Oil stains in Brazil destroy local fishing industry

. Dec 16, 2019
Oil stains in Brazil destroy local fishing industry Photo: Joa Souza

More than 100 days have passed since the first signs of oil were sighted on Brazil’s northeastern coast. This environmental crisis of as yet unknown origin is far from being circumvented, as there are reports of new stains being sighted on the coast of Rio de Janeiro and Santa Catarina, further south than the initial reports. According to Brazil’s environmental protection agency Ibama, more than 900 locations around Brazil were affected.

Despite initial reports that the oil was from Venezuela, suspicions have arisen that the substance could in fact have come from Brazil’s very own pre-salt oil layer. 

</p> <p>Petrobras has 25 oil extraction platforms in the region. Two sources consulted by <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>, who asked to remain anonymous, stated that the possibility of the spill coming from Brazil’s pre-salt was mentioned by a professor at the Federal University of Sergipe, but was hushed after a secret <a href="">visit</a> he held with Environment Minister Ricardo Salles.</p> <p>The minister landed on the campus by helicopter and went straight to speak to the professor. The meeting took place behind closed doors and the researcher has not commented on the subject.</p> <p>One of the sources also mentioned that not even the Federal Police knew about the visit, and they had to contact the university to find out the details of Mr. Salles’ trip, in order to ensure his security.</p> <h2>Fishing takes a hit</h2> <p>But in addition to the environmental damage, there was a sharp drop in fish sales, especially in the Northeast. In the state of Pernambuco, for example, this market moves BRL 86 million per year, according to a survey conducted by UFPE professor Cristiano Ramalho, a sociologist who has been studying these communities for more than 20 years.</p> <p>The survey showed that the trade in fish and seafood in Pernambuco was equally affected in regions hit by the oil spill and those that were left untouched. In the <a href="">mangrove region</a>, the drop in sales was 95 percent, while the crab trade fell by 80 percent, followed by fish, which fell by 70 percent.&nbsp;</p> <p>Along with the drop in sales came a fall in prices. Reports from fishermen in the region collected during the study indicate that a fish that was sold at BRL 30 per kilo was now worth BRL 10. For shellfish, the price went from BRL 20 per kilo to BRL 5.&nbsp;</p> <p>&#8220;I spent over seven days without setting foot in the water, because we&#8217;re not selling,&#8221; said a fisherman from the municipality of Tamandaré. &#8220;There was a week when I didn&#8217;t even get BRL 10 from my work. Just to be able to put food on the table,&#8221; said one fisherman from Itapissuma.</p> <p>In the state of Sergipe, the situation is identical. Fish consumption fell 80 percent and the clientele at bars in the region dropped 90 percent at the peak of the spill, according to estimates presented during a public hearing on the issue, organized by the Sergipe section of the Brazilian Bar Association.&nbsp;</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="" alt="oil spill northeast brazil" class="wp-image-29058" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Local volunteers help to clean up beaches in the Northeast. Photo: João Moraes/Personal archive/via ABr</figcaption></figure> <p>The president of the association’s Human Rights Commission, lawyer José Robson, explains that many fishermen are in dire need because they are unable to work, whether or not they are in affected areas. According to him, the federal government&#8217;s policies were designed to serve registered fishermen, but this record has not been updated since 2012.</p> <p>The Federal Public Prosecutor&#8217;s Office in Sergipe even filed a lawsuit against the federal administration, calling for the expansion of government aid to all fishermen. The measure was taken after the publication of Provisional Decree 908, which defined the parameters for the aid, excluding those without registration or in cities not affected by the stain.</p> <p>But, in a letter, the Ministry of Agriculture recognizes the delicate situation of these professionals: &#8220;Despite the desperate situation of artisanal fishermen in the Northeast, there is no possibility of making payments to those who are not in the affected municipalities.</p> <p>And the same limitations have been seen in Pernambuco. Mr. Ramalho says that, while the federal government records show 10,000 fishermen or shellfish gatherers in the state, the real number is just over 30,000. &#8220;For the first time I saw fishing communities in need. There is a lack of money for basic products, for example, rice, beans, gas and even to pay the water bill,&#8221; he says.