Cayenne fishmarket. Snapper: 6 euros 50.

“Are you the one who caught it, or did you buy it?”

The seller hesitates before answering: “I bought it. From Cogumer.”

Cogumer and Abchée are the two companies with which the Venezuelan fishermen have contracts. They buy their snappers for between 2.80 and 3 dollars for resale, primarily on the Caribbean market. Venezuelan fishermen have long come to fish snappers off the coast of French Guiana. They all come from Boca del Pozo and Robledal, two villages on Isla Margarita in Venezuela.

The sailors go straight from one ten-day mission to the next. Ten days at sea nine miles offshore. With an average of fifteen lines for a dozen sailors, they spend their days pulling in their catches. There are between five and seven hooks on the lines which are about thirty metres long. As bait they use salted sardines they have brought from Margarita.

The captains of the lanchas* know where to find the shoals of snappers, logging them on their GPS and radioing the information to each other. Alcide explained that before they had GPS they looked for snappers randomly, “como locos” – like madmen. But there used to be more of them. In 2000, IFREMER (the French Research Institute for Sea Exploitation) revealed overfishing of snappers in the Guiana Shield region. Since then the species appears to have managed to maintain its numbers, but snappers still require careful monitoring.

Due to this reason the number of licences granted to Venezuelan boats is limited. Fishing, which was previously international, became territorial in 1986 and nationally regulated fishing zones were set up. The Venezuelans were used to coming to fish off the coast of French Guiana, and the French Guianese operators were quite happy to use this cheap and experienced workforce. The French authorities set up a licensing system, and forty-one were awarded to the Venezuelans. In exchange they have to land 75% of their catch at Larivot for a price fixed by the French Guianese operators.

Whilst IFREMER considers that pot fishing does not damage stocks provided that modern techniques are used, the Fishing Committee and operators argue that when lost a pot continues to fish “for nothing” and thus harms numbers. What is certain is that by coming to fish in French Guiana and going to sell directly in the Caribbean, the pot fishermen are competing against the French Guianese companies working with the Venezuelans.

Sailors – a family affair?

Alcide has been fishing in French Guiana for over forty years. For a long time he was a sailor. Now he is the captain of the Virgiris. Just the captain. The owner is someone in his family in Margarita. He too was a sailor and then a captain in French Guiana. He then bought a boat. We ask Alcide if he’s intending to do the same thing, but he laughs. “No, today it’s too expensive. This boat is worth €200,000 €300,000.” Why does he come and fish in French Guiana? Precisely because the cost of living is expensive and his wife spends a lot! “Yes, I make a better living here.”

For Luis it doesn’t make any financial difference whether he fishes here or in Margarita. In any case, it is nine years since he worked as a fisherman, and he now sells fish by motorbike in his village. He says that this time he has come “como paseo”, for the voyage. Being a sailor is too tiring. “Did you see earlier? 6.8 tonnes unloaded in two hours.” He hopes his children will study rather than become fishermen. He stopped school and started working as a sailor when he was 11 years old “to feed the family”.

Alcide, the captain, has two sons who are fishermen, one of whom will be passing his captain’s diploma next year “thanks to government loans”. “Loans to fishermen are one of Chavez’s schemes.

“Before it was impossible to take out a loan,” Audélio explains. “Nobody lent to the poor, you had to take out a mortgage. But I couldn’t be a captain, I don’t know how to read and write.”

To the rhythms of margariteña music

Each boat has its own rhythm of work. Moises explains that “I prefer working on this boat because we’re better treated. We work from 6am to 7pm, no mas. Things are different on Alcide’s boat. “In Venezuela there is employment law on land. But at sea it does not apply. If there are fish, we have to fish. Night and day.” But the subject that keeps cropping up when you talk about their difficulties is being far away from their families. Fortunately there is satellite radio on the boat which means they can stay in touch.

After ten days at sea, one day to unload, and one day to rest, they start all over again. It is the beginning of December and while the sailors are unloading the catch of the past ten days, Jésus is impatient to go back to his wife, children, and grandchildren. All the fishermen go back to their village of Boca de Pozo or Robledal for Christmas. In the day they all go to Chacachacare, where the boats are moored, and in the evening, once back in their villages, it’s time to celebrate seeing their family and friends again.

This is the time of the year when they listen the most to the traditional margariteña music of the island. The songs are about sailors, love (of course), and miracles performed by the island’s Saint. They all have one or two CDs on their boats, but the rest of the year they listen mainly to salsa, merengue, and bachata.

Christmas is also the time when they perform maintenance on the boats.

“We go back for Christmas, we redo the boat, repair, sand, and paint the wood, all the sailors lend a hand. The only person to stand there twiddling their thumbs and giving orders is the captain,” explains Jesus, the captain of the Rompemar. “We like things to be clean. The boats here look really dirty. It must cost a lot to maintain them!” Alcide observes.

The sailors also go home in September to celebrate the festival of the Virgin of the Valley. If the sailors return to Margarita having survived the storms and collisions with the big trawlers, it is partly thanks to the watches they carry out at night on the boat, but also thanks to the patron saint of the Valley who watches over Margarita and its fishermen. On every boat you will find a picture of the Virgin. The sailors have even brought a large statue and placed it in the Cogumer factory. When it is the feast day of the patron saint of sailors and fishermen of Margarita on 8 September, a procession takes place during which the Virgin is paraded in a boat, offerings are made to thank her and she is asked for her protection over everyone.

What does the future hold?

Despite the offerings, the future of the Venezuelan fishermen is uncertain and if they manage to live from what they catch it is thanks to their good teamwork. They all know each other, coming from the same villages, sometimes even the same family, and this is the source of their strength when they have to ask for an improvement in their working conditions. Since earlier this year one of the two operators has set up a social security fund that they can contribute towards to cover hospital expenses. The other operator is due to set up a similar system shortly. One fisherman recently had to pay €1,800 to receive hospital treatment in Cayenne. They are covered by Venezuelan employment law and hence it is impossible for them to be able to enjoy coverage by the French social security system.

The only place they know in French Guiana is the port of Larivot where they land their catch and the market near the Abchée and Cogumer factories. In any case, what would they do in Cayenne when everything costs a fortune in comparison to what they earn? Hence the wry observation of one of the sailors, “in French Guiana the only thing that is cheap is fish”.