Help Artisanal Fishermen in Ravaged Puerto Rico





Unedited video narrated in Spanish by Cynthia Lugo, shot at the Villa Pesquera Punta Aguila (Fishing Co-op at Osprey Point), at Bahía Salinas, Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico. Video shows the mud- now clogging the no-longer-visible boat ramp; the damage to the sheltering mangroves; and the broken pier.

Hurricane Fiona made landfall in the southwestern region of Puerto Rico on Sunday, September 18, 2022. Yet again, the island is a catastrophic disaster area. We have three words to sum it up: it’s unbelievably awful. The southwest region of Puerto Rico, otherwise part of the arid zone on the island, was struck by the eye walls of the hurricane as it made landfall, and then again as it blew past, many hours later. Like elsewhere on the island, the situation on the ground is very grim.

I’m here to make a plea for my two closest friends on earth. They are the artisanal fishers Jesús Ramírez and Cynthia Lugo, of Cabo Rojo, the famous “red cape” at land’s end, on the southwestern tip of the island.

ABOUT JESÚS & CYNTHIA
Captain Jesús is legally licensed as a bona fide fisherman, meaning that the government recognizes that he makes his livelihood strictly from subsistence fishing. He was born in Cabo Rojo with a fishing line in hand, or so they say. His common-law wife, Cynthia, was born to a long line of artisanal fishermen and fisherwomen on the cape.

Artisanal fishing, or subsistence fishing, is a small-scale form of regulated, commercial fishing that relies on human power and very little on machinery, other than one’s boat motor, marine radio, etc. Subsistence fishing includes netting, spearfishing, the hand harvesting of mollusks, fishing by hand reels and rods, and deep drop bottom mechanized reel. As a trade, it is inherently noble, clean, and sustainable, yet fragile and corruptible.

The artisan fishery has been under tremendous pressure from many sides, including environmental, economic, and political issues, for many decades. We know this because Cynthia and Jesús are the stewards of a small fishing co-op licensed by the island government and US federal law. The co-op is officially named Villa Pesquera Punta Aguila. The name translates as Fishing Village (or compound) at Osprey Point. It is located at Bahía Salinas (meaning Salt Flats Bay). The bay itself helps shape the very narrow strip of sand that connects the famous cliffs of the cape’s headlands to the rest of the island.

Cynthia and Jesús live and work at the wild cape, where they make a hard, meager if clean living on the best of days. They also serve as the top officers of the fisher’s co-op, where another 20 local fishermen, give or take a few, use the bare-bones facilities sponsored in part by the US federal and the island governments. At this fishing compound, the fishers float their small boats, repair their motors, nets, and other tools, haul in their daily catch, and prepare it for local markets.


Jesús and a clean catch aboard his vessel, Cynthia.


The artisanal fishing vessel, “Cynthia”, owned by Jesús and Cynthia, registration PR 1911 DD, at the government-supported pier for licensed artisanal fishers, Bahía Salinas, Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico.


Cynthia at the helm of her namesake vessel, with onboard guests during a passing squall, Bahía Salinas, Cabo Rojo, PR.


THE LOSSES
Cynthia and Jesús, who the other fisherman also call Severo, are the only ones who live on the compound in their camper trailer. They keep the entire compound operational for themselves and the other licensed fishers.

Local friends of Cynthia and Jesús evacuated the couple from the compound at the water’s edge on Thursday, September 15, 2022. Hurricane Fiona then ravaged the region on Sunday into Monday, September 19 and 20. That same day, Jesús and Cynthia were able to enter back into the compound, which is now uninhabitable.

They are reporting significant damage; the storm left the compound without electricity or running water. The boat ramp is buried under the sand; the few mangroves left standing by the 2017 Hurricanes Irma and María, which provide shelter to countless species of marine life and also to the fishermen at the pier, were torn from their roots. The landing platform of the pier itself was destroyed. The rest of the compound was submerged under high water for hours, and the stormy seas flooded the narrow two-lane road, in effect disconnecting the headland from the mainland. Their car is not operational. For all these reasons they cannot put in, or haul out, their fishing vessel. They are now without a home and unable to do their work as fishers.

PLEASE LEND A HAND
I am here to honor the unsung lives of these hard-working people and to ask you to help this gentle couple restore their lives and the base of operations that allows other fishermen to support their many families. Please help me support Jesús and Cynthia and their livelihood and what little property they own, most of it now damaged. Anyone who donates to their cause can also help us build a body of watchdogs that can report to all donors what funds are raised, and when and how Jesús and Cynthia use those funds.

Please share this effort with family and friends. If you know of other families in need elsewhere on the island, or in other Caribbean islands, remember that media outlets and other online sources can tell you where else to help, and how.

TAKING YOUR BEARINGS
Please note that when one speaks of Cabo Rojo, it could be in reference to one of three different regions. And one must be clear about which region is being addressed. First, Cabo Rojo is the name of the municipality as a whole; secondly, Cabo Rojo is also the name of the old town that is the seat of municipal government. Last but not least, the name Cabo Rojo also refers to the wild cape where the earth is red, and the limestone cliffs glow red and orange and yellow during breathtaking sunsets, as the sun sinks into the Caribbean Sea. The iodine and other minerals in the ancient salt flats also take on a red tinge throughout the day. All this contributes to the name “cape red”.

The cape itself is actually an isthmus—a short and narrow spit of sand that stretches less than five miles south into the Caribbean Sea, ending at the headlands known as Los Morrillos de Cabo Rojo. The famous headlands are crowned by a most excellent lighthouse built during the 1800s by a Spanish militia, when Spain was attempting to hold onto Puerto Rico and to its other colonies in the New World.

The wild cape, small as it is, still feels wild and desolate, and, by many accounts, is one of the most beautiful places on earth. It carries huge historical, commercial, social, and environmental significance. The cape, a nature preserve, is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources. Its waters are also regulated by more than 10 other US federal and insular agencies.

Please also note that Puerto Rico is part of the USA; anyone born in Puerto Rico is a US citizen. The currency is the US dollar, and the USA legal system applies. Jesús does not speak English. Cynthia can read and understand basic English; her spoken English is rudimentary but operational.

Thank you for your time. Please check back for updates.

This relief effort is spearheaded by Ana Eloísa Soto-Canino, a professional artist and former professional reporter who has worked as a freelance writer since the late 1980s. A native of Puerto Rico, Ana has been documenting the lives of the subsistence fishers at the wild cape of Cabo Rojo since the late 1970s, when she, then a teen, photographed her first cape fisherman at work aboard his boat. In more recent years, she has been following the working lives of her now good friends, fishers Jesús and Cynthia. All in all, her personal archive on the cape fishermen includes thousands of records, including photography, video, participant and field observations, and interviews.

Please contact Ana and the studio staff at:
Academy of Art of Highland Park
727 Raritan Ave., Highland Park, NJ, USA, 08904.
Email: [email redacted]. Website: aahpnj.com
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Organizer

Ana Soto-Canino 
Organizer
Highland Park, NJ