Luis A. Nieves Malavé

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GO FISHING? –

Unsteady, treacherous, over three thousand feet deep, intensely sensitive to earthquakes, waves around twelve feet high, and currents stronger than those of the sea, are just some parts of its character. It’s trouble for big boats and a real nightmare for small vessels. But it is also the immediate reality and eternal companion of towns along Puerto Rico’s west coast. It is a strait conceived by the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea currents. It’s a rebel son with his own character, the Mona Passage.

This friendly foe supplies a living to the people of the west coast, especially to the fishermen who work in its waters. The passage can be a provider, but also a taker. There are a lot of stories about how the Mona Passage is rich in resources, but there also are stories of fishermen’s hard lives and people lost to the Passage due to its irregular currents and strong surf, among other things.

Macho, as people call him, is a fisherman who works at La Pescaderia in the El Secosector of Mayagüez. He’s a man of average

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height with a permanent suntan. His gray hair makes him look older than his actual age of fifty-one. His voice is dry and cold, characteristic of someone who has smoked almost his entire life. For the last thirty years, Macho has worked six days a week from seven in the morning to three or four in the afternoon. His primary fishing tool is the harpoon, but he also uses nets and in some cases string. Lobsters and conchs are a work staple.

Macho’s days start with the preparation of his medium size white motorized boat, equipping it with bags, regulators, flaps, oxygen tanks, weights, harpoons, nets, strings, and an ice cooler. That is the easy part of his job because when he goes to the sea the real action begins. He meets his main obstacle: the currents. “If the currents move to the north, it’s easier because we travel all the way south and let them drag the boat north. Meanwhile we are diving, looking for lobsters and conchs,” Macho said, exhaling cigarette smoke. That is if the currents are low, but the story changes when they are fast and unstable. “There are days in which no matter how hard you try or how good your boat is, you cannot go from here to there without losing equipment or a lot of fuel.”

“There are good days in which the sea is as flat as the floor, and we can come back home with a hundredweight of lobsters and conchs, which we sell at the very first moment we arrive. But that we had a good catch does not mean that we’re done. Sometimes we cannot even sell the half the hundredweight we caught. And there are also very bad days in which we cannot go to work, so no catch, no cash. To be sincere, this job ain’t easy, because you are on your own. But if you are skilled and well prepared you might survive,” Macho said proudly. He then pointed out with a sad look on his face, “The government was not helping economically until a few years ago that they started giving us food stamps as an additional help, but it is a trouble to qualify for the help.”

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However, bad days and economical issues are not the only problems. They have a lot of accidents while fishing. “I have been left behind seven times because the surf was too strong, and my partners lost the buoy that signaled where I was diving. Last time I was by myself for nine and a half hours until they came back to rescue me. That is not including the times we have lost our way back to the coast because of the currents or the strong surf that misleads us. And we do not have a sophisticated device that guides us back to where we were; we just have our sense of orientation and faith in the currents,” Macho said. All these situations are common amongst the fishermen that use their medium size boats in the Mona Passage. However, not every fisherman can buy a medium size motorized boat, or even a motorized one. So things are harder for other fishermen. Some have to build their own boats, as was the case of Emiliano Vargas, another fisherman from El Seco.

Emiliano is a smiling, ninety-one year old retired fisherman, but he doesn’t look like a regular old grandpa. Instead he looks like a

surfer. He wears a black undershirt, swimsuit, sunglasses, and a peculiar accessory:  a necklace with a beaver tooth instead of having a stereotypical shark tooth. He worked full-time, seven days a week, seven to nine hours a day from the age of nine until his eightieth birthday. That means that he worked seventy-one years of his life. Since the very beginning of his career as a fisherman, he navigated in a sailboat built by his own hands. “My sailboats were always small compared to others’ boats, so I could not carry a lot of equipment, just the basics: an ice cooler, strings and fishhooks, baits, food for me and some nasas. Do you know what nasas are?” he asked me with a big smile on his face, knowing that I had no idea what a nasa was. “Nasas are pound net traps for fish that are at the bottom of the sea and are hard to catch.”

Latitude 18.5 Longitude -67.75 the treacherous Mona Passage lies between Hispanola and Puerto Rico.

The obvious question after hearing about his equipment was: what did he catch? Laughing and taking off his sunglasses he answered me, “I used to fish everything that I found in my way. But then I concentrated on the red snapper. It was in demand at that time. We caught between three or four hundredweights per week. And we sold it at a cost of two cents per pound and in some rare cases people paid three cents per pound. Now it costs almost five dollars”.

Maybe these things do not seem very dangerous, but there are two sides to every story. Guessing what he would answer, I asked him if he fished in the Mona Passage and if it was easy. “Easy? No way! If even the big boats respect it, imagine how it would feel in a little sailboat. The Mona Passage has its reputation. Fishing there is good, but very dangerous. What makes it harder is the surf that collides with the island that creates the wild currents. Navigating there in a small boat is harder because you depend on the wind currents. That was a real problem because if there was no wind, I could not navigate. Or if I was in the middle of the sea and there was no wind, I had to paddle back to the island. One time I was lost in the Mona Passage for 4 days until an amphibious Coast Guard airplane came to rescue me. The stupid rescuers almost sank my sailboat because they did not even know what the lee wind currents were.”

The obstacles Emiliano encountered forced him to look for other options, places where he could fish. “I have eight children and at that time there were no food stamps or Social Security aids. The price of fish was very low, but things were also cheaper at that time. So I changed my fishing area from the Mona Passage to the area near Desecheo Island because it is closer. Just for that because the surf and currents are almost the same, but not so frequent,” his face and mood changed from a teasing one to a clear reflection of his grief at that moment.

After knowing about these stories, it is hard to think that fishing is just another sport or a boring activity. It is also a profession riskier than others, not only because your life could be in danger, but because of the economical instability that it has.  The strong

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current and the wild surf zone in the Mona Passage add to the high level of difficulty to the fishermen from the west coast of Puerto Rico. Being a fisherman has never made sense to me as a vocation, but after seeing how things are with this part of the population in Puerto Rico, my perspective has changed. It is easier to buy sea products, cook them, and eat them in your home, but have you ever wondered how hard could it be to catch that fish or conch that you are going to enjoy?

Even though west coast fishermen face a lot of risks, they are still doing it. They have to find a way to support their families. It doesn’t matter if they lose their boats, equipment, or lives in the attempt. Maybe all fishermen suffer from these circumstances, but the ones from this particular area face a variable and unstable friendly foe, the Mona Passage. Everyday they face their immediate present, and an unknown future, because maybe today will be their last day.

 

3 Comments

  1. Some people do not know how dangerous the sea is , especially in the Mona passage in which it is very isolated from land. I as a fisherman haved fished those seas and I can say in my experience its a delightful and marvelous experience, but a very dangerous and risk taking adventure. Its like Luis said, their are days in which no matter how hard you try or how good your boat is, you cannot go from here to there without losing equipment or a lot of fuel”. If I may add I would say and risking and accident. Great Information

  2. Your argument about the fishing was a really good one. The essay is very informative and the pictures are just what it needed for it to feel complete. Thank you for sharing your insight on this.

  3. Great post about fishing the iimtrfaonon is extremely rich. Love the pics the color themes. Really look forward to seeing more of where this came from. Thank you for giving us your great insight. Regards, Sam

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