The Wild West of Venezuela (Pete Bethune)

Venezuela in recent times has descended in to the wild west of fishing, and nowhere is this more apparent than their border area with Columbia. The waters here are rich, and historically it has been one of the most productive fisheries in Latin America. Trawlers however decimated the fisheries, so in an effort to save fish stocks, President Chavez introduced a ban on all trawling, commonly recognised as the most damaging fishing method here.  

It seems local fishermen have largely abided by the ban, however foreign vessels, especially those operating from Columbia, and to a lesser degree Panama, continue to trawl through here with impunity. They come into the gulf, trawl through the night, then retreat to safer waters during the day.

In discussions with countless local fishermen, all cited foreign poachers as their biggest concern, and many expressed total disgust at the lack of enforcement of fisheries laws.

Enforcement here is complicated however. The Columbian – Venezuelan border has become State Highway 1 for trafficking. Drugs, weapons and people are moved effortlessly through here in an elaborate web of subterfuge. Boats have become an integral part of this system, and often vessels catch fish in the day, while trafficking at night.

As one local boat owner said to me, “you pull up to some fishermen, and they are as likely to pull out an AK47 as they are a fishing net. People go missing here on a regular basis. Traffickers offer a $100,000 bounty to anyone who manages to kill a member of the Venezuelan military. It is a lawless area, and represents perhaps the most dangerous area in all of Latin America. It has become a deadly area for both humans and fish alike, and the plundering by poachers who trawl this coast has increased as enforcement has waned.

I spent a week traveling around this area, meeting with fishermen, researchers, military, and locals. The problem is all too evident, however a solution is not. Long term it requires a dedicated fisheries team, but unlike for most other countries, here they’d need to be effectively a division of the special forces, such would be their need for training, weapons, intelligence and resource. In a country struggling with poverty as it is, such an investment is difficult for government minsters to justify.

The alternative however is bleak. A continuation of illegal trawling will see the death of this fishery, and Venezuela will pay a heavy price if they allow this to happen.