Fish gone...

Stabroek News: Lifestyle - - Contents - By Jan­nelle Wil­liams

For some, fish­ing is a sport, a hobby or a nice re­lax­ing way to pass the time on a Sun­day af­ter­noon. But for the res­i­dents of Sheet An­chor Vil­lage, East Canje, Ber­bice, fish­ing is more than a liveli­hood and a way to feed their fam­i­lies; it is a way of life. Fish­ing for the closely-knit com­mu­nity, means a way out of poverty; a means to not go hun­gry; and a way to paint the vil­lage in a bright and pos­i­tive light in con­trast to the crim­i­nal­ized im­age so­ci­ety has of it. Or at least it was at one point, be­fore the con­struc­tion of the Ber­bice River Bridge and the in­crease in com­mer­cial ac­tiv­i­ties in the Ber­bice River. Now, fish­ing is noth­ing but a dy­ing in­dus­try in the vil­lage.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Sheet An­chor Vil­lage was a mere speck on the map of the county of Ber­bice, with a few scat­tered squat­ting houses over­crowded with two to three gen­er­a­tions of fam­i­lies. Crime, par­tic­u­larly theft and rob­bery, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and neigh­bour­hood feuds that turned into fam­ily wars were what high­lighted the

vil­lage on the map. This was the way of life, un­til vil­lagers de­cided to make use of the Ber­bice River which bor­ders the vil­lage to catch fish. Fish­ing then be­came a way to climb out of poverty and de­velop a level of re­spectabil­ity. Fam­i­lies were able to feed them­selves and gen­er­a­tions were able to leave their fam­ily homes and branch out mak­ing lives for them­selves on the ‘scales of fishes.’

Fast for­ward to present-day Sheet An­chor and it would be ac­cu­rate to say that the fish­ing busi­ness was once a very pros­per­ous one in the vil­lage, but not any­more. Al­most 90% of the vil­lage is in­volved in fish­ing in one way or the other, from the fish­er­men who go out to catch the fish, and the women who go around sell­ing the catch, to the per­sons who sell and re­pair the equip­ment, in­clud­ing the boats, en­gines and seines. Dur­ing a re­cent visit by Life­style, the cry was the same from all in­volved in the in­dus­try, “Busi­ness is bad, bad, bad.” Fifty-five-year-old Chri­s­tan­dat Jadun­dan has been fish­ing for a liveli­hood since the age of 16, and is deeply in­vested in the in­dus­try. It has be­come a fam­ily busi­ness with his wife, sons and son­sin-law all in­volved. He says this is the first time in his life he has ex­pe­ri­enced such a famine of fish. “It’s like God bank dry up, cause fish hardly run­ning now. Phag­wah day (March 6) was the height of spring and we hardly catch any fish,” he lamented.

The fish­er­men in the vil­lage only fish in-shore. Us­ing Chi­nese seines (and some­times fish­ing hooks) they ven­ture out to the mouth of the Ber­bice River and make fish pens where they cor­ral the fish. “We does juk down wood in the sea and we use some­thing call chase and we got to juk it like pick­ets right through to make like a fun­nel,” Jadun­dan ex­plains, adding that some 300 to 400 feet in length is usu­ally erected on both sides. The men nor­mally work in pairs and it takes an av­er­age of four hours to com­plete the fish pen. When com­pleted, the men herd the fish into the pen and catch them with the seine. The tides con­trol the work hours of the fish­er­men and so they have to be adapt­able. “We go out early, some­times 7.30 in the night and come in back around mid­night or 1 am; but we work­ing with the tide, so as the tide changes we have to ad­just our­selves,” Jadun­dan says.

The men fish in both spring and neap tides, though they pre­fer the spring tides be­cause it af­fords them bet­ter catches. “When fish in sea­son, es­pe­cially dur­ing the spring tide we does catch about five to six bas­kets of mixed fish: un­scale fish, scale fish and shrimps,” he says. Un­for­tu­nately, the cur­rent weather con­di­tions of un­usu­ally high winds and heavy rain­fall are mak­ing an al­ready frus­trat­ing job even more dif­fi­cult. Now the men count them­selves lucky if they even get a half bucket of fish per trip. Th­ese are very hard times and it is hav­ing a detri­men­tal ef­fect on the fish­er­men. “This is our liveli­hood we de­pend on and some­times we go out there and we ain’t get noth­ing; we does lose we gaso­line and all,” Jadun­dan says. With ev­ery trip the men take, they carry with them over $1 mil­lion in equip­ment (boat, en­gine, seine, bas­kets, twine, hooks, etc) but have no guar­an­tee the trip will pay off. “Some­times when the wind blow high, it does be very rough; the waves does be so rough that we does got to come away back with­out set­ting seine,” Jadun­dan says, in­di­cat­ing that this is hap­pen­ing at present. “All like now it is very rough, some­times our boat does bore and we does have to hurry and come away. Only re­cently my son-in-law went out and it was so rough, the waves lift it [the boat] and fling it down back on a chase and punc­ture it. God save him be­cause he barely made it home alive.”

