and again to clear the traps that are no longer retrievable by the fishermen.) Ze Ramo said that non of the men are in the position to be able to continually replace traps that are being lost when they are not catching anything.

The boat owner is also responsible for buying food for his crew and for the maintenance of the boat. The men find them selves in an impossible bind. They depend on the unemployment benefit to boost their low income in the first part of the year, when fish catches are seasonally low but there is the potential for it to cost them more to continue fishing during the season, then they will gain in benefit. President Lula made an election promise that he would improve the lot of Artisanal fishermen, so far it is hard to find any evidence of that, if anything it feels quite the contrary.

Artisanal fishing for spiny lobster began in Brazil in 1955, with commercial exploitation starting in 1962. During the 60’s and 70’s the Brazilian government gave out substantial subsidies that led to an explosion in the numbers of the motor fishing fleet  and Brazil experienced  “what might be called a lobster rush” [Fonteles-Filho, 2000]. Very limited management laws were introduced in 1975, consisting of only basic conservation measures which outside observers reported were scarcely enforced. The catches of Brazilian lobster have been in general decline since the 1970s [Samudra 2001]. The number of illegal diving boats and motor boats using gillnets, increased dramatically in all the fishing area to reach probably 90% of the fleet, this probably accounts for the increase in production since 2000.

The capture of undersized lobster, egg bearing females and general over fishing, combined with Brazil’s lack of management and regulation of the fishing fleet, has brought the stocks of lobster, a species that was once prolific, to the edge of collapse.

Government figures published in May 2006 showed the catch of Brazilian lobsters had crashed as was predicted by numerous scientists, many fishers and NGO observers.  In early 2004. NOAA (the US government agency responsible for fisheries management) and the state of Florida seized 30,000 undersized lobster tails originating from Brazil. These 3-ounce tails convert to lobsters that were taken below Brazil’s minimum legal size of 13cm [Raymond, 2004]. A report on Globo (Brazilian television company) showed how lobsters of only 10cm total length were being caught.

Always check the source of any fish or lobster that you buy. The MSC have detailed information on at risk species both in England and world wide.

Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. (   They provide regional guides to help empower consumers and businesses to make choices for healthy oceans. This is what their report has to say about buying Spiny Rock Lobster  .

“An Important Note on Buying Sustainable Lobster Tails: “Paul Raymond, of NMFS enforcement, offers the following advice: “On the U.S. retail market, the consumer typically will not know the origin of spiny lobster. It is marketed as simply rock lobster, or lobster tails, or spiny lobsters. Consequently… I believe your focus should be on avoiding small P.Argus tails–or “shorts” (undersized lobsters) of any Panulirus species, for that matter. All 2 and 3-ounce tails should be avoided, as they would be in violation of virtually all foreign laws, since this size class is below the reproductive size. A good rule of thumb is: if the tail measures less than 5 inches or weighs less than 5 ounces, it should be avoided” [Raymond, 2004]”.

Download the presentation of René Schärer on the state of Brazil’s lobster fishery at the Seafood Summit in Jacksonville. FL in January 2007:
Lobby the WWF and MSC to review their certification process to allow inclusion of small scale eco friendly fisheries within otherwise unsustainable fisheries.

©Claire Pattison Valente 2008


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