The lobster season 2014 started on the 1st of June and catches have been massively disappointing, though perhaps not surprisingly so. The figures for the sail trap fishery (sail boats using traps) in the area from Redonda to Caponga show catches are down by 90% on last year. Motor boats using traps are reporting catches of less than 50% on last year. There are still plenty of lobsters coming in to Fortaleza from out side of this area (northwest coast) but they have virtually all been caught using illegal methods (gillnets or diving).
It is believed that the low catch rate for the sail fleet could be caused by a natural phenomena within the lobster cycle rather than from over fishing by the fleet, however it cannot be denied that the warnings of over fishing by those using illegal gear and its consequences, issued in the 2012 document calling for a moratoria on lobster fishing, have come to fruition.
The moratoria document was produced 2 years ago by a coalition of groups representing artisanal fishers and boat owners who exclusively fish with traps. The document proposed various measures designed to save the lobster fishing industry, such as inspection of boats and fishing gear to prove the exclusive use of traps before a fishing license would be renewed. The document was sent to various government ministries who could be said to have an interest in the industry or the people who work in it, the ministries responded by saying that the lobster fishery was not their responsibility, except for the Ministry for Fisheries who did not respond at all.
In December of 2013 Federal Attorneys demanded an explanation from the Ministry for Fisheries on their lack of response to the proposals, the Ministry gave vague excuses but failed to answer the Attorneys questions directly.
In May of 2014 the federal Attorney for Labour and the Federal Attorney for Environment issued a strong recommendation (read order) to the Ministry of Fisheries for the inspection of boats and gear to be a prerequisite to the renewal of a lobster license. In June the Ministry said that following the Attorneys recommendation, they would be extending the licenses from 2013 until August 30th 2014 at which time the inspections would be carried out and licenses renewed for the rest of the year. How inspections will be organised in 2015 remains to be seen.
The owners and crews of boats which fail the inspection will be refused a license which in turn will remove their right to the seguro desemprego payment (unemployment benefit) which is paid to the fishers during the closed season.
The level of fraud within the lobster fishery is truly staggering, an estimated US$20 million (£11.7 million) worth of fraudulent seguro desemprego claims are paid out each year (to fishermen using illegal fishing gear) and a highly conservative estimate, based on the last available figures from 2010, puts the fraudulent use of the motorised fishing fleets fuel subsidy as in excess of a further US$5 million (£3 million).
SINE/IDT, the governmental body responsible for the seguro desemprego, are being called upon to clarify the situation regarding the payment. As things stand the closed season payment is made under the rules for unemployment which prohibits the men from any other form of employment, effectively meaning they are not allowed to fish for fish. This is quite clearly ridiculous, legal fishers are not earning anywhere near a living wage from lobster, nor do they wish to sit idle but under the current rules, if they were to fish for fish at any time during the year they risk losing the payment on which the majority of them depend.
The group responsible for the moratorium proposals will be meeting with SINE, The Ministry of Fishery, The Navy, IBAMA and ICIMbo to discuss the inspections and will then be monitoring to ensure they are carried out correctly. Although it is expected that the inspections will be basic this year, if things go according to the promise issued by the Federal Environmental Authority, next year will see the introduction of a certificate of origin (CO) which would guarantee a rigorous control on origin and make it very difficult for illegal boats to sell lobsters for exports. The introduction of a CO would also remove the excuse from buyers and exporters that they have no way of knowing where or how the lobster was caught.
On the 4th of June this year, IBAMA seized 4 metric tons (4000 K) of lobster tails from a processing plant, followed on the 8th by a further 3700 Kilos from a second plant. The companies were unable to provide documentation showing where the lobster had come from and IBAMA agents were suspicious that such a large quantity of lobster was being processed so close to the start of the season only a few days earlier. Despite promises from buyers and exporters to stop trading in illegally caught lobsters, these seizures suggest they are not keeping to their word and the impounded lobsters are being kept in deep freeze pending an investigation.
This years low catch rate, whilst undoubtably causing financial hardship especially to legal fishermen, does have a positive side. The combined effect of inspections, loss of the seguro payment and hopefully in the future the certificate of origin, will reduce fishing pressure by forcing out the majority of illegal boats. There have been reports of a small number of boat crews using gill nets (illegal gear) requesting the boat owners to switch to traps, they would then be eligible for the seguro payment and as they would be landing live lobster,* would receive the premium price which is approximately 25% higher than that for tails.