Na­ture aside, there have been other neg­a­tive im­pacts. The Ber­bice River Bridge, which is near the mouth of the Ber­bice River is one of the fac­tors the fish­er­men blame for the poor catches they have been get­ting. Ac­cord­ing to the fish­er­men, the lo­ca­tion of the bridge has slowed the tide down re­sult­ing in a re­duc­tion in fish be­ing swept into shore. Kenny Dhan­pat, 54, who has been fish­ing since he left school at age 14, said, “We use to get free flow of the stream, but since they got a lot of things

that oc­cu­py­ing the Ber­bice River, like the bridge, that is what slow­ing it down. We use to catch a lot of fish, now some­times when we go we can’t even get half tub. With the storm and now the ac­tiv­i­ties in the river, we ain’t get­ting fish at all.”

Dhan­pat said he fishes for a liveli­hood and to feed the com­mu­nity but “some­times we does be lucky to sim­ply come in alive.” He ex­plained, “When you go out there and the breeze tor­ments you, you have to come in back. So there is never a guar­an­tee when you go out there you will re­turn with a catch.” On av­er­age, the men used to catch $10,000 to $12,000 in fish (sold whole­sale) and the busi­ness was con­sid­ered a suc­cess­ful one. When fish were plen­ti­ful, they would whole­sale them so that ven­dors could make a de­cent profit. How­ever, when the fish are scarce, as is the case now, the fish­er­men are forced to re­tail them them­selves to try and cover their over­head ex­penses. Dredg­ing in the Ber­bice River also af­fects the fish­er­men. “You see them for­eign com­pa­nies that com­ing and do busi­ness, like Olden­dorff, they juk plenty piles in the wa­ter and so the tide not run­ning like be­fore and the mud com­ing and silt up form­ing banks,” an­other fish­er­man said. “Next thing, they got the dredge, that dredg­ing night and day in the sea and when they dig, the mud drop right in the vicin­ity of where we fish. So the tide doesn’t have the force to move.”

Fish­er­man Danny Ram­dat high­lighted yet an­other chal­lenge. “The re­gion (Re­gion 6 RDC) does cut grass and it does float down and bruk up all we fish pen. They cut it ev­ery May-June when the black wa­ter comes out and the grass does big and heavy,” he said. He too made men­tion of the in­crease in com­mer­cial ac­tiv­i­ties in the Ber­bice River which had neg­a­tively im­pacted their liveli­hoods, but re­marked it is a hope­less sit­u­a­tion and noth­ing could be done about it. “…All the noise and equip­ment they use does scare the fish away but we can’t do any­thing about it. They have to do their job and we have to do ours.”

Smil­ing wryly, Ram­dat dis­closed that he was born and raised in fish­ing and has never done any other job. The rip­ple ef­fect is that sev­eral other busi­nesses are af­fected. Fish ven­dors must now go out­side the vil­lage to pro­cure fish to sell. Be­cause of the tri­als too, at least 30% of the fish­er­men in the vil­lage have called it quits, and this has re­sulted in less busi­ness for the per­sons who spe­cial­ize in sell­ing and re­pair­ing fish­ing equip­ment. More­over, fish is now very ex­pen­sive. For ex­am­ple, per­sons are now pur­chas­ing 2 Banga­mary fish for $500, whereas, be­fore, they could have had an en­tire bucket for $2,500. Nev­er­the­less, some of the fish­er­men are still hold­ing on to a sliver of hope that one day the fish­ing in­dus­try will sta­bi­lize and re­turn to some re­sem­blance of nor­malcy. “This sea­son here is very bad but we won’t give up,” de­clared fish­er­man Seon Dhan­pat. “We use to catch fish ev­ery day, now it’s like once a week.” He uses on av­er­age 5 gal­lons of gaso­line per trip and since there is no longer any guar­an­tee of suc­cess, he has scaled back on the num­ber of trips. “I use to en­joy fish­ing; when you set your seine and you see the fish run­ning and you don’t even have enough ves­sels to store it,” Dhan­pat rem­i­nisced. With his face clouded over by the storms cur­rently tor­ment­ing the fish­ing in­dus­try, Dhan­pat said “now fish not run­ning so I don’t en­joy it any­more; it is too frus­trat­ing.” He said de­ter­minedly though, “I’m go­ing to con­tinue to work it how it is … Right now I’m not work­ing to make a profit, I’m just work­ing to sur­vive and feed my fam­ily.” The men pay $10,000 ev­ery year to re­new their fish­ing li­cences but they are not a part of any co-op so­ci­ety.

(Photo by Jan­nelle Wil­liams)

Dock­ing the fish­ing boat in prepa­ra­tion to load it for a fish­ing trip

(Photo by Jan­nelle Wil­liams)

Many hands make light work: Trans­port­ing the en­gine from wharf to boat

Gone fish­ing (Photo by Jan­nelle Wil­liams)

(Photo by Jan­nelle Wil­liams)

Chri­s­tan­dat Jadun­dan ex­plains how the fish pen is erected

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