The last fishermen of Copacabana

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From his house, the fisherman Manuel Rebouças, the Manéu, has a spectacular view. In the distance, see Copacabana and Ipanema beaches stretching between the buildings while, further on, the Cagarras Islands dot the sea. It's still night when he and other fishermen leave their homes in the communities of Pavão-Pavãozinho, Rocinha, Cantagalo and Vidigal to arrive at Fishing Colony Z-13, in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro. There, on one of the most famous beaches in the world, the colony founded in 1923 resists urban expansion and maintains a lifestyle that is increasingly threatened by overfishing and pollution.

The growing light of day reveals a dozen boats moored in the sand and countless Corvine hammocks hanging like immense nylon veils. Old almond trees envelop the entire colony in a bucolic and countryside view from somewhere far away from Copacabana. The hurried fishermen walk up and down carrying nets, longlines, buoys and fuel cans. Some change their clothes in silence, while others, in the midst of mocking laughter, tell stories of fights and misfortunes, romances, football, fishing and clashes with mysterious fish. Someone shouts: "Let's go as soon as the wind comes!"

Manuel Rebouças, known as Manéu, shows the view from his house at the top of the Pavão-Pavãozinho community, located on the border between Ipanema and Copacabana, in the South Zone of Rio de Janeiro.

The Z-13 Fishing Colony is next to Fort Copacabana, in the left corner of the photo. Fishermen complain that increased pollution in the region has reduced fish stocks and, consequently, the community's income.

One by one, the boats are pushed by several men with the help of wooden logs, placed in front of the boats. With great effort, they slowly descend the beach to the sea. Before attacking the surf, some fisherman jumps on board to start the diesel engine, in the center of the boat. The old one-cylinder engine seems to choke, until with a great bang, as if in relief, it throws a screen of smoke into the air and a noisy “tech-tech-tech” – typical of fishing boats – that makes the ears hurt. Fishermen throw themselves overboard. I hitch a ride on one of the boats with Maneu and his son Manasi, the Maná. Copacabana is becoming distant.

The day before, Manéu had told me about the main difficulties faced by artisanal fishing. A fisherman for over 40 years, and one of the colony's leaders, he believes that predatory industrial fishing using trawlers – boats equipped with sonar and huge nets – is the main threat. “Every day we see trawlers doing trawl and siege fishing in areas close to the coast, here in the southern zone, capturing entire schools. This creates a great imbalance, especially in protected periods of species reproduction”, he says.

Fishermen get together after another day of fishing at the headquarters of the Z-13 Fishing Colony, located next to the Fort of Copacabana, in a pleasant area shaded by ancient almond trees.

The privileged location of the Z-13 Fishing Colony in the west corner of Copacabana attracts tourists and residents who come to enjoy the beach.

Manéu laments that many artisanal fishermen are at the limit, to the point that it is common to go to the trawlers to ask “for God's sake” for a crate of fish. Overfishing has consequences that can already be felt in many parts of the world, pushing species to the brink of extinction and causing the collapse of fish stocks. The socioeconomic impacts on populations that depend on the seas are disastrous.

Far away from the beach

The sea had become more agitated and, after an hour of sailing – with Copacabana already small on the horizon – we arrived at the place where the Corvineira hammock had been left the day before. Manéu turned off the engine and Manasi began to pull the net. The boat rocked hard. I watched, in awe, as they stood upright as they removed the fish caught in the net and fed the brown boobies, which flew low in the air after small, unused fish. It didn't take me long to get nauseated, and the wait to pull the 800m long net felt like an eternity. The fish were accumulating on the boat's floor. There were croakers, dog's eyes, anchovies, hake and sea bass. The net was thrown back into the water and, with the sun already high, it was time to go back to sell the catch.

Old diesel engines are sometimes slow to start, especially during the cooler hours of the morning.

About 40 fishermen and 20 motor boats make up the Z-13 Fishing Colony. fishermen complain

Attention is drawn to the large amount of garbage taken from the sea by fishermen – a myriad of plastic items: bags, disposable cups, packaging, glasses, and even items such as televisions and refrigerators. While sewing the net using hands and feet to keep the mesh taut, the 54-year-old fisherman Augusto de Oliveira, Fominha, laments that “there are days when we catch more garbage than fish and we spend many days cleaning the nets. This makes fishing impossible and generates losses”. In addition to plastic waste, the pollution caused by the dumping of sewage and waste, especially in the Guanabara Bay, creates an imbalance in marine ecosystems, directly affecting fish populations in the region.

Inside the Z-13, on the Copacabana sidewalk, there is a reception and education center for the Ilhas do Rio Project, which works to preserve the Natural Monument of the Cagarras Islands Archipelago. The islands, located a few kilometers from Ipanema beach, are essential for the maintenance of marine ecosystems and represent a nursery of fish and birds that make their nests there. In addition to scientific research and actions to raise awareness in society, the project seeks to support conservation measures and sustainable tourism. As he does every day, after returning from fishing, Manasi works as one of the monitors at the center, receiving tourists and students to talk about the importance of sustainability on the islands and the partnership with artisanal fishermen.

The time spent removing waste from the sea from the nets ends up hindering the fishermen's activity. Among the items found, most are plastic – bags, disposable cups, packaging, glasses – but also televisions and refrigerators.

Fisherman repairs a damaged net.

The fisherwoman and current president of the colony, Kátia Janine – the first woman to assume the position – believes that the project is important for society as a whole. About the support that the Z-13 receives from the government, he says it is negligible. “The Z-13 should be seen as a cultural heritage of the city and receive greater support and appreciation from the government,” she says. "This would benefit not only the fishermen, but the neighborhood and tourism in Rio." About being one of the few women in a traditionally male space, she said that at first she suffered from prejudice, but that she gained the respect of men and ended up being reelected as president last year. “They know that women are great administrators and pay more attention to detail and organization.”

Tourists between boats

Copacabana beach was now full of bathers and street vendors. Some swimmers crossed the waters in front of the colony, forcing Manéu to maneuver the boat carefully until it landed on the sand. We jump on the beach. The catch of the day was quickly taken to the fair in the colony, where most of the catch is sold to the population of the neighborhood itself. As the boats returned, the activity of the fair increased and the teams of sellers and fish cleaners took over the work. Fishermen lay in soft nylon nets to rest or tell stories. On the beach, bathers stuck their umbrellas in the sand and lay down between the boats.

Manuel Rebouças, known as Manéu, says that sometimes the day is so bad for fish that some of his colleagues go to bigger boats to "ask for the love of God" for a crate of fish.

Tuna, whiting, croaker, anchovies and other fish caught during the day are sold at the Z13 fishmonger at the end of Avenida Atlântica.

In the colony's small administration room, Manéu was looking for some documents among the walls taken by old photographs and newspaper clippings – a mosaic of the colony's history and the abundance of fishing in those times. In one of the photos, from 1923, fishermen and bathers are profiled along the seashore, after a fishing trip with hundreds of fish caught. I ask him how he feels looking at those pictures. “That's a painful question,” he replies. "I'm sad that the big shoals are a thing of the past."

The fishing day was over on the Z-13. Manéu was preparing his things to leave Copacabana beach and return home, on top of the hill. "I dream that my children will continue to earn their living from the sea."

Kátia Janine is the first female president of the Z-13 Fishing Colony. For her, fishermen are cultural heritage of Rio de Janeiro and should be recognized for that, which does not happen by the government.

Source: nationalgeographicbrasil - PHOTOS BY MAURICIO SUSIN