Raymond A. Almeida
Cape Verdean poetry and fiction tell much about the sea.
For most Cape Verdeans the ocean isolates their islands from a
mainstream of world events and loved ones forced by economic
circumstance to migrate to distant lands. Despite clean waters
and sandy beaches everywhere, most Cape Verdeans do not swim.
For Cape Verde's artisanal fishermen, though, the sea is
not a barrier but a highway between islands scattered across
almost 630,000 square kilometers of ocean. The fishermen who
work the coastal areas of these waters are referred to as
"artisanal" because their success depends on their mastery of the
art and craft of fishing. Those fishermen who own their own small
boats can make a living relatively free from the regulations and
the bureaucracy created by the people of the land. The artisanal
fishing fleet consists of about 1,400 boats between 4 and 8
meters in length and about 1.6 meters in width. Most of these
boats are based in Santiago (50%) and Sao Vicente (10%). About
50% are motorized. Learning to fish for a living on these boats
is a traditional rite of passage through which some boys pass on
the road to becoming men.
Cape Verdean poetry and fiction tell much about the sea. For most Cape Verdeans the ocean isolates their islands from a mainstream of world events and loved ones forced by economic circumstance to migrate to distant lands. Despite clean waters and sandy beaches everywhere, most Cape Verdeans do not swim.
For Cape Verde's artisanal fishermen, though, the sea is not a barrier but a highway between islands scattered across almost 630,000 square kilometers of ocean. The fishermen who work the coastal areas of these waters are referred to as "artisanal" because their success depends on their mastery of the art and craft of fishing. Those fishermen who own their own small boats can make a living relatively free from the regulations and the bureaucracy created by the people of the land. The artisanal fishing fleet consists of about 1,400 boats between 4 and 8 meters in length and about 1.6 meters in width. Most of these boats are based in Santiago (50%) and Sao Vicente (10%). About 50% are motorized. Learning to fish for a living on these boats is a traditional rite of passage through which some boys pass on the road to becoming men.
For most of the year the waters around Cape Verde are rough and windy. The currents between some of the islands are treacherous and regularly snag sailors unfamiliar with local conditions, pulling them from their course and wrecking their boats on the rocky coastline. The canal between Sao Vicente and Sao Nicolau is among the most notorious of passages. Wreckage from five hundred years of failed attempts at passage through Cape Verdean waters litters the rocky northern coast of Boa Vista and other areas well known to local fishermen.
Now that international tourism is beginning to come to Cape Verde, many fishermen are amused to see their faces on post cards and in European travel agents' brochures. The ripe scent of a good day's fishing emanating from their rag-tag clothes would announce their arrival to a blind man. But the sight of these barefoot fishermen coming ashore with a few days' beard growth on their sun baked faces conjures up romantic images of the pirate raiding parties of old. The tourists who take these photos seem fascinated with every move the fishermen make.
The matching yellow pants, jackets and storm hats characteristic of the North Atlantic commercial fishery are beginning to make an appearance in Cape Verde. However, the "dress code" for Cape Verde's artisanal fishermen is still dictated by available resources and whether the garb will keep a body dry and warm on a cold night in the face of a stiff offshore breeze.
It is still common to hear the occasional condescending remark from the mouths of land-based Cape Verdeans about fishermen's appearance, lifestyle, or work habits. It seems fair to say that most Cape Verdeans don't think very much about the risks which artisanal fishermen routinely endure and the repertoire of skills which they must acquire and maintain to work and survive. And yet it is impossible to think about Cape Verdean culture, folklore, music, song, poetry, painting, cuisine, history, and mythology without referring to the sea.
If the rains come, we die of drowning.
If the rains don't come, we die of thirst.
-- Cape Verdean proverb
Bittersweet contradiction is all around us in Cabo Verde. Beauty and strength come from the painful and the ugly. Often disgust and hatred come from what is clean and beautiful. At the height of drought we pray for rain. When the rains fall people drown in flash floods, children perish from diarrhea, coastal waters are polluted with the runoff of precious topsoil and human waste. Most coastal fishing is suspended. So it is with the Cape Verdean spirit as it struggles with and survives each bout with drought and famine, each episode of abuse by shortsighted government programs, each felt but unspoken microaggression of the haves towards the have nots.
The culture of the fishing villages is an irreplaceable component of who Cape Verdeans are and how we see ourselves as a people. The values of family and work we hold dear rise from the same wellspring which continues to nourish contemporary Cape Verdean musical and expressive traditions. Cape Verdeans make grief into poetry and determination to survive. Nowhere is this spiritual capability more evident than in the fishing villages of the Islands.
