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Bringing back the fish: Q&A with a repentant blast fisherman

Fishers on an artificial reef in Jiquilisco Bay. Image by Max Radwin for Mongabay.

Fishers on an artificial reef in Jiquilisco Bay. Image by Max Radwin for Mongabay.

  • For years local NGOs and government officials attempted to convince the fishermen of El Salvador’s Jiquilisco Bay to stop fishing with explosives, a practice that not only risks life and limb but also harms marine populations and habitats.
  • Ultimately, however, it was a fisherman named Eleuterio Lara, now 69, who conjured up a convincing alternative.
  • By dropping tree branches, rocks and bicycle parts into the bay, he was able to create an artificial reef that could support enough life to make line-and-pole fishing a viable option. Soon, officials were investing in more advanced cement structures that could create even better reefs and Lara was convincing his fellow fishermen to ditch blast fishing.
  • Mongabay hailed Lara as he was peddling down a dirt road on his bicycle for a conversation about his experience with blast fishing, his inspiration for artificial reefs, and what the future holds for Jiquilisco Bay.

To read about the artificial reefs of Jiquilisco Bay in depth, see the companion piece to this article:
Salvadoran fishermen ditch blast fishing for artificial reefs

JIQUILISCO BAY, El Salvador — El Salvador’s Jiquilisco Bay sits off the Pacific coast among estuaries, rivers and sea turtle breeding grounds. The 241-kilometer-long (150-mile) reserve contains six different kinds of mangroves, which protect against soil erosion while playing host to spawning fish. The bay is also a significant source of the country’s seafood. But after a civil war that lasted between 1979 and 1992, the area has struggled with a blast fishing problem.

The war gave everyday citizens access to the materials needed to construct handmade explosives, which can be thrown into the water to kill or stun fish en masse. By the 1990s, the practice had decimated many of the bay’s marine populations.

Despite years of efforts by local NGOs and government officials to curb the practice, it was ultimately a fisherman named Eleuterio Lara, now 69, who conjured up a convincing alternative. By dropping old tree branches, rocks and bicycle parts into a single spot in the bay, he was able to replicate the dense habitat provided by mangroves. The invention would later be deemed an “artificial reef,” supporting enough life to make line-and-pole fishing a viable option. Soon, officials were investing in more advanced cement structures that could create even better reefs.

It was Lara who went from meeting to meeting in the approximately 35 fishing communities around Jiquilisco Bay, helping officials convince residents that giving up blast fishing was in their best interest. It took them several years to warm up to the idea, in no small part because, with marine life depleted elsewhere, Lara was the only fisherman returning each day with a decent catch.

Mongabay managed to catch up with Lara for a few minutes in the town of Puerto El Flor. He was pedaling down a dirt road on his bicycle, but seemed happy enough to stop and discuss his experience with blast fishing, his inspiration for artificial reefs, and what the future holds for Jiquilisco Bay.

Eleuterio Lara, who inspired the fishers of Jiquilisco Bay, El Salvador, to abandon blast fishing in favor of pole-and-line fishing on artificial reefs. Image by Max Radwin for Mongabay.

Mongabay: Most fishermen in communities around Jiquilisco Bay set out on the water very young, even inheriting fishing practices from their fathers. When did you start?

Eleuterio Lara: I started working on this ocean when I was around 20 years old. I first started with throw nets, bottom-trawl nets. And then afterward, when I saw everyone else becoming blast fishermen, I started to do it too. I was a blast fisherman.

Why did you decide to switch from those traditional fishing methods to blast fishing?

It started like this: One day, my buddies invited me out. They said, “We’re going to fish.” I said, “With what?” And they said, “We’re throwing bombs.” That’s how they said it. And I had never done that. So they told me, “Just come and see and swim a little,” because it was also nice just to get in the water. And it was on that day that I learned it was much easier work, much faster, than what we had been doing before. After maybe two or three hours and we were heading back home.

