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A fishing boat dragging a shrimp net in Brazil
Speaking anonymously, Brazilian environmental enforcement agents say their work has been curtailed by chronic staffing shortages—a situation made worse by COVID-19. Photo by Octavio Compos Salles/Alamy Stock Photo

In COVID’s Shadow, Illegal Fishing Flourishes

With COVID-19 lockdowns, Brazil’s capacity to monitor for illegal fishing has plummeted. Many on the ground say people have been quick to take advantage of the situation.

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by Eduardo Campos Lima

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In Brazil, environmental monitoring and protection for endangered species have been weakening ever since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, and the COVID-19 pandemic has all but dealt those efforts the killing blow. Since the end of March, when most of the federal government’s environmental agency staff started working from home, artisanal fishermen from different parts of the country have been reporting increasing illegal activity. Industrial fishing vessels, they say, are scouring protected areas of the coast.

“Large boats that come from other regions have been operating here,” says Alan Machado, president of a fishermen’s association in Caravelas, Brazil.

Just off the coast of Caravelas is the Abrolhos Marine National Park, one of the most biodiverse zones in the South Atlantic. “Some of our colleagues have seen commercial boats catching fish in the park,” says Machado. “They know that there are no environmental inspectors working here now.”

According to Machado, the number of recreational fishers has also increased, with many catching illegally high volumes. “We don’t know exactly what they’re taking away,” he says, though he suspects some may be pulling up coral or invertebrates from the protected area.

A similar situation is playing out in Rio de Janeiro’s Sepetiba Bay. There, the artisanal fishing community has been suffering for years because of illegal competition for commercial trawlers, technically banned in the region since 1993.

“Monitoring operations here have been insufficient for decades,” says Jorge Oliveira, an environmental activist. “Now, with the pandemic, there isn’t any kind of control. The industrial fishermen know that.”

Decades ago, Oliveira worked as a fisherman in Sepetiba Bay. He says that artisanal fishers’ losses have hurt the community’s quality of life. Emboldened by monitoring agencies’ fragility, Oliveira says some industrial fishermen have moved on to threatening the local artisanal fishermen who complain about the situation.

Jailton Nogueira Jr., a government employee in charge of the Marine Extractive Reserve of Arraial do Cabo, a protected coastal area in Rio de Janeiro State, echoes Oliveira’s assessment. Many industrial fishermen, he says, are now operating with a feeling of total freedom to perpetrate illegalities. “They have a communication network and exchange information on unmonitored regions,” he says.

President Bolsonaro has been a vocal opponent of environmental policies for decades, and promised during his presidential campaign to put an end to what he called an “industry of environmental fines.”

Since he took office, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), the main federal environmental agency, has hired no new employees. At least 2,500 posts are now sitting empty, according to a story published in 2019 by the news portal Metrópoles.

“But the ideal number of environmental workers is much higher than that,” argues Denis Rivas, president of the labor union for federal environmental agency employees. Rivas estimates the government needs at least five times the current number of employees to adequately handle environmental monitoring.

Nogueira Jr., who was appointed to his position, denies that he is lacking in resources or personnel to carry out monitoring operations, at least in his area. However, two federal environmental agents who asked not to be named said the opposite. (Since March, IBAMA has forbidden all employees from talking to the press.)

One, a federal fishing inspector, says the pandemic has temporarily shrunk the already-weak monitoring effort. The shortage is causing a decline in the number of operations that can be carried out, and presenting difficulties for those that are. He adds that the most valuable inspectors are the most experienced ones. But many of these most experienced agents are also among the groups most at risk for COVID-19, and so are also the most likely to stay home. This is a particularly pronounced problem in Brazil’s northeast, where many monitoring agents are older.

IBAMA and the Ministry of the Environment failed to respond to multiple requests for information, including about whether the number of monitoring operations has declined since the beginning of the pandemic.

An environmental agent in the northeast, however, confirms that there have been no fishing inspections in her region since March. “No agent is available to work on it now, and we weren’t able to get any help from colleagues in other regions. We don’t even have a boat. It’s very hard to work in these conditions,” she says.

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