Fishing with Bombs: Cacha Pregos under Assault

May 23, 2006 | 5 Comments

"Bomb fishing" near Cacha Pregos

While fishing takes many forms, using bombs is certainly one of the most outrageous. This distinctive practice does extensive damage to the surrounding marine environment and to the bomb fishermen themselves. Unfortunately, in Brazil this illegal practice is still widespread. Global Greengrants Fund grantee Canto Ecológico, a husband and wife team of dedicated environmentalists, has inserted itself into the middle of this issue despite the risks to personal safety. Since 2004, Carlos Canelhas and Gabi Feijó have dedicated their lives to teaching the community of Cacha Pregos “how easy and important it is to live in balance with nature.” Cacha Pregos is located on the island of Itaparica, off the coast of the Brazilian state of Bahia.

Bomb Fishing

The ocean conservation organization, Reef Check, describes bomb fishing as one of the most destructive practices that humans visit upon coral reefs. Fishermen sometimes use old ammunition and dynamite. More often, they use chemical bombs made from fertilizer and kerosene or diesel fuel. Bombs effectively kill or stun fish, making them easy to collect. Bomb fishing on reefs, where fish densities are high, is an efficient but highly destructive method, because it can harvest large quantities of target species but also kill many untargeted animals. As fish sizes and catches decline due to over-fishing, bombs allow fishermen to collect large numbers of the remaining smaller reef fishes in an effort to maintain their catch. While bomb fishing may be easy and provide quick profits, its use will only give short-term gains since bombs destroy the structure of the coral reef and the habitats that maintain fish populations. By using bombs, a fisherman not only risks losing an arm or even his life, but he also risks the livelihood of future generations.

Cacha Pregos

Brazilian law bans bomb fishing, mandating up to 5 years in prison for whoever is involved in the practice. This law covers not only those who throw the bombs and collect the fish as they float to the surface, but also those who transport, purchase and sell fish obtained in this manner. However, there is little enforcement of the law due to confusion among the various governmental agencies at the local, state and federal level as to who is responsible for enforcement.

Many official organizations nominally have a role in preventing the practice of fish bombing. Involved in the effort are the Brazilian Environmental Police (COPPA), the Environmental Resource Center (CRA), the Federal Police, the Coast Guard and the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Natural Resources (IBAMA). This impressive list of government agencies notwithstanding, the government is often outmatched by the fish bombers. For example, CRA has two boats and in coordination with COPPA, can staff the effort with nine people. These two boats are expected to cover a coastal area of 186 km and 56 islands. The bomb fishermen are organized, with many boats, posted watchmen and cellular phones. There are even some people who suspect complicity of certain government officials in the bomb fishing, as the identity of some of the bomb fishermen, including the purported ring leader (who goes by the name of FiFiu), is known. Amazingly enough, FiFiu himself has had both his hands blown off while illegally fishing. Yet he reportedly continues to train 15 fellow fishermen in bomb fishing techniques. His wife, with bomb injuries herself, is suspected of managing the business aspects of marketing the illegally caught fish. Given this resource mismatch, it is not surprising that enforcement of existing laws is minimal.

Canto Ecológico

It is within this depressing scenario that Carlos and Gabi have decided to make a difference. Canto Ecológico is focusing on the children of Cacha Pregos to address the issue of bomb fishing. According to Carlos,

We believe that the serious environmental problems can only be solved by the children as they represent the future. It is very difficult to educate adults that our vibrant natural world should be preserved. It is a cultural issue of a lack of respect for the natural environment that transcends generations.

This focus on children has led Canto Ecológico to develop a library in their home in Cacha Pregos where children can come and learn about their natural environment: 240 kids have used the library so far. Canto Ecológico also sponsored a play titled “Bombs are Killing our Fish” in the community so that children (and adults) could learn more about the damage caused by this illegal practice.

However, given the damage being done today, Carlos and Gabi are also active in mobilizing whatever government forces they can to patrol the local waters in search of bomb fishermen.

The lack of government resources is so acute that Canto Ecológico often provides the boat and the gasoline to patrol the waters. Not to do so would reduce, if not eliminate, the government presence in the area which would further encourage the bomb fishermen to practice their nefarious craft. Eventually, Canto Ecológico donated its boat to the local environmental police. In return, the organization received a used television and a video recorder for the library so that environmental videos could be shown as part of the educational campaign for the local children.

The couple has also encouraged the press to write about the issue, opening up their home to reporters and environmental officials. This has led to favorable coverage of the problem.

Another successful strategy that Canto Ecológico has employed is the aggressive use of the internet to send hundreds of emails to the various environmental authorities informing them of incidents of bomb fishing, praising various regulatory officials for their assistance in the fight against bomb fishing and pushing for greater coordination among all the concerned groups. This approach has been very successful, leading to a series of meetings among government agencies, NGOs, scientists, academics and some large, private companies whose piers are destroyed by the bombers. As a result of these meetings, the participants created a new organization called the Forum for the Protection of All Saints Bay (Bahia de Todos os Santos). This region includes approximately 30 fishing communities that suffer from illegal bomb fishing. Forum will travel to these communities and begin environmental education programs focused on the eradication of the practice.

As a result of their relentless activities, Carlos and Gabi have reported a dramatic drop in bomb fishing in their community of Cacha Pregos. Fishermen who used to bomb fish have returned to traditional fishing methods. Dolphins that had been scared away from the beaches due to the bombing are slowly beginning to return. The presence of these beautiful creatures gives Canto Ecológico another concrete example to use in its environmental outreach activities against fish bombing.

However, while progress has been made in Cacha Pregos, many communities continue to suffer from bomb fishing. Canto Ecológico will press on with its work in these communities until bomb fishing is no longer practiced. They will also attempt to track down the source of the bombs used in the illegal fishing. There are indications that these bombs may be issued by the Brazilian army, so Canto Ecológico is cautious as it pursues this lead.

It is a dangerous, uphill battle for Carlos and Gabi, fighting not only brazen bomb fishermen, but also an under-funded and disinterested government. But they see no alternative.

People ask us every day if we are afraid…. You know, we donít even think about it that way – we believe that Nature will protect us, because it gives us the energy to keep (doing) our work with this passion that we have.

Update: FiFiu Arrested, then Released

On April 9th, 2006, COPPA arrested FiFiu and his wife in possession of 14 chemical bombs commonly used by fish bombers. Despite his history as a notorious bomber fisher with amputated hands to prove it, FiFiu tried to deny that the bombs were his! Given the increased demand for fish during Lent, FiFiu was apparently preparing for his latest fishing expedition when caught by police.

FiFiu and his wife were subsequently released in early June. According to one source, a local mayor interceded on their behalf.

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