Culture is continuous, relating past, present, and future. It is also all-encompassing. All members of society, its regional groups and voluntary associations interact with culture and participate in producing it. Genuine economic and social empowerment can not be developed in isolation from cultural realities. While most would agree that adequate participation is a prerequisite of development, in Cape Verde there often appears to be a readiness by government bureaucrats and townspeople to accept the marginality of artisanal fishing families. More remarkably, the fishermen themselves seem to accept this marginality as an immutable fact of life. I believe that this view must be systematically challenged. Means must be developed to enable fishermen to participate as fishermen in the national development dialogue. Cultural identity must be placed at the center of the fisheries development paradigm in Cape Verde.
There are about two dozen small fishing villages around the country and more than sixty other landing sites dotting the country's coastline. Names like Tarrafal, Pedra Badejo, Salamanca, Faja d'Agua, and Santa Maria evoke recollections of family outings or seaside picnics. In many ways the inhabitants of these villages have more in common with one another than they do with the land-based Cape Verdeans of their particular islands. For these men, fishing and lobster diving provide a way to make a living when no one on the land can offer you a regular job. For fishing families, learning to live with the sea means independence, dignity, and mastery.
From one generation to the next, each of these fishing villages has evolved its own ways of passing on a world view, values, and the specialized skills of the fisherman's craft. Young boys apprentice to their fathers or other well-respected village fishermen. Each village has its best net maker. He will also be the local teacher of his craft. Small motor repairmen and diesel mechanics, carpenters and caulkers are in greater supply. But there are only a handful of carpenters renowned for their ability to select wood and gradually work it until it bends to fit into the intricate patterns required for completing the repair of the small wooden boats. Any fisherman or his wife can salt and dry fish, but a few cutters' work is easily recognizable to local villagers, men like Nho Mon Moreira and Djo Mane Djo Djinha, experts in the craft of preparing many varieties of salted fish.
The village fish market, Sao Felipe, Fogo
Photo- Christian Bossu-Picat
(Editions Deloisse, Paris, France)
In the village of Santa Maria on Ilha do Sal, where my wife and I lived for four years, Anton Muchino di Palmeira and Antoninho Protestant di Sal Rei were regarded as two of the most reliable men at sea under all weather and fishing conditions. They were two of only a handful of artisanal fishermen in the entire country who didn't use alcohol or tobacco! Once I went looking for another fisherman and asked his son where I could find him. He told me, "Hoje, el ta na agua" (Today, he's in the water). While I waited on the dock for the father's return, somebody helped me understand that the son's phrase was the local metaphor for "inebriated and out of service"! In Cape Verde there are many good sailors walking the beach, but one has to take great care to engage a fisherman on a good day, on a day he intends to go fishing, on a day when he is not "in the water."
Nho Lela Tchau enjoys talking with passersby and is generally regarded as the best caulker in Pedra de Lume, even though he is notorious for routinely underestimating the amount of time he would need to complete almost every job. Sr. Tchatcha wearing his perennial furrowed brow owns the only beach net in Santa Maria. He had better not catch you trying to pilfer a tinker mackerel from his net if you were not among the many strong backs joining in hauling in the ropes at dawn. By his own admission, Nho Djak makes the best new rope in the village. But Quat Pao, village beachcomber extraordinaire, is the most reliable scavenger of salvage rope and everything else that washes ashore after storms. Quat Pao got his nickname when he was a kid because folks said he'd do almost anything for "four pieces of bread," the meaning of his Kriolu nickname. Soft-spoken Joao di Camelia is the man you would try to hire if you needed a diesel mechanic who could work all day in the hot sun, staying greasy and sober until the engine was working.
Each of the fishing villages has its "fish stories" like the one about Capitao Mamash standing in the middle of his little boat, one hand supporting his back and the other holding steadfast to his hand line pulling in a 500-kilo big eye tuna all by himself. Nho Fidgim braved the open ocean all alone and made his way from Sal to Sao Nicolau with food for family and friends devastated by famine. Neither man ever has much to say about himself. Some of the old timers find personal renewal at sea; they say that they never feel awkward at sea. They find comfort in the daily rituals and rhythms of the work and in knowing that they are prepared for whatever adventure the ocean has in store for them today. I have never met a Cape Verdean fisherman who was not a man of faith and superstition.
