Twenty years ago, the villages of eastern Venezuela were home to a robust fishing industry, including the world’s fourth-largest tuna fleet. Industrial trawlers and hundreds of smaller boats worked the waters. In a good month, 10,000 tons of tuna were brought in to local ports, as well as boatloads of sardine, shark, crab, and octopus. Ships from Asia sold their catches to local plants, which froze and stored them by the hundreds of tons. When boats needed repairs, captains took them to the shipyard in the town of Güiria, where vessels from South America, Asia, and the U.S. could all be found in dry dock.
…But the fishing industry withered under Chávez, and then under Nicolás Maduro, who succeeded him as president in 2013. The warehouse in Güiria burned down and was never rebuilt; the ship repair facilities were shuttered after a few years in government hands. Venezuelan ships not seized by the government were quickly reflagged in Nicaragua, Panama, and Ecuador, and much of the government fleet now lies in port, awaiting repairs and scarce spare parts. From 554,000 tons of fish caught in 1997, the year before Chávez started his revolution, the catch in 2015 had fallen almost 60 percent, to 226,600 tons, according to the Caracas-based Foundation for Sustainable and Responsible Tuna Fisheries.
…In 2015 seven major tuna processing plants declared a state of emergency, citing a chronic shortage of the fish. Three thousand workers lost their jobs, according to Jorge Bastardo, union leader at the La Gaviota canning plant in Cumaná. Even when tuna was brought to shore, aluminum was in such short supply that a central cannery was converted into what the government dubbed “the pouchery.” It failed. The public never warmed to the idea of buying plastic pouches filled with watery tuna.
…I stood for a time with a uniformed officer at a tiny military base in town. He looked relaxed as he cradled his automatic rifle and watched a boatload of Venezuelans streaming up from the beach below his lookout point. “They come to shore and trade marijuana and cocaine for food,” he said. “Before it was for U.S. dollars, but now they trade for sacks of flour.” At night, Venezuelan bandits sneak ashore to steal nets, outboard motors, and fishing gear. “If they get caught here in Trinidad? They will get their heads chopped off,” he said matter-of-factly. “We don’t get involved. That’s just what happens.”