The COVID-19 pandemic severely hit seafarers who had already been battered more than three years ago by the onslaught of Hurricane María, the earthquakes and the fiscal uncertainty that surrounds the country.
It is no longer just gambling on their luck when they cast their nets into the sea; They also face the challenge of, when they have good fishing, sell their products amid the restrictions imposed by the Government to stop the contagion of coronavirus on the Island.
“Fatal … it is not being caught or sold as before,” confessed Manuel Zayas Ortiz, from Ponce, 75 years old.
The fisherman explained that he no longer goes out to sea every day, “because people are not going to buy fish and the ‘wikenes’. About 33 percent or more is what has fallen and that is also happening to others.
While, in Santa Isabel, José “Cheo” Tejero Rodríguez experiences a similar situation. However, the outlook there is more difficult because they do not have the municipal ramp to dump their boats since the city council closed access in January 2018.
“With the pandemic that has given a terrible change because right now, if we go to the freezer, I have some small packages of fish that have not been sold because people do not come … they are afraid …”, said the 86-year-old worker .
Three other fishermen from Naguabo added to the challenges they face the fact that restaurants are not selling as before and, therefore, the sale of their products is stagnant.
“It has been a bad year, very difficult. We have not had any help from anyone, we have been alone all the time. Right now here (restaurant), we have endured many kinds of seafood that we cannot take because as there is no way out (they are not sold) … They have full ‘freezers’ … ”, explained Tommy Gómez, who is 40 years of experience in fishing.
As a result of this, Gómez has been forced to reduce the days when he goes fishing with Pedro Pérez and Gabriel Ramos, his fellow workers.
“Before we went out from Monday to Saturday with a day off, now we had to cut,” said the fisherman, who says that he has seen his income reduced by 60%.
In addition to these difficulties, fishermen continue to struggle with the ravages left in that area by the passage of Hurricane María, since now fishing for shellfish such as conch is more complicated.
“Before María, we fished good conch; after María, that went down and it is no longer possible, we have to go to deeper places, further to search, ”said Ramos.
Another obstacle that fishermen in the Naguabo area are still struggling with is the lack of a floating dock, for which they assure there are funds.
“Nothing has been done with the pier yet and funds have been allocated. Tommy and I are part of the community directive and we know that the funds for that floating dock are there, the permits are there; what happens is that a movement has not been seen. The Government has to pay more attention to it because we are the workers of the sea and, if we are affected, the shops, fishing villages, businesses are affected, ”Pérez denounced.
Even in the depths of this crisis, the fishermen do not lose hope that they will be able to emerge at some point.
“I hope it improves, I am positive and willing to give everything for everything to bring fish to these restaurants, but sometimes it is difficult because we do not have help. There is some funds and the fishermen do not see them and, if funds arrive, they are very few for the fishermen because they all stay in the Government, “added Ramos.
While Pérez understands that it will be they themselves who will have to emerge afloat.
“I do not see any movement, this for me will continue as it is. It is up to us to try to get up, stand up, step forward ”, he concluded.
For his part, the president of the Puerto Rico Commercial Fishermen Federation, Miguel A. Ortiz Serrano, pointed out that the coronavirus pandemic aggravated the conditions that already affected nearly a thousand commercial fishermen on the island, in addition to some 16 fishing villages. registered under the organization.
“Although we are part of the food chain in this country, it has affected us greatly because the pandemic is general and people, when the pandemic started, were scared and did not want to go out or buy from small businesses, they only went to supermarkets to buy their little things and return home ”, highlighted the also president of the Fishing Village of Guayama.
“When they opened (by executive order), that affected us because we had to do ‘delivery’ to bring the fish to people’s homes. Apart from that, the fishermen to go fishing had to go to different places such as to buy gasoline, items to take to the sea and sometimes they were afraid of catching it and that (made) the boys hold out on the outings. That affected in different ways both in selling the fish, which made it more difficult for us, such as going out to fish, (which) was also difficult for us, ”added the president of some 350 federated fishermen.
According to Ortiz Serrano, there is another factor related to the restrictions imposed in the executive order of Governor Wanda Vázquez that caused an increase in commercial fishing licenses.
“That has been outrageous because sport fishermen could not go out fishing, only commercial ones could go out and there were ‘cayaqueros’ and other people who applied for the commercial license … as they are given for a year as this increased by 300 fishermen more. That affects us indirectly because they are people who count on Natural Resources (DNER) as commercial fishermen for the duration of the license, ”he revealed.
Likewise, the president of the federated fishermen denounced that the Government only disbursed a tiny part of the federal funds allocated to shovel the damage caused by Hurricane María and this worsened the situation they are currently experiencing.
“The Government has not wanted to help… only some fishermen received the PUA, which was what came to alleviate the fishermen a bit, but that does not alleviate at all. Here there were fishermen who lost all their fishing gear and right now DRNA received 11.4 million for Hurricane Maria and what they are giving to the fishermen is $ 400 thousand ”, he argued.
Changes in the sea
On the other hand, in Guánica, fishermen have seen a drastic change in the fishing spots that moved after the shaking of the earthquakes.
“Perhaps the pandemic has brought problems in one way, but it has brought new blessings in another because here, fishing has re-emerged in an incredible way … as there are not so many people fishing now, there are no boats in the water disturbing …” said Wilbert “Pipe” Almodóvar, who has been fishing for more than four decades.
“The fishmongers have a lot of fish because it is not flowing much … there are no restaurants with service that go to eat and, if there is, it is very limited,” he stressed, noting that fishermen must also comply with physical distancing and limit the number of people in the boats, among others.
A slight help
In the midst of the pandemic, the non-profit organization Conservación Consciencia has been collaborating with fishermen in the Naguabo area to try to minimize the economic impact. This, through projects where the fishermen themselves collaborate in the removal of marine debris while generating income.
“Our organization collaborates quite closely with commercial fishermen. There are many lost pots, lost fishing gear, illegal pots and also debris that comes out of the rivers and we can recover it. The fishermen help us with that and that means additional income for them and that replaces or helps to supplement. So, there we have this collaboration that is of benefit to all ”, explained Raymundo Espinosa, biologist and executive director of the organization.