RABO DE PEIXE, Portugal: Too many boats and fewer fish. Making ends meet has never been harder for the fishermen of Sao Miguel in the Azores, yet from father to son they continue to fish.
“This is how I was brought up, it’s a miserable life, but I love it,” said 47-year-old Jose Vieira, shirtless and a cigarette hanging out his mouth as he folded away his nets, helped by son Paulo Miguel, who’d just turned 12.
Owner of a small boat, he and his seven crew — all of them family — were unloading 700 kilos of squirming snapper, red lionfish and eels at the Portuguese archipelago’s biggest fishing port, in the north of the Atlantic ocean.
It was an average day’s haul, yet the crusty fisherman and his crew take home a meager 400 euros ($435) a month like most others in the town on the north coast of Sao Miguel, the biggest of the nine islands in the Azores.
“It’s getting worse and worse, there are too many boats at sea but we just can’t stop fishing. We’ll go on till the last fish bites,” said Vieira.
So there was no question in his mind about the future of his four children, including shy Paulo Miguel, who was “offering a helping hand after school”.
“With fishing at least you avoid dying of hunger,” Vieira said.
100 euros a week
Now aged 16, and both a son and a brother of fishermen, Ruben Oliveira too began working when he was only 11. Sitting on a crate perusing his hooks and baits, “it’s a tough life,” he said.
“If you can earn 100 euros a week you’re doing alright.”
The head of the fishermen’s union, Luis Carlos Brum, agreed that conditions have worsened over time. “Twenty years ago you could make a better livelihood.”
Overfishing, which is threatening future fish stocks, was mainly responsible, he said. But so too was the slump that began five years ago in the building sector in Portugal, which used to provide an alternative source of revenue for poorly qualified workers such as fishermen.
“Fishing in the Azores remains essentially artisanal,” said Fausto Abreu, who is in charge of maritime affairs in the regional government. “It hasn’t been modernized to make it economically sustainable.”
And besides, the proud traditions of Rabo de Peixe’s fishing families made it difficult to attract fisherfolk to new trades such as fish farming or maritime tourism, he added.
“The community is very rooted, with the sons of fishermen refusing to envisage any other work. That wouldn’t be a worry if it weren’t that the community faces serious problems — kids dropping out of school early, teenage pregnancies and alcoholism.”
“Children here grow up very free and dream of confronting danger at sea like their fathers did. It’s hard to explain they should stay at school as long as possible,” he added.
Slammed by the media for being Portugal’s most welfare-dependent community, Rabo de Peixe’s almost 10,000 residents have one of the country’s highest birth rates — though Portugal as a whole has Europe’s lowest.
While many children and teenagers help their parents, crowds of youngsters just hang out by the port and on the tiny streets where the fishing families live in a motley collection of small brightly painted homes.
Matriarch of a family of nine children and 15 grand-children, 57-year-old Maria Ferreira says with fatalism: “I’m the grand-daughter, daughter, wife, mother and grand-mother of fishermen.”
“In my day we didn’t get all these welfare payments, but at the time my husband earned enough money to feed us. Today the fish are rare and prices have fallen. If we had a choice I’d be the first to change lives.”