Still Hanging On

Fishermen are fishermen, generally speaking—working class fishermen. They don’t have the time or inclination for sentimental thoughts about the fish they catch. They don’t anthropomorphize them. Fishing is the work they do. It is what they were brought up to do. It is the living they make. It is the profession they keep. It is also what they love to do.

Fish are caught and fish are eaten. We catch fish and we eat them. If one man doesn’t catch them, another man will. If one type can’t be caught, another type will. Anything that can be caught to put food on the table for fishermen and their families. And the catching will continue until it doesn’t pay to catch or there isn’t anything left to catch. Catch as catch can. Catch all you can. That’s the way it is. That’s the way it’s been. And long ago it began.

The jangadeiros are no different than any other working class fishermen. They catch fish for a living, would catch more if they could, catch all that they could, if only they could. What keeps them from doing so are the means at their disposal and the methods they use. Means and Methods.

Aside from nylon line and stainless steel hooks, modern fishing technology has left the jangadeiros behind. They still go to sea on small sailing rafts that have changed little in over three hundred years. And the jangadeiros still fish in basically the same manner, with lines and nets they put out by hand and pull in by hand, only by hand. No bycatch is caught. No habitat is destroyed. Nothing is fished to extinction.

Why haven’t the jangadeiros changed after all this time? Why aren’t they cruising the seas in behemoth trawlers with GPS navigation and electronic fish finders? Why aren’t they catching in one day, in one haul, with one net, one longline, what they normally catch by hand in a year? Or is it five years?

It’s not that they don’t want to catch more fish. What fisherman doesn’t want to win the lottery—the Mega Fish Lotto—with just one haul? The answer is simple. They can’t.  Jangadeiros don’t have the means to do it. They are poor. They live hand to mouth. They are subsistence-level fishing people, just like millions of other fishing people around the world today who barely get by on what they catch. We now call these people artisanal fishermen.

The term is somewhat euphemistic, a bit of a whitewash, implying the ability to choose a more traditional way of fishing over one more commercial. Traditional vs. modern. Art vs. need. Think artisan cheese. For the vast majority of artisanal fishermen, choice has nothing to do with it.

Artisanal fishermen do what they do because they can’t do anything else. Their great-great grandfathers couldn’t do anything else. They fish to survive. It’s a hard-won survival. Relentless. Nonstop. The most basic kind there is: I catch it – I eat it. I don’t catch anything – I don’t eat. In Portuguese they say, “Ele não tem opções”.  He doesn’t have any options. Artisanal fishermen don’t have other options to put food on their table. So maybe we should call them survival fishermen instead.

This isn’t to say they are victims. Far from it. Jangadeiros do what they do because they are good at doing it. And it has worked for them — has sustained them for hundreds of years. And they love doing it. They love to fish. They are fishermen. They are jangadeiros. They have a sense of pride and identity. Jangadeiros are a proud people and rightfully so.

It is a pride typical among working class fishermen. A pride based on self-reliance and the freedom that comes with that. A pride reinforced by working hard with one’s hands and seeing what those hands produce. A pride refined by the physical mastery needed to survive in a difficult and dangerous environment — the sea. There is nothing ambiguous about this pride. There are no agents or middlemen to facilitate it. No salesmen to push it. You can’t buy it. It is a pride that comes from a livelihood that is—much more so than most—explicit, unequivocal, connected, and immediate. They catch it—they eat it. They don’t catch anything—they don’t eat. With a living like that you can’t help but feel alive. And they feel it.

With that pride comes a certain stubbornness. It’s part of the territory, resulting more from perseverance than pigheadedness. Change isn’t easy when the things you do, and the equipment you use, so immediately affect your safety and survival. If something works you keep doing it, and keep using it, as long as it does. Means and methods. Cause and effect. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. For a long time it has worked for the jangadeiros. They have survived for centuries doing what they do with nobody’s help.

But this is all changing now. And it is changing very quickly in relative terms. In a generation it’s changing. In a generation it is breaking. There are less fish now than there were before, and the fish that are left are smaller in size and harder to get. For the same effort put in, fewer fish come out. And it’s trending more that way—not less—as we continue to strip the oceans of fish while polluting the waters with our mess.

What do you do with a change like that? A change you don’t see from one year to the next, or even over several years. But look fifteen years down the road and there’s a quantifiable difference. And look another fifteen years down that very same road and you are now coming back with half the fish you used to catch. What do you do then? What can you do? You work a little harder to make up for the loss. You go out a little farther. You stay at sea longer. And each year you keep working harder and keep going farther, hoping that the fishing will get better someday. You try to adapt. You’re good at adapting. It’s what you’ve always done. You’ve hung on. And you’re still hanging on. You are still hanging on.

Next chapter: Macaroni