Farewell Fish: The Struggle of Coastal Communities to Catch the Fish that Got Away

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“Yesterday we went fishing cabrilla and we took out of the water fourteen. At the end I sold eight, I went to Samara to sell the rest and nothing. We earn about eight thousand colones each and with this situation, without money, there are no markets, all the restaurants are closed: this is not good at all.”

When Sergio Jiron told me that a few days ago in a WhatsApp audio, the pandemic caused by the Covid-19 was already beginning to close down and close everything in the way: beaches, borders and restaurants.

Sergio, or Chejo as everybody knows him on Sámara beach, is 65 years old and earns a living by fishing with his lungs. Just three weeks ago I was with him on a day of fishing so he can tell me about the consequences of climate change in his daily work.None of us who set sail that Friday in late February knew what was coming. A coronavirus spreads around the world at high speed to further complicate the picture for Chejo and his peers.

That day began more and less like this:

Along the road that leads from Samara to Carrillo, Sergio Jirón walks with long strides that are hard to keep up with. It’s almost 8 a.m. and the sun begins to beat down. He is closely followed by Mauricio Ruiz and Teodorito Valencia, who push a cart loaded with the boat motor. Jose Andres Sanchez, the youngest and rookie in the group, is at the rear of the caravan. They are already getting a late start to the day.

Jose Andres pushes another cart with snorkeling equipment, fins, gasoline, knives and everything needed to work. He started fishing with them just two months ago.

A neighbor parked in a white car in front of the supermarket, two men who are filling potholes on a gravel road, and a family sitting in the corridor of their house shout the same thing: GOOD LUCK! A routine wish, a word as worn out by time and use as the diving shirt worn by Sergio (or Chejo, as they call him in town).

For years, Chejo and his crew face increasingly warmer and fishless waters. In coastal communities like this one, the fishing trade is combined with agriculture, livestock and more and more with tourism, but they continue to depend largely on what the sea provides.

So far, many discussions about fishing in the country focus on approving trawling or not and granting new permits for fishermen. While that happens, the ocean water warms up. Within 30 years, studies say, it will offer less than half the resources to this group of four men who drag their fishing gear. “Look how awful this season has been for us, from last year to now,” Chejo was saying a little bit ago.

Sergio Jiron, at 55 years old, free dives in search of fish and lobster. In his house in the El Torito neighborhood of Samara, hundreds of shells of all sizes decorate mobiles, curtains and tables.Photo: César Arroyo Castro

Farewell Fish

As a group, the fishermen push the boat towards the waves and when they get deep enough, they jump in. They start the motor and cross themselves with fingers dripping with salt water. They know that experience is not enough in order to return with the cooler full; they are going to need a lot of that luck that people wished them along the way.

Chejo believes that the warming of the waters causes the fish to move to colder areas, so they have to dive much deeper to find them. Dive, yes, because they fish with spearguns.

 “Imagine that we have been diving to 22 meters (72 feet) deep to see what we find. Before, there was fish at eight or 10 meters (25 to 30 feet), here along the shore, everywhere. Now there is nothing,” he laments.

“I’m just starting and I go under more than 20 meters. I would like to learn to be a diver like Uncle Sergio,” says Jose Andres Sanchez, 17, and then he plunges in with his uncle Sergio Giron.Photo: César Arroyo Castro

Marviva Foundation biologist Gustavo Arias agrees with Chejo. Although there are no national studies on the impact of climate change on fish migration, there are projections worldwide and some data for the Eastern Tropical Pacific, the area that extends from California to Ecuador and includes Costa Rica.

“What the model that [the researchers] used predicted is that within a few years, 2050, something like that, the catches of some species of commercial interest (such as tuna) will decrease by up to 60% in the tropical areas and will increase from 35% to 40% towards the more temperate zones,” emphasizes Gustavo.

In a navigation, it was explained to Chejo that the best water temperature for fish ranges from 18 to 23 degrees Celsius (64 to 73 degrees Fahrenheit). “And in 32-degree (90-degree) water, what can be there? Nothing!” he answers himself.

Jose Andres Sanchez, Sergio Giron and 64-year-old Teodorito Valencia remove the spear from a hamberjack that they just caught. It is the only big catch they get that day.Photo: César Arroyo Castro

They travel about 20 minutes to a point they call “El Sur” (The South), passing by Puerto Carrillo and skirting along the edge of some cliffs of pointed rocks where fishermen recognize figures of Indians lying on their backs, or silhouettes of whales. They stop the boat at a point that could be anywhere in the eyes of someone inexperienced, guiding themselves by luxurious houses and telephone antennas on the shore. After each dive, the divers return without having made a single shot. “Let’s go to Rafelón’s rock… let’s go to Corozal… let’s try El Muñeco… and what if we go back to Rafelón’s?” The suggestions come and go like the waves. They try up to six different points. They need the luck people wished them earlier more and more.

“It is black as night down below,” says Chejo as he climbs back into the boat. Poor visibility makes it very difficult for them to find fish at greater depths.

Almost two hours after entering the water, the first catch of the day appears. It is a small, elongated fish with yellow spots. They call it a catechism. It was caught by Jose Andres, and it will be the only thing he will catch all day.

The most experienced aren’t more successful than he is. At the end of the day, Teodorito catches a 4-kilo (9-pound) hamberjack and Chejo catches a pair of small surgeons. Mauricio, for his part, returns without any fish. “This is an odyssey… an odyssey,” repeats the fisherman in disbelief. His pay at the end of the week will not exceed ¢20,000 (about $35).

Frank Fines Perez’s boat crosses in front of Chejo’s. He is one of the Samara residents who has been completely dedicated to sport fishing for several years.Photo: César Arroyo Castro

At beaches like Samara and Guiones, fishing is still a fundamental activity. There are receptions for traditional fishermen and they have associations that meet every two weeks to discuss topics of interest.

Gustavo explains that fishing is something cultural that is passed down from generation to generation. Although Mauricio and Jose Andres say they love what they do, they might not be able to continue this family tradition.

Same Ports, New Doors

“The sea is unpredictable. For example, what can I tell you, this week we can get ¢100,000 (about $175), next week we can get ¢20,000 ($35), ¢15,000 ($26) and so on,” explains Mauricio, who is now 31 years old and has been fishing since he left school. He is big, stocky. Maybe that’s why people have sought him out for jobs in construction and private security, but he has left all of them because he prefers work at sea or in diving, as he calls it.

Like Jose Andres, he studies at night school, in tenth grade. He wants to finish high school to be an accountant and one day leave behind the snorkeling gear and the homemade speargun that consumes him from Monday to Friday.

“When there is an opportunity for a break that can open better doors for me, look for that door and move on come what may,” says Mauricio a little more hopefully.

Gustavo concludes that facing this panorama of large fish migrations, local communities in coastal areas should take advantage of the tourism, biological and ecological value they have.

“In the context we are in, responsible tourism is one of the alternatives that needs a greater injection from the state, mainly support for how to carry out these activities,” the biologist adds.

Frank Fines’ boat crosses in front of Chejo’s boat. Frank is a Samara resident who has been engaged in sport fishing for many years. From a distance, he holds up a large fish like a trophy as a sign of fortune. From Chejo’s boat, they cheer it.

At 3:30 p.m., Mauricio, Jose Andres and Teodorito finish the day and return to their homes. Chejo still has to take the fish they just cut to the restaurants and fish markets in downtown Samara to try to sell it.Photo: César Arroyo Castro