The work is demanding and sometimes risky
SANTA CRUZ, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador – At dawn, Pedro Ascencio fires up the two outboard motors on his long, narrow fishing skiff, and sets his GPS for his favorite fishing spot in a distant patch of the Pacific Ocean.
It can take more than 10 hours to navigate the 200 miles of ocean to Darwin Island in the far northwest of the Galapagos where Ascencio uses sonar to find schools of wahoo and tuna.
Ascencio, who has been a commercial fisherman for 22 years, rotates through a routine of work-sleep-work for three, four, sometimes five days, until he and a mate have filled the holds of his blue and white- trimmed fiber glass skiff.
“I try to catch as much as I can in the mornings but I usually sleep in the afternoon and do most of my work at night,” Ascencio said.
Ascencio’s days are filled with challenges and perils. Sometimes he plows through eight-feet-high seas that have capsized boats like his.
He has nicked himself with his fish-cleaning knife and with the green nylon fishing line that he rigs with dozens of hooks and hauls across parts of the sea where his sonar tells him there are fish. He builds barbed branches on the main fishing line and pulls in bunches of fish. Ascencio knows he could run out of food and fuel and be stranded at sea. Some days are grey and cold.
Not long ago a fishing boat went down and the crew was stuck on an island beach for days. One night, a big ship sliced through a skiff like Ascencio’s. The two fishermen were never found.
“I worry about him,” said Ascencio’s wife, Mariuxes Negrette, “especially when the seas are rough.” Negrette wears jeans and flip-flops and works at the open-air fish market, carving up the tuna and wahoo that her husband and the other fishermen bring in.
Fishing is one of the best paying jobs in the Galapagos. Sometimes the fishermen make more than $3,000 a week, a fortune in a part of the world where the average weekly paycheck is less than $600.
Ascencio likes the freedom. “The best part of my job is that I am able to set my own schedule and create my own hours,” he said. Ascencio, 41. “I love being my own boss.”
The Galapagos National Park regulates fishing and other activities in the 51,000 square miles of the Galapagos, a huge swath of ocean and volcanic islands and rocks about the size of Louisiana.
There are about 35,000 people and an estimated 50,000 giant tortoises living in the Galapagos. Louisiana has 4.6 million people and no giant tortoises.
At the behest of the national park, the fishermen on the three most populated islands – Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Isabela – joined together in cooperatives in the early 1990s.
The cooperatives work with the National Park authorities in the regulation of Galapagos fishing and the authorities issue fishing permits through the cooperatives.
The cooperatives give the fishermen negotiating heft and some island people say it has been easier for fishermen to get bank loans since they’ve had the cooperatives behind them.
In Santa Cruz, the fishing cooperative is formally known as the Cooperative for the Production of Artesanal Fishing in the Galapagos and is generally referred to by the initials in its name in Spanish, Copropag.
Albert Anderade, an assistant to the president of the cooperative, said that Copropag has grown from 60 members to nearly 350 fishermen in the 22 years since it was founded in 1993. For Ascencio and many other Galapagos fishermen, fishing is a family business. He learned the trade from his father, Segundo.
One of the projects of the co-op in Santa Cruz is to increase profits for the fishermen. Historically, the fishermen have shipped their fish to Peru, China, Indonesia and Miami through exporters in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s biggest city with 2.2 million people.
The exporters collect a surcharge of $1 per pound. The fishermen want to ship directly to international markets and keep the dollar.
The fishermen sell some of their fish to restaurants and families in Santa Cruz. But most of it goes abroad.
Fishing is important to Santa Cruz, the most populated of the dozen or so islands that make up the Galapagos archipelago with about 25,000 people.
But fishing ranks far behind tourism in total earnings. Tourism accounts for 70 percent of the region’s income.
When the fishing boats arrive at the open-air market on Darwin Avenue, the main street in Santa Cruz, restaurant owners, local people and even some tourists take their pick of the catch of the day.
At sunset, the market becomes a lively waterfront restaurant. Enterprising cooks set up tables and chairs and portable stoves.
Fish straight off the boats sizzle in big frying pans in pools of butter, coconut dressing and mayonnaise. A man with an accordion strolls past the diners, playing for tips.
Some evenings, Segundo Ascencio, Pedro Ascencio’s father, comes to the market just to watch and to feel the breeze off the harbor. Some of the fishermen play cards at a small table.
Vitito Salvador fished for 35 years. With his earnings he bought two boats. Now he’s a businessman. He has a crew that takes tourists on snorkeling and hiking trips on one of the boats. He rents his other boat to fishermen for a share of the catch.
“I loved fishing.” Salvador said. “But it takes too much time out of my life and it can be very dangerous. Now I have people who fish for me.” #