No fish, no food. No fish, no money to buy your own tobacco and grog. If it's not raining, and there is sufficient visibility to see even a few feet in front of the boat, someone will go out to sea. However, one curious measure of the commitment of many of Cape Verde's artisanal fishermen to working at sea is readily observable with the sudden arrival of the season's first rains. These September or October rains are generally infrequent and of unreliable duration. But when the first real downpour comes the preoccupation of most of Cape Verde's artisanal fishermen moves away from the ocean to the planting and care of gardens. As soon as the first rains fall, even in the driest islands of Ilha do Sal and Boa Vista fishermen, filled with enthusiasm and hope, abandon their small boats and literally rush off to join with their families to plant a patch of earth. On Ilha do Sal, the most highly prized gardening plots are those located in Terra Boa, a low-lying area north of the airport and accessible to the villagers of Espargos and Palmeira. Terra Boa simply means "good land." Here Mother Nature has created a gentle incline to a broad flat plain over which unrelenting winds continually deposit a dusting of nutrient-rich topsoil on its passage to the sea. It is the only place on this parched island where soil deposits and runoff from the occasional torrential rain are held long enough to produce a crop.
With luck, the rains will fall at least two or three more times at two- or three-week intervals, just enough to produce a small harvest of corn, sweet potatoes, beans, tomatoes, and onions and forage to fatten up a pig for New Year's. This time of year the supply of fish in the local market dwindles and the people of the land seem to better appreciate the vital role artisanal fishermen play in the culture, economy, and food supply of the country.
In the hierarchy of occupations and social groups in Cape Verde, even artisanal fishermen have someone to make jokes about: the lobster divers. Fishermen never question divers' bravery but wonder aloud about their sanity as they regularly risk decompression accidents, shark attacks, tidal currents, thermoclines, smash-ups on the rocks, and even possible encounters with a giant manta ray (ucha) or one of the more legendary "demons of the deep." Everyone in the fishing villages knows the names of the divers who have made mistakes. Names like Erminio, paralyzed and in a wheelchair because he couldn't resist going after just one more lobster before calling it a day. Or like Djuquim who died because he took too many chances trying to make a little extra money for the holidays. Or Graca, who tried to move away from the dangers of diving from his small boat by working on a commercial lobster boat. A rusty old compressor mysteriously passed inspection with only a fresh coat of green paint but blew up in Graca's face, killing him instantly.
As is the custom, the local fishing community joins hands to bury its dead. No one went fishing the day after Graca died in order to make sure that he "was buried well," with guitars and violins, a priest, a real casket, good grog, cachupa, the works. Once again, the people of the land, with great respect, watched from the sidelines as the men of the sea went on with the way they make their lives.
Lobster divers remember the names of the Portuguese, Spanish, and French buyers and the tactics some have employed to overheat local prices in order to gain access to as much of the weekly catch as possible. Today the local price of lobster is beyond the reach of most Cape Verdeans. Manipulations by some foreign buyers and their local agents have caused friction between fishermen and destabilization of the trust and cooperation so essential to the survival of fishing villages. A few local divers observe that even the most unscrupulous of these foreign buyers easily manage to get the ear of government officials in Praia or take a meal at a hotel with a customs agent -- things that most fishermen have no expectation of ever doing.
As a result of over-fishing the stocks of all species of lobster have dropped dramatically in recent years. Exports of both cold water spiny lobster varieties, commonly called lagosta rosa, and its shallow water cousin, lagosta verde, grew from 47 metric tons in 1985 to 99 metric tons in 1992, generating the equivalent of almost one million U.S. dollars in revenue, or roughly 10% of Cape Verde's total export earnings. Deep water traps are set for the higher priced lagosta rosa while divers capture the lagosta verde with their hands and a hooked metal rod.
Today there's a new breed of Cape Verdean diver, the tourism hotel diver. A few lobster divers like Tiston**, Richard, Beto and Fernando di Nha Julieta can look forward to eight-hour work days on clean boats, in colorful wet suits with modern equipment and photos and after-dive cocktails around the hotel pools with French, German, and other international tourists. But if the tourists don't come, the hotels lay them off from work. And off come the fancy wet suits and cocktail party manners, and what emerges is a traditional lobster diver, ready to set the professional diving decompression tables and regulations aside and risk life and limb in pursuit of the lobster he knows will put money in his pocket and food on his family's table.
Divers find a ready market and top prices in hotels, restaurants, and the village market place for all they can produce at any time of year. It is illegal to take lobster from July through September. During this period many divers make their living in pursuit of other quarry. Nothing is more welcome at a Cape Verdean family feast than the delicacies offered up by this smallest sector of men who make their living from the sea. These delicacies include lagosta verde (shallow-water spiny lobsters), lapa (limpets), percebes (goose neck barnacles), craca (giant barnacle), lula (squid), chocos (cuttlefish), polvo (octopus), moreia (eel), busio (conch), and sometimes, in a brazen breach of the law, even tartaruga (sea turtle or their eggs).