After that, I learned the work from my buddies, how to make bombs, you know? I said to myself, I’ve got to do this, too. I started and I really liked it. It didn’t even occur to us that we were destroying our own livelihood.

For how many years did you continue blast fishing?

I was blast fishing for three or four years. Oh, it was a tough life. I even spent some time in jail in the final moments of my blast fishing work. They put me in for 14 days, thank God. They wanted to put me away for around 14 years. They said it was because I was caught with two underage kids, my nephew and son.

So is that what convinced you to stop blast fishing?

I also didn’t want to kill myself. I had burned all of my body and my house. It burned down while I was fixing up a bomb. There was a container of chlorate that I had with some sulfur that I was also fixing up. It destroyed the house. I was left with nothing, not even the clothes I was wearing, because they burned off.

Jiquilisco Bay, El Salvador. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

Around this time, were you also noticing a change in the marine life of the bay? Blast fishing must have been taking its toll on fish populations.

There was much less fish. Much less. There were only the smallest fish. No one was fishing for the big ones. We had killed all of them there. We killed the big ones and then we killed the small ones and we weren’t pulling out anything. Eventually, I saw that it was because of our strategy and I said that in the name of God, we had to find another way.

I decided to make a change. I told myself, “I am not going to continue with this work.” There were just so many problems. So many challenges — and for what? I knew I still had my nets and my lines. Then later, the idea came to me to throw branches and other things into the water to create the reef.

Everyone else gave me grief about it. They told me, “You’re not going to catch anything.” And I heard that for a long time. On the reef, I was catching my 20, 30 fish for two or three years. And a little at a time, people started to say, “Give me a chance to fish there also.”

This idea of an artificial reef is very creative. But how exactly did it come to you? Why did you think it would work?

How couldn’t I think of it? To catch fish with a bomb required ripping up mangrove branches where the fish were hiding, where they lay their eggs. I recognized that fish gathered in thick branches in that way. So I was able to think, “What if we threw down a bunch of wood and fished them with a line?” From there, we started throwing tree trunks and rocks. And we were able to catch some fish that way.

Fisher Juan Jose Amalla line fishes in Jiquilisco Bay. Image by Max Radwin for Mongabay.

Why weren’t other fishermen on board with the idea at first?

No, it was very difficult at the start. They felt that their blast fishing work was too easy to start using a line and pole. They felt that catching fish that way was too out of their control. But seeing that there weren’t any fish anywhere else, and this was the only way to find some, they started to consider it.

Now, there’s a noticeable difference in the amount of fish. In any case, there has been some improvement. Less and less they are cutting down the mangroves. Less and less they are learning not to abuse the fish. Out there you’ve got the small fish that aren’t for taking, that need to grow and lay their eggs. We aren’t touching those. And even when we do, at least we’re eating them and not just killing them. Before, we would kill them with bombs and just leave them in the water. There wasn’t a better way to take care of the environment like we have now with pole fishing on the reefs.

But today there are still a handful of people in each community that continue to rely primarily on blast fishing. And how to avoid abusing the artificial reefs is still something communities and officials are trying to figure out.

Thank God, there are only two or three people blast fishing in this community. As for the artificial reefs, there are still some problems because there are people who don’t want to work for the food they eat. They want to take the easy route, you know? Then they come to the reefs with their nets. We try to stop them by marking where in the water the reefs start. But people want the easy way. They come and we have to stop them from getting too close. If they fish with throw nets or bottom-trawl nets then they’re going to kill all the fish and ruin the project.

Overall, do you have hope that your artificial reef idea will stick for years to come? That Jiquilisco Bay will completely recover down the road?

Yes, I have hope that in the future things will continue to improve — God willing. More and more people are treating the bay in a way that is allowing it to improve.

Fishers rest in a lookout shelter during a 24-hour shift watching over the Remansón artificial reef in Jiquilisco Bay. Image by Max Radwin for Mongabay.

Banner image: Fishers on an artificial reef in Jiquilisco Bay. Image by Max Radwin for Mongabay.

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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