Thursday, September 3, 2009

Fishermen's Politics

These are my impressions only, and keep in mind that the Dominican fisher folk speak quickly, loudly, use words I don’t know, and in a heavy accent, so I don’t get it all, and certainly not nuances.

Fishing is a major source of personal income, but there are very few full time fishermen. They each have their own boat and gear. The gear includes the expected reels, nets, traps, scales, lines, various baits, etc. and now also includes a GPS system. The GPS is so the fishermen can locate their Fish Aggregating Devices known as FAD. FADs are moored or free-floating structures placed in the open ocean. Its primary function is to attract pelagic fish (i.e. fish that are normally caught at or near the sea surface or in the water column), which in turn attract large fish (tuna , dolphin, marlin etc.). The FAD is tied to a buoy, and the GPS is set to the location of the buoy. This allows the fishermen to fish way out in the channel between Guadeloupe and Dominica, in the open ocean. Little fish are attracted to it, and the bigger fish are attracted to the little fish. The fisherman trawls the waters at various distances from the fad. At the moment it is the individual fisher man who sets a FA D (or as many as he can afford). FADS are expensive to set up and maintain. It is not every fisherman who has one. They will fish off another man’s FAD whether invited to or not.

This picture is from:

So, the fisherman goes out in the early morning, goes to his FAD (or FADS), and trawls the area around it. The catch is held in an ice filled cooler, and he heads home late in the afternoon (or earlier if the fish aren’t biting). He pulls his boat up to the beach and empties his cooler of fish on a big table, pulls out his scales and knife, blows on his conch shell and people turn up with pails and plastic bags to buy their dinner! Five Canadian dollars will get you about 3 pounds of terrific tuna. What he doesn’t sell on the spot he puts on ice, or if he has a pick up truck, takes the rest of the catch into the city, or to the villages inland and sells it.

This method has worked for a very long time – but it is an ‘every man for himself’ operation. There are a few co-operatives around the island that seem to be working well. However, fish stocks are depleting as they are being over fished, foreign boats are fishing in Dominican waters, and the individual fisherman isn’t making a good living anymore. Change and adjustment is imperative.

So…the Fisheries Division of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry is in the process of bringing in regulations to support the Fisheries Act (1987). A series of consultative meetings between the Fisheries Division and the local fisher folk are being held all around the Island. There are several stated goals for these consultations. Of course, one is to encourage conservation of fish stocks and prevent species depletion. The State sees that it has the overall responsibility to ensure that fish stocks are maintained and that there will always be a supply of fish to catch. Most interesting, to me, is the Ministry’s push to make the fisherman see his operation as an enterprise and to run it as a business and especially to plan for lean times, and not to rely on the government for handouts and relief, but to rely on themselves and their co-operatives. Every fishing community will have a functioning co-operative, which is run locally. It is the co-operative’s job to determine the size of boat, how many boats, how many FADS, spacing of the FADS, data collecting, reporting.

The Ministry is proposing to set up and maintain all FADS – that is, there will be no more individually held or owned FADS. The Ministry will set the FADS on the advice of the local co-operative. Monies have already been allocated for the deployment of FADS. The fisherman must obtain a license or permit to fish off a government FAD. Sports fishing will not be permitted off a government FAD. What fish can be taken, license fees and structure, enforcement of regulations, are the issues at hand. There appears to be some resistance to giving up individually owned FADS. This is a contentious issue.

I have attended only 2 of these consultations, but I have listened to discussions and arguments among the fishermen. Skeptic that I am about these things, and especially about Government promises, intentions and statements, I was impressed with the vision, the presentation, the patience coupled with urgency, shown by the Ministry representatives and especially by their belief in consultative management . They are going to bring Dominica into the 21st century as quickly and as gently as possible. For sure, the times they are achangin’.

It also became quickly apparent to me that the characters, the attitudes, the worries, the questions, the misunderstandings, the new ideas that are troublesome are universal!

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