For 23 years, Carlos Velázquez lived off the sea, mostly diving for lobster and conch off the east coast of Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria changed that for him and 26 other members of the Villa Pesquera of Naguabo, one of the largest producers in Puerto Rico in an industry that is small and that over the years has been threatened by a lack of resources.
Velázquez, who is the president of the Villa Pesquera and the sole commercial fisherman representative for Puerto Rico in the federal Caribbean Fishery Management Council, recalls that as news of the hurricane approached, the fishermen prepared for the storm as they had always done. “We went out and removed fishing traps and stored our diving gear in the lockers located close to the water and went home to wait out the storm.”
“Wow. We were overconfident. We were not prepared for what hit us,” he said. It took him three days to reach Naguabo and the Villa Pesquera, due to obstacles on the road, flooding and heavy rains that continued drenching the island for days afterwards. The final report on Hurricane María places maximum rainfall in Puerto Rico at 38 inches, causing landfalls and extensive flooding.
When he reached the Villa Pesquera, his worst fears became real, the sea had battered the lockers and swept away all the gear inside it. “The surge must have been 20 to 30 feet high to do the kind of damage we saw.” Of the two small fishing boats the fishermen shared only one was left.
Immediately, they tried to find ways to return to the sea, asking other fishermen to loan them gear. It was then when Raimundo Espinoza, a biologist and director of Conservación ConCiencia, a nonprofit organization dedicated to environmental research and conservation that promotes sustainable development, reached them. Espinoza had been collaborating for some time with the fishermen of Naguabo and others around Puerto Rico on fisheries research and other conservation projects.
The biologist was one of the first to arrive with supplies, food and water to help the fishermen. Espinoza recalled that as soon as he saw that their real need was for fishing gear, he started an online fundraising campaign. Yet, he was unable to raise much, the needs at the time in Puerto Rico were overwhelming. When Espinoza saw that the fisheries production for October, November and December showed losses of $200,000 for the Villa Pesquera, he resolved to find them help. Velázquez was also worried, in desperation six members of the Villa Pesquera had left Puerto Rico. Although not the largest fishing village, Naguabo is known for its catch volume, which when under full operation can supply the Naguabo area and restaurants as far as Arecibo in the north coast.
That is when, Espinoza, whose organization in Puerto Rico is under the fiscal sponsorship of The Ocean Foundation, decided to request funds from United for Puerto Rico, which was created to help victims of hurricanes Irma and María, channeling the funds through experienced NGOs.
“We immediately saw the benefits of providing the means to earn their livelihood once we received the proposal,” said Aurelio Alemán, President of the Board of United for Puerto Rico.
United for Puerto Rico awarded a first grant of $31,662.11 to the Ocean Foundation to purchase the diving gear for 20 fishermen. On March 21st, just days away from Holy Week when it is traditional for Puerto Ricans to eat seafood, they held a ceremony to donate the gear to the fishermen with Raimundo Espinoza in representation of the Ocean Foundation and Conservación ConCiencia. In exchange for the gear, the fishermen signed pledges that they would follow sustainable fishing practices, keep their permits up to date and collaborate Conservación ConCiencia in researching the sea and fishing practices.
“Traditionally fishermen and biologists do not see each other in the best light, yet our work is changing that relationship,” said Espinoza, who said both sides can benefit from the collaboration.
Espinoza requested more funds from United for Puerto Rico and these were granted. A second grant of $188,096 will go to help other fishing villages around Puerto Rico.
Aside from allowing 20 fishermen to recover their livelihood, Mariely Rivera, Executive Director of United for Puerto Rico, said the grant has made it possible to link economic activity in Naguabo. As the fishermen returned to the sea, the popular small seafood restaurants and shacks returned to life with fresh catch, just in time for the Holy Week crowd and one more step towards helping a region recover.