Opinion, by Alfonso Stefanini
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – In the Costa Verde (“Green Coast”) of Rio de Janeiro’s littoral you can still find “caiçaras”, or small-scale fisherman communities, some who still fish with canoes. This is quite the contrast to some fishermen in other parts of Brazil, both small and large in scale, who use dynamite and noxious substances for catching fish and crustaceans.
These fishing practices are illegal in Brazil and can convert entire marine ecosystems into deep water war zones.
When going to restaurants in Rio de Janeiro you may find it difficult to place an order of fish. For some reason waiters always tell you that the fish is “cherne”, a type of grouper from the Serranidae family.
The “cherne” name is generalized, being used for all the fishes of the family, even the one on the R$100 note, also known as a “Garoupa,” another type of grouper.
It’s confusing because some members of this family, like the Goliath Grouper, are on the critically endangered list and are strictly banned from fishing by IBAMA (Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources).
How can you actually determine what fish the “cherne” in your plate is? Ask the filet? The only way to know is by doing a DNA test or having the fisherman tell you directly if she/he honestly knows what they are selling you.
While working at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program in California, one of my responsibilities was to provide pocket size cards to restaurants and clients listing the fish species that are the best alternatives to eat and the ones to avoid.
A regional list can be quite complex to put together. Factors such as; where the fish was initially caught, the time of the year, if it was farmed or wild caught, or if consumption should be limited because of contaminants, as mercury, are some variables to consider.
There is no such program in Rio, but I believe it would actually benefit the small-scale fishing communities who have to compete with large-scale fishermen. The artisan could sell their products directly to consumers and restaurants with a program that certifies their catch.
One example of a local fishing community right in the city of Rio de Janeiro is located in Copacabana next to Posto 6, known as Colony Z13. This community of local fisherman works directly with two organizations, Mar Adentro and SOS Mata Atlântica, who advocate environmental awareness issues. They work jointly in the protection of the biologically diverse Cagarras archipelago, five kilometers off the coast of Ipanema.
Artisan fishing is a quickly dying lifestyle because of various factors including overfishing, pollution, competition, lack of traditional cultural perseverance and, should I say, climate change? The fish stocks are dwindling fast.
The tourism industry is dramatically growing on the Rio de Janeiro coastline, as seen in the small-quaint colonial city of Paraty. Local fisherman communities could generate additional income from tourism, but face some challenges with boat licensing.
An engineer certification is required to convert a fishing boat into a tourism vessel, and while UFRJ is presently teaching local communities basic boat building skills, getting the proper license can be pricy and bureaucratic.
According to Sport Fishing Tour Manager Kurt Schmid, from Brazil Insider, “a live fish is worth more than a dead fish”. Fisherman can benefit from catch and release by providing local-based knowledge about fishing culture and history of a given area.
Discarded fishing nets, that are considered extremely harmful to marine ecosystems, can also become a source of income to these caiçara communities. In the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, fishermen wives from Colônia de Pescadores de São Pedro are making purses and other eco-fashion items commercialized online and sold in trendy stores in Rio and São Paulo.
Even the harvest of exotic invasive corals by fisherman, such as the Pacific sun coral, that is presently destroying the endemic corals of Ilha Grande (“Big Island”) located next to Paraty, can be used to make decorative items and sold to tourists.
The culture of artisan communities need to be preserved not only to entertain the occasional tourist, but also because they can become part of a larger sustainable fishing economy. The very same local fisherman communities whose lifestyle is presently undervalued in an expanding Brazilian economy can also provide the right fish filet for dinner.
Alfonso Stefanini has an MA in International Environmental Policy from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California and a BA from Hampshire College. Alfonso lives in Rio de Janeiro, and he can be reached at: Ecobrasilis@gmail.com.