It all started with a man with a map walking down the street in Palizada, Pueblo Magico (the magic town), with its terracotta-tiled roofs from Marseille. Samuel, the man with the map spotted some of our group on the street, a meeting was set up and the next day saw us poring over his 2 maps of the Usumacinta River ( a delta system) and its tributaries, one of which is the Palizada River.
Samuel told us about a small population of manatees who live in a freshwater lagoon - visible on the map but usually not accessible in the dry season (up to the beginning of June) to the fishermen who fish that territory. There is (as yet) no organised way for the general public to access the lagoon. The narrow and shallow waterways which lead to the lagoon are filled with water-lilies and their trailing root systems make it impossible for motor boats to pass through. But this year because of two unusual rains in late April, Samuel thought that these waterways might be passable in fishermen´s cayucos (traditional wooden kayaks). Two days later, 6 of us found ourselves in a field outside Palizada with an array of overturned cayucos and about a dozen fishermen tretrieving oars from the branches of the surrounding trees. We were a little puzzled as we couldn´t see any water anywhere near the cayucos, although the land was boggy underfoot. As the first cayuco was turned upright and dragged forward by a coiuple of the fishermen, we realised that what appeared as a mass of green vegetation on land was actually a dense carpet of aquatic plants in about 40 centimetres of water.
While the fishermen stood with perfect balance at either end of each cayuco, using long oars to push us forward, each expeditionary sat in the middle of their designated vessel, almost at a level with the water, watching the incredible bird and plant life unfold as we slowly edged our way through to the lagoon over the course of about an hour and a half. We never saw any manatees (according to the fishermen there is a population of 8 resident there at the moment) when we eventually reached the lagoon which measures about 8km by 300 metres. Nor did we see any of the 4 metre crocodiles who apparently inhabit it - they are shy and stay underwater...unless you fall in, in which case they eat you. But I learnt a lot about the practices of the freshwater fishing community of this particular fishing territory in Campeche, as I happened to be accompanied by a particularly chatty and obliging fisherman.
Fishermen´s groups exist in the different fishing territories of the state of Campeche (and, I understand, in the other coastal and freshwater Mexican states). As I am used to talking to Irish and Scottish fishermen, I was somewhat surprised when Juan, the chatty fishermen described a relationship free of antagonism between the local fishing community (77 freshwater fishermen in that territory) and local government. Applying for a fishing permit appears to be a straightforward and trouble-free process. It seems that 14 years ago the Mexican government decided to create specific fishing territories for fishermen as stock levels were dropping. Each territory has a fishing group composed of the fishermen in the area, with responsibility for taking care of that area and its fish stocks, and each cayuco in this case has a chip which tracks its location. If a fisherman breaches his territorial limit, he loses his fishing permit for good. The fishing is protected on two levels - by law via local government (who enforce the territorial limits as described above) and by agreements reached between the fishermen themselves which are not legally enforceable and depend on mutual respect between fishermen. According to Juan, it works. The fishermen agree how many days each month they will fish - they may limit their fishing to 3 specific days in the month, or more if stocks appear more abundant (they seem to fish in groups of 3 days at a time). The amount they fish prvoides them with enough fish to feed their families, to sell on the market and to allow stock levels to regenerate. As there are only 3 entrances to the lagoon, it is easy for the fishermen to self-monitor and see if any of the group is not respecting the agreement reached that month. I was unable to find out what happens if a fisherman does breach the agreement - in fact Juan seemed puzzled by the question (which I asked several times) and kept referring to respect between the fishermen. During the 3 months when the freshwater fishermen cannot acess the lagoon (until recently this was the case from end February to the beginning of June) the local governemnt agency in charge of the fishing territory pays each cayuco owner 1500 pesos (about 75 sterling), 500 pesos for each month, which he splits evenly with his crew member. However, he did note that relationships between the sea (alta mar) fishermen are more fraught, as illegal fishing there is more prevalent and there is less respect between the fishermen.
Juan has observed significant changes in the climate of the area over the last 8 years - more rain, and more and stronger hurricanes. Before this year they would never have been able to access the lagoon in May and this is the first year that the land has not completely dried up during the dry season More rains mean that there are more waterways opening up through the boggy land around the lagoon, but less land for the neighbouring cattle farmers to work with every year. The lagoon conditions are affected by the sea conditions in the Gulf of Mexico (where the initial pair of lagoon manatees travelled from) which can create huge waves in the lagoon, sometimes forcing the fishermen to camp out for several days until safe conditions return. Fishing there is easy according to Juan, in tbat thre are always fish to catch. Species caught include the valuable and meaty pes lagarto (crocodile fish, so named because it looks like a miniature crocodile), 4 different species of mojara, and savalo (which is no longer allowed to be sold on the market and is only for private consumption).
As we floated over the lagoon I asked Juan if there were aby stories about the area which the fishermen told their children. theere was a moment´s silence as I saw him hesitate - then he called to one of the other fishermen ´She wants to hear the stories...´. It was almost as if he was asking for permission. Lowering his voice, Juan started to tell me about the fishermen who have disappeared in this lagoon, and in other lagoons in the area. Fishermen who have been struck down with inexplicable fever. And the light. Juan himself has seens the light several times, but not in the last 15 or so years. The first time he saw it, he was fishing the lagoon by night, and he thought it was a big star. But then he and his crew member realised it was too big to be a star and that it was moving towards them at a great pace. They remembered the stories they had been told and put out their own night light on the cayuco and started to move their cayuco in curves in stead of straight lines. This makes it hard for the evil light to find them - according to the older fishermen it is because of the evil light that people disappear. When the light appeared, Juan said that the wind dropped and everything became eerily still. As they evaded the light, it stoped moving and then disappeared and the wind picked up again. They were safe.
And the 4 wooden clothespegs? They are by far the most useful items I have brought with me on this expedition. More on that in the next post.