words & images gail schwieterman
It is dawn, and we are a few miles offshore from the Pacific coast of Latin America. The swinging nets and swaying masts of a fishing boat are silhouetted against the sunrise. We have been following the commercial shrimp trawler for the past few hours from our small zodiac boat, and it's the third night of surveillance. Exhaustion has caused morale to plummet before the lights of the trawler creep onto the horizon.
Earlier that evening, I had struggled into a state-of-the-art (possibly military-grade) black and grey camouflage wetsuit and life preserver, and had boarded the fanciest zodiac boat that I had ever seen. It was equipped with night-vision goggles, flood lights, cameras, infrared lights, and drones—we looked like we were undertaking a serious undercover operation.
I had been working for an artisanal gill-net fishery, recording the daily catch and attempting to craft relationships with the notoriously untrusting fishermen. My time in Costa Rica was drawing to a close, and I hadn’t yet begun to process the previous four months of wake-ups at four in the morning followed by the long days at sea.
Throughout my time here, I had learned to gut and fillet a fish without hesitation and to overcome my seasickness. I had also gained a sense of peace with who I was at that moment. So my last job aboard the zodiac boat seemed like a parting gift—the opportunity to act as a translator for a film crew that sought to expose the illegal fishing operations in the area.
The region where I was working was relatively pristine, and the mountainous coastline was dotted with small fishing or farming towns. While the occasional backpacker or bike enthusiast would work his way through our sleepy village, the tourism industry’s development was hindered by dirt roads that regularly washed out. Even on good days, the roads were dangerous for the converted school buses that served as the only public transportation inland. However, as wild and untouched as the mountains appeared, the sea was another story entirely.
The coastal region had been over-exploited and the fish populations had collapsed. Ten years ago, the fishermen were able to make a comfortable living and support their families. Now, daily catches of two to three kilograms of fish were sending the fishermen deeper into debt.
In an attempt to protect the fishing grounds of these small-scale artisanal fisheries, two marine reserves were established, prohibiting commercial fishing and gillnetting within their boundaries. The idea was to permit only species-specific longlining gear used by the artisanal fishers, as this would allow the fish populations to recover and would ensure the continuation of the locals’ livelihood. Unfortunately, without anyone to enforce the regulations, commercial trawlers still patrolled the area and the fish populations had not rebounded, although they may just simply need more time.
That morning, we had launched from the beach after nightfall, without the lights on in order to maintain secrecy. A sparse rain had begun to fall, and the clouds added cover and an air of intrigue surrounding our mission. Anyone who has ever attempted to cross-surf in a boat knows how crucial it is to time your exit with the waves. Unfortunately, without lights, we were going in blind.
At first, it seemed like we were in luck and were going to get out fine, but at the moment that the boat began to charge ahead, a large wave broke. The front of the boat shot skyward, and I grabbed onto the boat and bent my knees, hoping that we would be able to ride this out. But we kept tipping, and my feet slipped out from under me as the boat approached the vertical position. I was convinced that we were going to capsize as we hovered in vertical for a moment—then, we crashed back forward. Shakily, I got back on my feet and made eye contact with the cameraman, who offered a relieved smile; it was too late to back out now.
When we were only a few miles from the shore, I lost all track of which way the shore actually was. There were a handful of houses with lights on at this hour, but these could easily become confused with the flashing lights that the fishermen used to mark their nets. Periodically, the crew would film short bits describing what they were doing or the conditions that we were encountering. As the translator, my services weren’t needed unless we were actively engaging with the fishermen.
After several hours, we spied a commercial fishing boat steaming towards the marine reserve that we were patrolling. Killing all of our lights, including those from the dashboard that signaled that our radio was on, we crept up on the starboard side and watched as they lowered their gear. As their boat slowly made passes across the entire width of the reserve, I found myself slipping in and out of a restless half-sleep.
When dawn broke, we saw that the fishermen had finished hauling their gear back on board so we began to approach them carefully. Up close, our boat seemed even smaller and more fragile compared to the hulking, weather-beaten commercial vessel: a true David and Goliath situation. We shouted up at them, and they shouted down at us, but the wind was stealing half of our words and the conversation was going nowhere.
Eventually, I negotiated permission for our captain to board the commercial vessel. He had a brief look around to make sure things were safe, and then invited me and the cameraman to follow. Because of the size difference between our boats, boarding was something easier said than done.
After coming up as close as possible to the commercial vessel, I had to balance on the bow until a wave lifted our boat enough for me to grab the rail of the commercial boat. In theory, I would then be able to haul myself up. But the ocean rarely cooperates, and I barely had enough time to get my hand on the rail before the swell dropped our little zodiac and I was left dangling from the side. I wasn’t strong enough to pull myself up from a slipping fingerhold grip, and the zodiac couldn’t position itself close to the commercial boat again without getting rammed into the hull. If I dropped into the water, I could get sucked under the commercial vessel.
Suddenly, I felt myself being lifted. The commercial boat captain had reached down and, in a tremendous show of strength, had lifted me by my life vest. The next thing I knew, I was being pulled over the rail and falling hard onto the deck. The fisherman rushed forward to help me up, and I started laughing when I realized that I was covered in mud and blood. The men saw that I was a woman, and all hostility was replaced by concern for my well-being, even though we were still trying to convict the men of illegal fishing. They had decided that I was not a threat, and I was happy to crack a few jokes.
We chatted with the captain, and I found him warm considering the situation: We were three camo-clad gringos with a video camera aimed at him. Perhaps he was amused by the attempts of foreigners to confront him on his boat, in the waters that he had been fishing for over twenty years. After our conversation with the captain, we made our way back to the deck and watched as the fishermen finished processing their haul.
Their small catch wouldn’t even cover the cost of the gasoline needed to make the trip out into the ocean. While it's true that trawling destroys the seabed—and that is indisputable—the greater problem here is a collapse of the fish stocks in general. It didn’t matter what gear the people were using, as no one was really catching anything. And, without fish there was no income, no rent money, and no food.
When I disembarked from their boat, the fishermen were kind, assisting me down as I jumped. I’ll admit that there was a high associated with racing the waves back to the beach, knowing that we had accomplished our mission and would bring good news to the crew on the ground. But it was bittersweet.
There is not an easy or obvious solution to overfishing, and this mission was going to affect my relationships with the fishermen with whom I had spent months establishing a foundation of trust. And, it was going to affect the lives of the fishermen aboard that trawler we had followed. The only thing I could do was hope that the fish would come back one day soon.