</p> <p>Despite the annihilation of the fishing industry, tourism in these regions has not been as affected by the oil spill. The hotel sector, for example, has not suffered any drastic reduction in vacancies and has made a point of showing these positive results. In Porto de Galinhas, a famous Brazilian tourist destination, occupancy during the Proclamation of the Republic holiday period reached 93 percent, two percentage points higher than in the same period in 2018.</p> <p>In the state of Alagoas, the local president of the Brazilian Hotel Industry Association, Milton Hênio Vasconcelos, said that despite the arrival of oil on the coast of Alagoas, there were &#8220;few withdrawals, but nothing that would affect occupancy.&#8221;</p> <p>In the states of Sergipe and Pernambuco, hotels and restaurants in large urban centers were also barely affected, but at the expense of fishermen. Both Cristiano Ramalho and José Robson told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> that they had seen ostentatious campaigns by these establishments saying that they were not buying fish and seafood from the region as a means of attracting customers.</p> <p>To stifle the situation, travel agency CVC developed a booklet (<a href="">see here</a>) to &#8220;teach&#8221; people how to deal with the issue. Recommendations included not talking about oil and possible culprits, avoiding discussingideology or politics, and not mentioning problems in general.</p> <p>On the other hand, small traders and service providers related to tourism suffered the impact of the spill. Ornela Fortes, legal advisor to a Pernambuco fishing association, says that small restaurants in tourist cities saw a sharp drop in clientele. &#8220;The entire production chain felt the impact of environmental damage, even Uber drivers said their fares have decreased,&#8221; she says.</p> <h2>Sorrow, public health and the environment</h2> <p>The environmental problem, which became a financial one, ended up triggering another side effect: the loss of social conviviality. Reports from fishermen show that these people have not maintained contact with their colleagues, largely because of problems with the industry. &#8220;Fishing is a meeting of friends. And I&#8217;m not going out with them anymore because of this oil. It&#8217;s really sad,&#8221; lamented one fisherman from São José da Coroa Grande, a municipality in the state of Pernambuco.</p> <p>There is also the issue of public health, as the cleanup operations were carried out largely by volunteers, who did so without any kind of protection to avoid contact with toxic substances. Estimates indicate that, in Sergipe alone, more than 20 thousand people came into contact with the oil.&nbsp;</p> <p>These people should be monitored in the coming years by health authorities. But no plan to this end has been presented.</p> <p>In São José da Coroa Grande, the first city on the Pernambuco coast to report the appearance of oil stains, there are already reports of people falling ill due to contact with the substances. Among the symptoms are intoxication by inhalation, nausea, vomiting, irritated eyes and burns.</p> <p>Martha Figueiredo, a regional prosecutor for citizens&#8217; rights in Sergipe, says she talked to a fisherman who suffered from skin lesions caused by contact with oil. However, she says, the federal government understands that it is not their responsibility to repair these damages, as it didn’t cause the problem.</p> <p>In October, the Federal Prosecution Service requested the courts to compel the federal government to launch the National Contingency Plan for Incidents of Oil Pollution in National Waters. But up until November, no action was taken.</p> <p>There are reports that requests made by the Brazilian environmental protection agency (Ibama) for contingency measures—such as deploying barriers and absorbent blankets, purchasing materials and equipment and planning and management of emergency actions—were not met.</p> <p>Ornela Fortes explains that the government of Pernambuco, during a public hearing held on December 3 of this year, said that a state of emergency was not declared in order to avoid further effects to tourism.</p> <p>Federal prosecutor Ramiro Rockenbach, who works in environmental matters, filed suit against the government and courts for a contingency plan. Both requests were denied. He said that the level of contamination of the region is still unknown.&nbsp;</p> <p>The federal government even used Ibama&#8217;s mapping system to detail the places affected by the oil to deal with a socioeconomic problem, which is the financial aid to fishermen. &#8220;The federal government does what it wants, the way that it wants,&#8221; concluded Mr. Rockenbach.

Brenno Grillo

The Brazilian Report's correspondent in Brasília, Brenno has worked as a journalist since 2012, specializing in coverage related to law and the justice system. He has worked for O Estado de S. Paulo, Portal Brasil, ConJur, and has experience in political campaigns.

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