The same species of fish may be known by different names on the various islands. Their Kriolu names make a kind of music in the ear of Cape Verdean seafood lovers: atum, aranque, badeijo, badja, bica, bicuda, bidiao, benteidja, cavalla, covina, cachorrinha, dorado, djeu, esmorigal, facola, gudja, goraje, merr, moreia, moco, palombeta, papagaio, peixe espada, melon, odgo largo, rabo secu, rei, reinha, tainha, tchicharro, sarbonete, sargo, salmao, saia, serra, and garoupa (grouper), perhaps the most appreciated of the local fish.
Most fishermen still rely on the lanteen sail (vela triangular) and stiff offshore breezes for their daily trips to the reefs which abound with demersal fish. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the development of this particular sail design helped Portuguese secure dominance in European maritime exploration. Today in the bay of Sal-Rei on the Island of Boa Vista there are weekly sailing competitions during the summer months. These races provide a showcase for traditional lanteen sailing skills. The best boat will not be determined by its cleanliness or its colored paint. The winning boat will always be the one which makes the best speed on a rough sea in a stiff breeze. Unhappily, the advent of affordable small gasoline outboard engines is already having a negative impact on the maintenance of these traditional skills.
For the fisherman, each day begins by scanning the horizon and evaluating a host of natural signs: "red skies in the morning, sailors take warning; red skies at night, sailors delight," as the saying goes. But there is much more to figure into the formula: what phase is the moon; which is the best tide to sail on to be at the fishing grounds when the tide is flowing; do clouds hide rain to keep the ocean surface and my face cool; is there enough of a breeze to make sail; does the wind come from the northeast so the day will be dry or from the south whence most storms blow; do whitecaps crown the waves or will the sea be a cradle with a gentle rolling motion; what fish this time of year; and bait: tuna, grouper, and bass require very different preparations; is that rippling over there a school of bait fish; if I am going out for surface-feeding fish, they will take to bait in the morning and late afternoon rather than in the heat of midday; if I am going for bottom fishing, the time of day won't matter as much as the tide and currents. There are other signs: could that passing pod of dolphins signal that tuna swim deep beneath them; do those sea birds diving tell of a school of tiny bait fish or, in springtime, maybe even a breaching grey whale; is the water so warm that I am more likely to encounter sharks today. And finally, will I have to race to port in order to arrive early enough to sell my catch in the local market place, or will there be demand for my fish at the hotels and restaurants regardless of what time I get back. As a last resort will I be able to sell my catch at the tuna factory if no body else will buy it. So many signs, so many variables, so much quiet calculus.
The skip jack arrive first in June, and the larger yellow fin tuna follow as the waters get warmer. In September, big eye tuna, prized for its fatty flesh by the Japanese, pass through a few areas of Cape Verde's vast ocean economic zone. Reef fish are plentiful most of the year. A good catch of deep-water bottom fish will bring a better price than the usual reef fish, but it isn't every fisherman who knows how to precisely navigate to the distant offshore seamounts like Ilha do Sal's Tchuklasta. Wahoo, one of the largest and fastest swimming members of the mackerel family, prized by sports fishermen is available in Cape Verde about eight months a year. Wahoo steaks are dry, firm, and white and are a standard offering on hotel and restaurant menus even though it is the fish of least local preference. Known locally as djeu (or ilheu) it got its common English name, "wahoo," because that is supposed to be the screaming sound which the sport fishing tourists make when this fish hits their lines travelling at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour!
Although all of these animals live in the oceans around Cape Verde, there is seldom an adequate supply of fish in the marketplace to satisfy local demand. Because of the lack of refrigeration, fresh fish is often completely unavailable to people living in the isolated interior regions of the mountainous islands. But on Sal, Boavista, and Maio, the driest and flattest of Cape Verde's many islands, there is always a plentiful supply of salt and there is always a good market for well prepared salted fish (peixe seco).
In Ilha do Sal, once the local market and demand from the hotels has been satisfied, the "market of last resort" is the tuna cannery in Santa Maria or the Freezer at Palmeira. At the tuna factory a fisherman might receive the paltry sum of about 20 cents (U.S.) per pound for his tuna or wahoo catch. The freezer in Palmeira might buy your catch and hold it for export to a foreign cat food company or maybe to a small importer in Lisboa. For most of the year it is a "buyers' market," and the small fisherman, without daring to protest, simply takes what he is given for his day's catch.
