– All of Erizo’s nightmares are the same. Since his return from the ocean – almost unrecognizable – every bad dream is identical. A wave punches his little boat and throws him into the deep sea where everything is so dark that he can’t even see his own hands.
Even when he swam with all his energy, this 31 year old fisherman was never able to set foot on the mainland and to him, the Mexican Pacific ocean slowly became a grave formed only of water.
When Erizo dies in his nightmare, he wakes up in real life, opening his mouth like a dying fish that desperately tries to gasp some air. Then, he and his wife are on a midnight routine. Erizo stays in bed while Sandra walks over the sand floor of their home to reach for a glass of water for him. She can do that in total darkness without stumbling because there is barely anything; the furniture in this young couple’s home consists only of a bed, a small TV, a plastic table, two chairs, two hammocks, and a few plastic bags with clothes and shoes.
Their poverty reflects the 24-hour labor shifts that Erizo undertook each week sailing on his little boat -“Esmeralda”- named after his 4 year old daughter.
Erizo is a fisherman in a small town 20 minutes away from Mazatlan, Sinaloa, where everybody knows his neighbors by their nicknames. Erizo’s name means hedgehog, a name given to him because of his short and straight black hair. His friends are Pelao and Rana (frog). On the surface or in plain sight, they look like a relaxed group of friends who drink beer by the ocean and listen to The Hermanos Cota music band. When you look closely at that community you can see the open wounds inflicted on these fishermen by labor exploitation. Pelao has been struggling for years with an unpayable debt that has led him to alcohol addiction and Rana suffers from terrible pain in his hands due to the frequent injuries suffered from handling the heavy fishing nets.
Erizo is not the same person ever since fish sales dropped in March 2008 and he couldn’t afford gasoline for his little boat to go to sea and return home every day with his catch. He decided to enter the deep sea and stay there for five days until he catches as many fish as possible. On the third day, a big wave hit him nearly pinning him to the seabed.
He managed to keep afloat for eight days, clinging on to a big plastic jug of water, eating his own vomit, biting and eating live and raw fish for eight days.
During the first days, he prayed to God for survival. The next six days he prayed for death until on the last day when he closed his eyes and thought it was over — just to realize that a boat had rescued him and saved his life. “I didn’t die at sea, but a part of me is still there. Being a fisherman in this country is like having no life”, he told me.
Erizo and his friends are hired on verbal agreements by anonymous men who represent shady businesses. It’s a common strategy in the fishing industry that exploits the most vulnerable ones without paying any social costs or support. Hiring companies pay between 0.7 and 1.4 dollars per kilo of fish and shrimp respectively, which goes to “Central de Abastos” – the largest fish market in America. There it is sold at 15 dollars per kilo. In a fancy restaurant located in the rich neighborhood of Polanco in Mexico City, a shrimp soup could cost 35 dollars.
Of the small profits that the Mexican fishermen make, they must take off the cost of gasoline, food, helpers, boat maintenance and the fee to anchor on shore. Often they work with clear financial loss. Such is life for the 300,000 fishermen in Mexico, the country that is globally ranked 16th in seafood production. They produce 800,000 tons of food for a multibillion dollar industry. Yet, the fishermen work like slaves. Most of them earn and live 10 dollars a day. They don’t have health insurance, social security, or household credits. Also, no financial services are available to them nor any money to have fun or enjoyment in their lives, according to the “Social Impact of the Fishing Industry in Mexico” report.
The pandemic has deepened their poverty. The coronavirus has been a curse, but it can be a salvation: the fishing industry needs to transform and this is the ideal time to pay the long-time debt owed to these women and men, like Erizo. It’s now or never to demand better work quality for them. Regulations and sanctions imposed on abusive companies are essential in the new world after this global crisis of Covid-19 is over.
A country that devours the delicacies of the sea, leaving the people who bring it to their tables to starve only leaves a bitter rather than a good taste.
The author is a human rights activist who opened the first shelter for girls and teenagers rescued from sexual commercial exploitation in Mexico. She has published five books on preventing human trafficking; she is the elected Representative of GSN Global Sustainability Network in Latin America.