Loss of jobs in sugar, fear of pirates creating jitters in Upper Corentyne

Parmeshwar Jainarine President of Upper Corentyne Fishermen’s Cooperative Society

The Upper Corentyne fishing community is in the grip of a state of apprehension in the wake of the April 27 ‘pirate’ attack targeting four fishing boats off of Suriname. The carnage was frightening. Around a dozen persons are missing and feared dead, four bodies were recovered and  four survivors were rescued. 

In a closely knit community where several extended families make their living through the fishing industry the grief and the anger is sometimes shared among neighbours who are all part of the same family. They mourn together, some seething with rage, others overwhelmed by a sense of loss and the entire community demanding official protection.

There is nothing contrived about the sense of apprehension that prevails. A point has been reached where experienced boat captains are ‘giving it a rest,’ so to speak, a euphemism for – at least for the time being – not going fishing. It is not an easy decision to make.  They must make the excruciatingly difficult choice between giving in to the imperative of making a living and heeding the pleadings of wives and children to at least allow for some reasonable interregnum before returning to the deadly fishing waters. Some have already opted for less lucrative but safer options in farming and as security guards…insofar as such jobs are available.

Fish at the Upper Corentyne Fishermen’s Co-operative Society Wharf

Chairman of the Upper Corentyne Fishing Cooperative Society, Parmeshwar Jainarine spoke with the Stabroek Business with a furrow in his brow, reflective, it seemed, of the sense of anxiety that he feels about the situation. The crisis in the fishing industry, he says, coincides with the much more all-embracing challenge of staving off the problems arising out of the loss of jobs in the sugar industry.  He volunteers an inventory of the Cooperative’s fishing vessels; around one hundred and twenty vessels are registered with the cooperative. These provide employment for six hundred and twenty five fishermen, not counting the more than fifty ‘hustlers’ who purchases fish from the wharf. A further thirty or forty vessels not registered with the cooperative operate in the same waters.

In good times it is possible to make a reasonable living from the sea. Grey Snapper is the prize catch. These are mostly sold to exporters in Georgetown. The remainder of the catch…snook, trout, cuffum, and gilbaka, among others, are sold locally to be bought and consumed by the community.

When fishing boats are attacked, plundered and the crews maimed or murdered it is not just the emotional burden that the affected community is left to carry. The more the loss in human lives the more depleted the industry becomes in terms of skilled captains and crews. Jainarine explains that it takes an experienced captain and a crew of three or four to run an efficient operation. Crews, he says, often tend to hop from vessel to vessel, their skill and experience affording them the privilege of demanding higher than average wages. Skilled crews tend to attach themselves to boats that customarily ‘do well.’ A boat owner may have the same crew for several years.

Prior to embarking on a fishing trip each crew member is ‘advanced’ twenty thousand dollars. That money is intended to attend to their families’ needs whilst they are away. Before departing the fishing vessel must ‘take on’ ice, fuel and food. That could require expenditure amounting to around $130,000, so that after the boat returns and the catch is sold there is more accounting to be done. With expenses accounted for the remainder of the money is divided…half for the owner and the other half for the captain and crew.

Those vessels that were running the risk of pirate attacks are now seeking to limit those risks by cutting their time at sea to three to five days rather than twelve days. At the moment one hundred and seventeen boats are working on a reduced time schedule. This means less revenue and the choices that must be made in keeping with the reality of reduced income. What we found was that some residents had put home repairs and refurbishing chores on hold, others had reduced the amount spent on food whilst others still had been forced to hold over their payment of utility bills.

Jainarine talks about the modus operandi of the pirates. Their approach, he says, is to waylay the Guyanese vessels in Surinamese waters where local law-enforcement has no jurisdiction. When the issue of urgings to local fishermen by successive Public Security and Agriculture ministries that vessels be equipped with efficient communication equipment is raised with Jainarine he enquires rhetorically as to who will respond to the distress calls. “Suriname or    Guyana.”

The fifteen hundred-odd former sugar workers from the Upper Corentyne are not exactly clamouring for jobs in the fishing  industry. The main reason, Jainarine says, has to do with the rigours of the sea. “You have to be able to hold you balance in an unstable boat, you have to be patient and strong enough to help pull a two-kilometer seine,” he says, adding that fishing is not a job that you necessarily grow accustomed to quickly.

Up until now, Jainarine says, the reduction in the volume of fish has not impacted on prices as much as might have been anticipated. For those who can afford to indulge the taste, Grey Snapper is currently sold at four hundred and forty dollars per pound. Some of the lesser fish in the consumption pecking order, trout and snook, for example, are sole for two hundred dollars and three hundred dollars per pound, respectively. These days, over a period of a month, between 20,000 pounds and 50,000 pounds of fish are landed at the wharf.

The reality is that for a number of reasons, not least the skills and stamina required, fishing does not provide adequately for the hundreds of jobs lost in the sugar industry…so that there is a discernable slowdown in the hustle and bustle that used to be part of the social culture of the Upper Corentyne. If lifestyles are seriously affected there is little highly visible evidence of this though when you engage people directly affected by the altered circumstances you get the unmistakable impression that they are all waiting for some decisive intervention.