About 5,800 people are employed in both artisanal and
industrial fishing in Cape Verde. About 3,000 men or roughly 8%
of Cape Verde's population make their living as artisanal
fishermen. Perhaps one hundred of these are divers working on
commercial lobster boats or as free divers. Taken together with
itinerant fishmongers and the market women, there are more microentrepreneurs
involved in artisanal fishing than in any other
economic sector. Between 1985 and 1991 artisanal production
varied between 4,000 and 7,000 metric tons. They produce solely
for the domestic market. Amazingly, this often scorned and
undervalued subculture within Cape Verdean society supplies more
than 65% of the national production in fish which represents
almost 75% of all of the animal protein consumed by the entire
population each year. The fragile interdependence of man and
nature in these islands is nowhere more evident than in the
occupational and expressive cultural traditions of its artisanal
I cannot hold a grudge against the sea,
-- Cape Verdean proverb
The future of artisanal fishing is among the many challenges Cape Verde confronts as it begins to respond to international commercial forces and make plans for industrialization. Cape Verdean fisheries meetings almost always include interested parties representing the fishing policy establishment in Praia and their foreign advisors, commercial boat owners' groups from Sao Vicente and Praia, tuna cannery operators, the lobster exporters, and sometimes even representatives of Spanish, Japanese, or other international industrial fishing companies. Seldom has there been participation by artisanal fishermen. At most of these meetings the dialogue invariably moves on to the problems of the commercial boats, bank financing issues, exports, and a market-driven discussion of fisheries development. It is fair to ask, Who speaks for the artisanal fishing communities?
The World Bank and other international lending institutions as well as most bilateral aid donors have arrived very late to an appreciation of the necessity to protect culture and civil society as integral parts of all comprehensive economic development planning. Many countries have learned that economic development "at all costs" is neither economic, nor is it necessarily development. Witness the Canary Islands with its lucrative banking, fishing, tourism, and business development. The people there enjoy a comparatively high standard of living. But unfortunately, all of the economic development which they have achieved in recent decades has been purchased at a very high price. Certainly, there are "folkloric" restaurants with waiters dressed in the stylized fashion of Spain's Andalusia or the far-off Caribbean, even Germany's Black Forest. Plastic, sterile international tourism is everywhere. One would be hard pressed to find any evidence of indigenous Canarian culture in the Canary Islands.
Cape Verdean planners must remain steadfast in their determination to implement long-range programs to achieve sustainable economic development which does not cause major cultural dislocation. These planners need to know that Cape Verdean diaspora communities and the friends of Cape Verde around the world are deeply concerned that sustainable development be achieved without disrupting the living cultures of the Islands.
Unless economic planning includes financial incentives and other support services for fishing families which enable and encourage them to stay in fishing, the cultural resources of these communities will be at risk. These men will leave fishing with predictable consequences. Some government planners argue that to consider any special measures is tantamount to "protectionism." Exceptional measures must be taken to create an enabling environment which puts fishermen in the middle of the resource management equation. Fishermen, like other microentrepreneurs, should have easier access to affordable bank credit. Most of all, fishermen should be guaranteed a fair price for all of the fish landed. Government should insist upon greater transparency in the dealings of foreign buyers in Cape Verde. Unless Cape Verde is willing to make this investment now, artisanal fishermen will not be able to keep their culture alive.
Both commercial fishing and artisanal fishing have roles to play in the economic future of the country. But like apples and oranges, they can not be compared one to another. Nor should they be set one against each other to bid for government's attention. No amount of development in the industrial fishing sector can replace what Cape Verde stands to lose if great care is not taken to undergird and insure the survival of the culture of artisanal fishing communities. These communities are reliable producers of food. They have strong families and are a focal point for tourism development. We hope more Cape Verdeans will come to regard artisanal fishing as the "art" of fishing for a living; an act of bravery and culture and a vital contributor to the economic "bottom line" of the country. The families and the culture of these communities must be kept off the auction block of "economic development".
*(6 January 1996) Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect official Cape Verdean government policy. Thanks to Lineu Miranda, Lela Rodrigues and Teof Figueiredo for opening my eyes to the realities of Cabo Verde. Thanks to Maria Luisa Ramos and my many friends in Santa Maria, Ilha do Sal who helped me to understand how the forces of nature, governments and culture impact on the lives of Cabo Verde's fishing families.
** In mid-December, 1995, Eduardo "Tiston" DePina died of a heart attack while spear fishing on a reef near Farol on his day off from his hotel scuba diving tourism job. (RIP).
Statistics and Estimates
Industrial Fleet (1990):
Artisanal Fleet and Production (1990):
Fisheries Potential (metric tons):
From the Cape Verdean Ministry of Fisheries. As soon as current data becomes available it will be posted on the Home Page.
Industrial Fleet (1990):
Artisanal Fleet and Production (1990):
Fisheries Potential (metric tons):
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