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The relief to fisherfolk is timely given their current circumstances

Dear Editor,
I APPLAUD President Ali for his announcement Tuesday at Windsor Forest committing a grant of $150,000 to “fisherfolk.” It is a welcome relief to help struggling fisherfolk and their families who could barely make ends meet. I have consistently called for such assistance in my missives to the press after learning about their pains in the fishing industry. The President listens to the public and acts when required.

Over the last few years, I spent a considerable amount of time interacting with fisherfolk (fishermen, workers on the boats, vendors in vans and at stalls, cleaners, helpers, clerks, etc.) at the wharf at Meadow Bank, West Coast, Berbice, and Top Side on the Corentyne and at markets in Georgetown, Parika, Port Mourant, Skeldon, and other locations. The boatmen, vendors, and cleaners at Meadow Bank and the West Coast know me well. I treated them kindly with various ‘gifts.’  They willingly revealed their challenges to me. I never encountered politicians interacting with fisherfolk, although fisherfolk at West Coast, East Coast, West Berbice, and Top Side said Minister Zulfikar Mustapha engaged them and committed to looking into their complaints of low catches. I salute President Ali for interacting with them at Windsor Forest to hear their stories. The victims of the fishing industry manifestly deserve assistance every bit as much as those suffering in the sugar industry and in other sectors of the economy.

For the last couple of years, fisherfolk have complained about low catches. The complaints increased at each subsequent visit suggesting conditions worsened. The loss of income as a result of low catch has been traumatic and affect everyone tied to the fishing industry.

I am not a government officer and I have no influence to redress complaints. Everywhere I went, especially Meadow Bank on the East Bank, vendors and cleaners cried, “Things bad, leff something nah doc, buy something form me, nah brother”, was heard repeatedly. Indeed, in all of my visits, I observed ever declining fish availability on the boats, vans, and at the stalls. Some of the captains of the boats said they returned virtually empty with the sales of their catches below costs of diesel for their trip, not to mention paying for labour and time. Correspondingly, with the scarcity of fish, the price of fish has increased.

In my interactions with them, fishermen complained that their catches were low and the vendors fretted that their limited sales were getting smaller and smaller with time. “Fish scarce! Fish nah deh,” they repeatedly said. Prices were shooting through the roof, going up steadily after every visit. Last week, prices for varied fish at Meadow Bank and elsewhere were double that from six months ago. Banga, for example, was $120 a pound late last year and $250 now. Butter Fish was $200 a pound last year and is in excess of $400 now.

Cleaners cried the most, saying they can’t make ends meet from their mornings work. Last year and earlier, they could earn over $20,000 for a few hours of work on a typical morning, cleaning fish that was plentiful in supply. Now, they can’t get $10,000. Some are lucky to make $5,000 and some don’t even get that amount. “Doc, Wuk, nah deh,” they said everywhere. Several cleaning tables or stalls have folded up. The number of vendors at Meadow Bank and other wharves and at markets has declined. The number of boats going out for fishing has also declined.

Hundreds if not thousands of boats were parked up at Parika and other points on the West Coast, Essequibo Coast, Berbice, and on the Corentyne.  Fishermen said the proceeds of the low amount of catch can’t cover their costs for the fishing trip. They seek financial help. The announcement by the President of a financial grant is most welcome. This relief is long overdue and would help fisherfolk. The cost may be high, but it is for a deserving cause and worth every dollar. The President deserves praise for this initiative.

The media has not stated who qualifies for the grant. Everyone connected to the fishing industry (fishermen, sellers or vendors, wholesalers, retailers, cleaners, stores, etc.) has been hurting over the last couple years (as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown, flooding, high fuel costs, and other factors). Consideration should be given to giving grants to all bona fide fisherfolk (perhaps not the same amount to all – for example, cleaners shouldn’t get the same amount as vendors who shouldn’t get the same amount as fishermen who should not get the same amount as the boat owners, etc.). Those out of work should definitely get the grant. The boat owners and fishing companies should get a much larger grant. They have been suffering badly with decreased revenues over the last few years.

Separately, government should upgrade the wharves and facilities on the coast for boating – improved lighting and availability of cold storage for catches.

Yours truly,
Vishnu Bisram