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Cast Upon Rough Waters When They Drop Their Nets Into The Sea, These Puerto Rican Fishermen Are Following Their Ancestors. But It's A Tradition Threatened By Competition, Regulations And The Ocean Itself.
By Ray Quintanilla, Sentinel Staff Writer
June 8, 2004
AGUADA, Puerto Rico - For more than 500 years, pescadores have made a living on this beach, rising at dawn, rowing their small boats out to sea, casting handmade nets and then dragging them ashore.
Those gathering on the same shoreline today, mesh nets draped over their shoulders, are their descendants.
But as these dozen fishermen begin tossing their nets into a wood boat, the crew's leader acknowledges that this way of life is coming to an end.
There are no young people waiting in the wings anymore, wanting to preserve their ancestors' traditions, laments Wilson Feliciano. The dozens of customers who once bought their bounty of fresh fish every afternoon are disappearing too.
Most buy their fish from local supermarkets, he says.
Historians here worry also, because as crews such as this one vanish from the landscape, an important part of the island's identity is being lost as well.
"There's a connection made," says Mark Hauser, an archaeologist at DePaul University in Chicago and a researcher of Caribbean customs. "This establishes a relationship between those going out on the boats and their ancestors."
Facing strict new government rules on the species of fish that can be caught, crews such as Feliciano's now want only enough fish each day to survive.
As they begin pushing their boats into a crashing surf one morning, headed toward waters 100 feet deep, the day will reveal there are complex reasons why it is the ocean itself that may have the greatest say about whether this way of life can continue.
At the same time, Feliciano, 45, will mark a milestone that brings him closer to the sea, a source of great anguish through the years.
The crew members, many in their late 50s or early 60s, will learn something new about perseverance as they battle strong wind and choppy seas to put food on the table.
There's one thing a good fisherman realizes early about this way of life: Birds offer subtle clues that can make or break you. Learn to read the birds, says Noel Gonzalez, and that will save you a lot of time and energy.
"You see, the bird talks to you" if you listen, explains 62-year-old Gonzalez, who's a member of Feliciano's crew.
He learned that lesson as a boy, he adds, while fishing these same turbulent waters off Puerto Rico's northwest coast with his father. Back then, fishing crews used to run into one another, there were so many boats in the water.
There, that's the spot, Gonzalez tells his comrades, now about a half-mile off shore.
"!La mancha! !La mancha!" he shouts, pointing to "the spot" where a small number of birds are circling above. "The nets go there! Look at all those fish!"
But throwing a net overboard is no easy task. Most are more than 4 feet high and a quarter-mile wide. Wet, a net can weigh 200 pounds or more. It takes two workers to lift and spread the net so it doesn't tangle. The splash from it being tossed overboard already has scared off the birds overhead.
Feliciano directs two of his crew to jump into the water and guide the ends of the net to shore. Once the two swim to the beach, they can hand the ends to those who remained on shore to pull the net out of the water -- all the while drawing the ends so whatever is inside doesn't escape.
"There must be so many fish in the net," says Francisco Viales, his skin bronzed from years of exposure to the sun.
"I can't remember when was the last time the net fought so hard to stay in the water," says Viales, 62, his brow beading up with sweat as the men fight the pull of a strong undertow and headwinds blowing sand in their faces.
Once the net comes ashore, they will scoop up the fish and immediately put them up for sale. If it's a good day, they can make about $60 each.
It's been at least a month since they've had that kind of bounty, mostly because they've kept much for their own families, rather than selling it.
In all, they will struggle with the net for 90 minutes. A few of the older crew, feeling the sharp pains of exhaustion in their lungs, arms and shoulders, will rest several times before it's over.
Others will pull the net until their hands grow blisters.
But none of them will give up. They don't have other jobs to support themselves.
"When you work this hard to pull the net in, there's some food in there," says Viales, while pulling the net that is now halfway to the shoreline. "The Lord doesn't make you fight like this and not give you a reward."
THE RIGHT CHOICE
Feliciano has rowed his boat back to shore and has begun telling those on the beach how to avoid a section of coral that could rip the net to pieces.
"Be careful not to snag the net on those rocks," he tells those with the ends of the net in their hands. "Look, those pelicans are landing on the beach for a reason. They know there's fish in that net."
Feliciano hadn't always wanted to be in this line of business. It wasn't until he was in his 30s that he began to get used to the idea of a life at sea.
He's known forever that pescadores are not the ones who live in the area's nicest homes. Their children don't wear the latest fashions. And judging from the looks of the rusty, 1970s vehicles lining the beachfront, they don't drive the nicest cars either.
His father, who taught him the ways of a fisherman in the 1960s, showed him all that firsthand.
But Feliciano said there was a moment while tossing the net today that he began to feel "following in his father's footsteps may have been the right choice."
Even on the days when waves tip his boat over, spilling the contents on the bottom of the ocean, the sea always has provided for his crew and their families. When nothing else is going right in life, he explains, it's the ocean that always seems to set things in order with a nice catch of tuna and sea bass.
"Once, I wanted what the other people had," he says, helping pull the net to shore. "Now, I am wiser and I know all those nice things don't last. The ocean lasts. That's what is important."
The crew began the week marching on the Puerto Rican Capitol in San Juan. Joined by about 500 other pescadores from around the island, they marched to show government officials that new regulations, if adopted, would doom their way of life.
The proposal would, for the first time, require those practicing this kind of fishing to purchase tax stamps for each species of fish caught.
Some of them worry that would only eat up the shrinking profits they earn these days.
But back on the beach, the net has been pulled to within 30 feet. No one is thinking about being put out of business right now.
In what is a good sign, the pelicans are poised at the water's edge, waiting for the right time to fill their beaks with fish that jump out of the water once the net comes close to the beach.
Those pulling the net are cheerful, too, smiling in anticipation of a full net. It's been two weeks since they've caught enough fish to make any money.
"You see, that's how we live," explains Manuel Perez Luis, 66. "Some days are good, some days are not so good. You can see today will be good because it's taken a long time to get this net on shore."
Luis said he can remember a time in the 1950s when pescadores would go to sea two or three times a day. His father would use the money to repair their nets, buy his own boat and eventually buy a small parcel of land.
"Pull! Pull! Pull!" Luis shouts to the others yanking the net, now just a few feet away. "Wait, there's something wrong," he says, as the crew pauses for an awkward moment.
What is it? "What's the problem?," one of the crew asks.
The birds have begun to fly away.
"There's nothing in the net," Luis says, glancing at so many stunned faces. "Oh my God, there's nothing in the net."
A young boy, watching them on shore for the last hour, walks over, then reaches into the net, pulling out two baby tuna.
Holding them up, he chuckles.
"I don't understand what just happened," says Feliciano, exasperated.
"What in the world is happening to the ocean," he asks, as he refolds the net for storage. "This is starting to happen too often. I can't explain it."