Sail boat trap fishers return to land daily with live lobsters. Motorised boats with divers and those using gill nets generally stay at sea for days or weeks and remove the lobster head at the point of capture, storing the tails on ice until their return.
Divers are known as Pirates, Compressor or Hooka divers. A small compressor on deck pumps air into a reservoir chamber, often an old domestic butane gas bottle, from that a thin piece of tubing goes down to the diver for him to breath the air (as opposed to an oxygen mix that it should be) they use no safety equipment of any kind, have no depth gauges or back up and accidents resulting in paralysis or death are common (This link goes to a short film by Eric Douglas which demonstrates the practise and it’s risks). Hooka diving is not only a highly dangerous activity but according to the representative of ILO in Brasilia, it should be considered as slavery and is a serious human rights violation.
Compressor divers ignore the closed season and dive year round but their catch rates have been steadily and dramatically falling over the last few years, this year has been disastrous for them. The divers made a lot of money in the past, which for many made the risk to their lives worth taking but falling catch rates now mean they are being pushed to take ever greater risks for virtually no return. It is to be hoped that soon the men will be willing to negotiate for alternative occupations and cease diving completely.
For most of the communities where fishing is the main activity, there are very few employment options and the moratoria proposals highlight the necessity for at least some of the money saved by removing the fraudulent seguro claims, to be invested in alternative employment schemes. Proposals contained in the moratorium document of 2012 need to be discussed with governmental bodies and with the divers, but this will probably have to wait until after presidential elections in October of this year.
Further support for Brazilian artisanal fishers and proper regulation and control of the lobster industry is coming from Europe and America. Tougher regulations on fishing and imports have been effectively implemented in the EU, President Obama has issued executive orders designed to combat fish fraud and the Environmental Justice Foundation is working on the question of human rights within fishing. There is obvious and widespread public support for all these measures and consumer pressure does force change and to put weight behind the general publics opinion, groups such as Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Marine Conservation Society and Oceana to name a few, have lists and maps which make it easier to identify and avoid fish linked to fraud, over fishing or human rights issues.
Honduras are looking at plans to stop diving for lobster (a legal activity there) and if they do then it is certain that Nicaragua will follow suit, then hopefully this will encourage Brazil to show some leadership and present a proposal to reduce the poverty and misery caused by this activity.
There is still a long way to go before the legal lobster fishers begin to see an improvement in their financial returns but (dare I say it) it does seem that finally things are coming together to push the fishery (and government) in the right direction. International pressure and support is crucial and there are some very interesting projects being developed around the world aimed at improving the rights of artisanal fishers in small scale sustainable fisheries.
After the historic session of the FAO Fisheries Committee (COFI) on June 10th this year (where within 7 minutes of opening it was agreed to adopt the Voluntary Guidelines in support of Small Scale Fisheries) the WFF, the WFFP (World Fisher Forums), the IPC (International planning commission) and the ICSF (International collective in support of fishworkers) are working together and will be meeting in India next month to prepare a global action plan in support of small scale fishers, these should then be approved at the COFI meeting in 2016 and it will then be up to governments to implement the guidelines.
There are many other groups around the world working on projects hand in hand with small scale fishers, allowing for the exchange of knowledge and helping communities of fishers to not only reap the benefits of the sea but to act as guardians of the resource and the environment for future generations.
With many thanks to René Schärer for providing me with all the facts and figures and patiently guiding me through the maze of rules, regulations and events in the lobster fishery.
Born in Bern, Switzerland in 1941
Joined Swissair in 1961 and 3 years later went on job rotation which took him to executive positions in New York, Boston, Milan, Madrid, São Paulo and to Atlanta where he ended his professional career to make a life change and invest his capital in social projects. He began voluntary community work in the fishing village of Prainha do Canto Verde in the northeastern state of Ceará in Brazil. Over the next 20 years he learned about lobsters and fish from the artisanal fishermen and met with academics, entrepreneurs and managers in Brazil and around the world.
René is the co-founder of Terramar Institute and the community tourism network Tucum http://www.tucum.org, a member of ICSF http://www.icsf.net, Fellow of Ashoka and the initiator of the philanthropic association Friends of Prainha do Canto Verde in Switzerland.
His daughter Michelle has a PhD in Marine Biology and currently works with grouper spawning aggregations in Puerto Rico
René lives with his wife Marly in Prainha do Canto Verde