Fishing in the Jungles of Guatemala
RIO DULCE, between Fronteras and Livingston, Guatemala- “Are there less fish now than there were 20 years ago,” I asked Alfredo, who had been fishing in the Rio Dulce in the eastern jungles of Guatemala for 28 years.
“No, it is equal,” the 38 year old Maya responded in contrast to what even his daughter and most other people have told me about the depleting quantity of game fish in the Rio Dulce. He then continued, “We have better hooks now. Before, the fish could bend the hooks and get away, now we can catch them. So it is equal.”
We had been fishing together for over an hour now, and had not had even one bite on our lines. I sat in a cayuco in the middle of the Rio Dulce with Alfredo and his brother. They were fishing, I sat watching, asking questions. The last time I was in this boat I had lost a giant, 150+ pound Tarpon. I held the line incorrectly and it snapped, setting the gigantic fish loose. There were five other cayucos out fishing on the river near us, nobody had yet caught anything.
Our boat was positioned first in a line of five cayucos that were placed in a row, sitting perpendicular to the current. We all would fish, waiting for something to strike at our lines, as the river gently pushed us towards Livingston, and the sea beyond. Once our boat had drifted too far with the current, we would paddle back up river past the other boats full of fishermen and go to the back of the line. The other boats would soon follow suite, as we would slowly drift with the current back to the front position again. Like this, the fishermen all rotated position against the current, all trying to ultimately stay in the same fishing ground without the river current taking them too far astray.
Apparently, there was one stretch of around two hundred meters on this part of the Rio Dulce where all of the fishermen tried to catch Tarpon, and every half hour the current would push us outside of this well defined fishing ground and we would paddle back to the beginning of it again.
As we would rowed up river past the other boats to the end of the line, the fishermen would all yell and joke with each other. Sometimes I got the impression they were teasing Alfredo over my presence in his boat. I could not understand anything they were saying, as they were speaking Mayan. If Spanish was spoken, it was for my benefit alone. Though the talk all seemed jocular, these men were all in the same boat — almost literally. They were floating on the same river, using the same tackle, the same bait, all trying to hook the same fish. To the outsider, listening to their jests and hoots, their jokes and the sounds of their conversation, they seemed to have a sort of trade based brotherhood out on this river — I seemed to be in a man’s place, a fisherman’s fraternity, floating on the river, trying to catch 8 foot fish.
“Do you know everyone who fishes here?” I asked Alfredo, already knowing the answer.
He said that he did. Looking out and estimating the ages off most of the fishermen, Alfredo probably knew more than half of them since they were born. In a boat next to us were two adult men and a little boy of around 8 years old. The adults fished, the boy was learning how it is done.
The fishermen all floated on a current towards Livingston, when they drifted to far they would paddle against the current and begin the cycle all over again. I watched as the life cycle of the fishermen on this river also rotated against the current: older fishermen would pass down the lines and hooks to the younger ones as the profession would likewise be passed down between the generations. The Tarpon fishermen were mostly young, the men all seemed to be in their late teens to mid thirties. To catch a 150 pound fish perhaps requires youth, I smiled as I observed that their is still a supply of young men willing to become fishermen like their fathers on this stretch of the Rio Dulce.
When I separately asked two of Alfredo’s children who the best fisherman on this part of the river is, they both looked at me calmly, perhaps trying to hold back their pride as they replied, “My father is.”
The NGOs have not yet turned all of the young men here into Guatemala City waiters and dishwashers.
How much money do Maya fishermen make on the Rio Dulce?
As we fished, I asked Alfredo how much a Tarpon would sell for. He sort of passed of my question, saying that the last one he caught was cut up into 16 chunks [sp. pedasos]. From his expression, this meant a big fish. Later on I asked Alfredo’s daughter how much the Tarpons they catch sell for. She also just said that they cut them into chunks without naming a price.
“Cuanto vale por un pedaso?” I asked directly.
So if a 150 pound Tarpon made 16 chunks then the entire fish is worth around 240 Q — or $30 — to the fishermen.
Tarpon are well reputed to be poor eating fish, many people on the Rio Dulce curl up their lips and shake their heads when asked about eating it, so its meat sells cheap – -and, from my observations, most days of fishing for Tarpon end empty handed for most of the fishermen on the river.
Back on the boat, Alfredo told me the prices that he receives for other types of fish. Much of what he would catch would only net him around 15 Q, or $2, for a large fish, much less for smaller ones. On average, it seems as if these men fish this river from morning till night for around five to eight bucks a day.
The eastern fringes of Guatemala is a region of the world where the equivalent of 5 USD a day is considered a decent living wage, so I could not despair when Alfredo told me what he makes from his catch. From my observatories, his livelihood is solid — he built himself a better than decent home, cares for five kids whose ages range from around 8 to 21, he has a wife, an entire stable of boats, a full rig of fishing gear, a little store. His kids go or went to school, his daughter has a good job at a nearby hotel, everybody I met in the little village around his home seemed well fed — they were laughing, joking, smiling, seemingly enjoying each other’s company. Alfredo has absolutely everything I could consider essential for a good life.
And he smiled when I asked him my fool questions about his living. From all my observations, from his own admission, he is living pretty well.
Alfredo seemed to approach fishing with little stress — when we would go home without catching anything he would just shrug his shoulders. When I lost a prize Tarpon he did not get mad at me but told me that he had also made mistakes like I did before. He laughed as he taught me how to properly bring in the line so that I would not loose the next sea monster we find tugging on the other end of our line.
In Guatemala, in much of the tropical world, necessities sell as cheaply as the people can afford to pay for them. Who needs much money when it is not needed to live well. These fishermen laugh as they work, they joke, they are well fed, energetic, their families are large, their communities close, and they still have enough money at the end of the day to buy cigarettes at 15 Q a pack.
On the rivers of Guatemala five to eight dollars a day is a good wage.
Tarpon come into Rio Dulce to spawn
Tarpon come into the Rio Dulce for three months each summer to spawn and eat. They hang out in the area of the Rio Dulce just east of El Golfete and just west of the canon that stretches on towards Livingston and the sea beyond. Around this time, many sailors from all over the world also come into this part of the river to hide out for the hurricane season.
Alfredo was telling me about how the Tarpon lay their eggs in the shallows. He then told me that he sometimes fishes for the babies, as he held his hands out around two feet apart, indicating the length of a young Tarpons. He then made a lip smacking motion to indicate that they tasted good.
“You eat the babies!?!” I asked surprised.
In my acculturated view of ecology, keeping baby fish alive to mature, reproduce, and grow large is a good investment. This is not the thinking here.
Do you want to leave the jungle?
“How much is the cost of a flight from Guatemala to the United States?” Alfredo asked me without being prompted.
“Around $150,” I answered.
“That is not that expensive,” Alfredo replied, duly surprised. He paused before continuing, “But that is too expensive for me.”
“Do you want to go to the United States?” I asked him.
Alfredo laughed, “No, I am good here, this is my home.”
I told him his home was beautiful. He agreed. We looked out over the river, our third sun set into the clouds.
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This article is part of a series on the indigenous fishermen of eastern Guatemala. To read the rest of the series navigate through the links below.