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Story Publication logo December 8, 2011

Caught in a Vise: An Indigenous Fisherman in Peru

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Lake Titicaca supports hundreds of small Aymara indigenous farming and fishing towns in Peru and...

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Marcelino Coila Choque plucks a wriggling fish from a hair-fine net with fingers that have known this work for decades. He began to fish the bay in Puno, Peru more than 30 years ago as a child with his parents. Now he owns a boat and provides for his wife and three children with the 50 cents a pound he earns from his nightly catch.

Puno is a booming tourist draw and, with a population of over 100,000, the largest urban center on Lake Titicaca. Coila Choque's small town of Aymara Indians is just a few miles from the city on the Bay of Puno.

As Puno grows so does its effect on the bay. In 2007 its surface was a vivid, electric green that looked more like a broad expanse of grass than water due to uncontrolled growth of duckweed. That plant growth, which resulted from an overabundance of nutrients caused by household sewage runoff, creates a lack of oxygen in the water and chokes off much life below the surface layer. Those changes impact people like Coila Choque, whose livelihood depends on the lake.

The ALT, an organization formed by Peru and Bolivia to monitor and protect the lake, removed tons of duckweed from the Bay of Puno. Although today most of the green carpet of duckweed is gone and oxygen pumps are installed in the bay, Puno's sewage treatment plant remains inadequate.

Coila Choque believes contamination, which he gauges by the color of the water and amount of trash he finds floating in it, is affecting life in the bay. "The lake wasn't dark like this before. It was clear, and sometimes we drank from it," he said. "Before you could see the fish below, in comparison now you don't see anything."

He says the number of aquatic plants where fish reproduce has dropped off, and that to boost the decreasing fish population his community makes use of skills they learned in a workshop that taught them how to harvest eggs from their catch and later sow young fish. Many communities along the lake have given up traditional net fishing of small species like Karachi, which are Coila Choque's main catch, to raise trout in large cages offshore.

There are pressures beyond pollution from the city that affect fish life and the thousands of indigenous fisherman who live close to Puno. Gold mining operations upstream may be increasing mercury levels in the lake, and Titicaca's waters are receding year after year as rainfall diminishes. Over-fishing is another serious issue. Coila Choque says his community places limits on how many nets each fisherman can set, but nothing can change the growing number of people relying on the lake for their livelihood each year. These factors are closing like a vise on the lake—and may soon end Coila Choque's way of life.

"Now there are fewer fish, and if there are so few now, what will it be like in a few years," Coila Choque said as he pulled a net from the water and untangled a small green and gold fish. "We're worried—what's going to happen to our children when there are no more fish?"