Fishing provides new jobs in Panama

Fishermen and women in the small fishing community of Guanábano in western Panama begin their work between three and four each morning. They fire up their boat engines and set out in search of a good place to cast their fishing nets.

Once a good location is spotted, they cast their nets into the water and sit back to wait for them to fill, their only company being the pelicans soaring above. Despite the fact that these fisherfolk sometimes spend days out at sea, a love of their job and its renewed ability to be a strong source of livelihood have given them an inner sense of calm.

Highlights

  • A programme in Panama is reconciling the need to protect shrimp species with a fishing community's reliance on net-based fishing.
  • Fish workers have received training in finance and administration and learned eco-friendly fishing strategies.
  • The fishing community increased its catch by five times, from 18,000 pounds in 2008 to 100,000 pounds in 2010.

“After 30 years as a fisherman, I wouldn’t know what to do if I couldn’t go out to sea,” says Carlos, a local fisherman who supports his wife, two daughters and a nephew.

Due to their proximity to the coast, residents of Guanábano, on the point of Puerto Armuelles in western Panama, have traditionally made a living from fishing. Yet locals’ livelihoods and lifestyles were threatened by a 1995 law that prohibited net-based fishing in order to protect various shrimp species.

By the time the law was amended in 2005 to re-allow net-based fishing, the community’s equipment had deteriorated, said Judith Calvo, president of the Baru Fishermen's Cooperative (COPEBA). 

Now, however, Guanábano’s fish workers have rediscovered their past way of life, thanks to support from the Government of Panama and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

When the Guanábano community formed a cooperative three years ago to strengthen fishing practices and improve catch distribution, UNDP and the National Council for Sustainable Development contributed engines, nets and other fishing equipment. They also provided cooperative members with training in finance, administration and organizational skills.

This training included eco-friendly techniques for catching species of high commercial value that have allowed fish workers to generate greater income for their community while maintaining environmentally-sustainable practices.

The UNDP-backed Sustainable Development Programme in Chiriquí, which is executed by the Ministry of the Presidency in Panama, is aimed at achieving Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) 1 and 7, which call for eradicating extreme poverty and hunger and maintaining environmental sustainability, respectively.

With support from this project, the Baru Fishermen’s Cooperative has improved the living conditions of its 27 members and their families. It has also enabled the fishing community to increase its catch by more than five times, from 18,000 to 100,000 pounds, between 2008 and 2010.

Revenues from the catch are shared equally between the cooperative’s members.

"The [members] have pots and trammel nets, are paid a salary and know they will get a better monthly income working together," says Calvo.

In addition, the cooperative helps to promote a national strategy for sustainable development at both the provincial and country levels, as well as to oversee the strategy's implementation in each province.

Currently, the National Council in Panama is providing support for the construction of refrigeration storage centres to help preserve catches, particularly during export months. In the meantime, the cooperative organizes rapid fish sales to reap profits from the catches before they go bad.

Fishing in Guanábano benefits the entire community and everyone is involved. When the fishermen and women return to shore, children are waiting for them, playing games, and those family members who do not go to sea start working immediately to clean the fish and prepare it for market

"The community is alive once again; now everyone has the chance to go to sea, they have a guaranteed income, the children can go to school and families are more united," says Maria, a local woman with several years' fishing experience.

By Janibeth Miranda

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