The Night Patrol

By Trevor Ritland

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In the Nicoya Gulf, a few dozen kilometers off the coast of Pájaros, the fishermen of Isla Chira are just beginning to pull their old boats in to the mangrove-speckled beaches on the Palito shore. Night is descending and a storm is coming in. Eyes on the sky, the fishermen clean their hooks and put them away until the morning, and one by one begin the long walk home up the dry and dusty roads, baking in the last embers of the twilight heat. The low grumble of a motorcycle’s engine turning breaks the silence of the cool waves lapping on the beach, and soon all the men are gone, except for two.

Randall and Gregorio are preparing their boats to ride out into the storm. They will spend the next twelve hours on patrol for poachers, moving up and down the clock of night entirely alone, looking for the light that fills a poacher’s boat, listening eternally for the casting of a line; enforcing the laws of the protected waters. They tell me that this storm won’t be enough to stop the poachers, so they must honor their agreement. I watch them leave. Over the years, I have gone out with patrols like theirs for a few hours at a time, and I have always asked the men the most difficult part of this responsibility. They have always, without fail, replied, “The loneliness.”

Chira is a large island for Costa Rica, totaling seven thousand acres with close to three thousand residents across the land mass. For most of the year, it is very dry and very hot; when it does rain on Chira, it is too much and at the wrong times, which has discouraged its residents from embracing farming. There aren’t very many cars— maybe twenty— mostly motorcycles and one- speed bikes, and the local school bus is a fifteen-seater imported from Korea.What there are a lot of on the island is boats, and the reason for this is simple: Chira finds itself in one of the most productive and biodiverse fisheries in all of the Nicoya Gulf.

Or it used to, anyway.


For years, the fishermen on Chira existed in what seemed like a utopia, utilizing mass- catching methods like trawling and long-line fishing to carry in one hundred, maybe two hundred fish each night. For some, perhaps, it seemed too good to be true; in fact it was. Soon, the key and profitable species began to disappear from the waters near the Palito beach—most notably the corvina (sea bass), a Chira fisherman’s bread and butter. At the rate things were going, the entirety of the gulf would soon follow suit.

“During times of abundance you could catch a huge amount of fish,” says Gabriel Cruz, a local fisherman who must be nearing seventy. It is hard to tell the ages of the men here; the sun has baked the youth from them. “We were worried because the corvina were becoming very scarce; we were not catching enough, and we were worried about our livelihoods.” He stops a moment to rub his chin, recollecting on the implications. “We had damaged the gulf and were destroying what was giving us food.”

Gabriel Cruz, former president of the fisher's association

Gabriel Cruz, former president of the fisher's association

The fishers were staring into the face of a monster that could very well destroy their entire way of life. Without detection, it had slipped beneath their boats and moved among the obscure waters, never seen or guessed about until it was upon them. They had not recognized it because the monster was made up of their friends and neighbors, their nephews, even themselves. Gabriel describes a time of frigid realization, a recognition that their era might be drawing to a close.

“Then we had a meeting,” Gabriel says, “and someone came up with an idea.”

The idea was this: there was an area of open water off the coast of Chira where the government had recently ordered a moratorium, a temporary ban on fishing to allow the populations to replenish. Gabriel says that among some fishermen, there was a collective consensus: Let’s try doing what the government is saying. More than that, they decided to take the government’s ideas about restrictions and expand them, applying self-imposed regulations and fishing laws on their own communities, so that they might one day see the return of the species that composed their livelihood.

Since they had never attempted anything like this before, the fishers did not know where to begin. For guidance, they stepped in a surprising direction: toward the Damas de Chira, the women’s organization on the island. The Damas have successfully overcome the region’s embedded machismo culture to own a successful business, and their success has begun to erode the customs of the island. For the men to turn to them now was telling in two ways: it indicated that the women really were gaining respect among the community, and it betrayed how desperate the fishermen had become.

The Damas taught the fishermen the importance of unification; unless they had the strength of numbers at their backs, their plans would not succeed in a manner significant enough to reverse the damaged Palito fisheries and beyond.

“We told them what we had learned,” says Liliana, a prominent member of the organization. “We didn’t have any help when we began.”

When Gabriel and his peers formed the Fisherman’s Association, they did so with the intention of setting and enforcing regulations on a handful of small protected areas of open water off of the Palito and Montero beaches. They understood that overfishing was depleting the resources of the fisheries, so they agreed upon sustainable fishing methods to practice in these areas so that the populations would have the opportunity to rebound. The fishermen of the Association agreed to use nothing smaller than the size seven hook, which would prevent them from catching young fish that had not yet reproduced. They also banned long-line fishing, which often harms unintended species like sea turtles; and they banned trawling, the practice of dragging a net along the ocean floor, which does not discriminate between species and decimates endemic ecosystems. To the Association, these seemed like reasonable terms.

“But there are always people who don’t go by the rules,” says Gabriel. Early on, the Association received complaints that the boundaries of the protected areas were undefined. “They were saying, ‘If you don’t mark the areas, we don’t know where we can’t fish,’” Gabriel recalls. “‘If you want us to respect the areas, you have to put up markers.’”

But the Association had no money to invest in buoys, so they turned again to the Damas de Chira. The Damas told the fishermen about a small UN grant they had received when they were building their business; the fishermen applied for the same grant, and received enough money to invest in forty buoys to mark the edges of the protected areas.

But they didn’t last, says Gabriel. “Poachers would come and cut the rope,” he says, “or the metal would corrode and the buoys would float away. I was near an island once and I saw one floating way beyond it.”

They received two solar-powered buoys from Conservation International, but one malfunctioned and one was damaged by a trawling net; right now, they are sitting on the Palito beach among the mangroves in a heap, waiting for the resources to repair them. 

It was clear to the fishermen that they could not protect their resources without support, so they turned to INCOPESCA, a government entity designed to regulate Costa Rica’s fisheries; but the relationship has not been good. “They said they would care about the small fishers,” Gabriel recalls, “but they don’t. The President [of INCOPESCA] is a priest; he has only lived near coastal communities and does not know much about the ocean or how the ocean works. He might know a lot about religion but that doesn’t apply to fisheries.”

Without the help of the government, the fishermen of the Association began to take matters into their own hands. “The original association started here with thirty-two people,” says Gabriel, “and we had a lot of conflict when we started protecting that area. There were a lot of people who were against it and we had a lot of heated debates and conflicts with them.”

He is emphatic that the Association did not turn to violence, and never responded to violence; they spent their time on the open water, inviting the poachers who were using illegal practices into their boats and talking with them until most local fishers were compliant with the regulations they were trying to promote.

“But,” as Gabriel reminds me, “there are always people who don’t go by the rules.”

As time went by, and when the fish populations did not show improvement as predicted, it began to grow clear that enforcing the boundaries of the protected areas was going to be more complicated that the fishers had anticipated. So two by two, as the sun lit the water and slowly dipped behind the mountains, the men began turning their floodlights on and driving their boats out into the night on patrol for poachers.

The difficult part is, these poachers are not foreign interlopers, not even mainlanders; they are islanders too, the nephews and the uncles of the men out there on patrol. The rules that they obey in the daylight might not seem so sure at night, and so many men go out past midnight to throw their long lines out and dip their nets into the fertile waters of the the protected zones. When the light of a patroller hits their boats, they may be looking into the face of a family member; this is not an easy thing. But the patrollers have been out there for years now, and for the most part, they are seeing poachers less and less.

I ask Gabriel if they still find much out there.

“Oh yes,” he says, “there was a Taiwanese fishing line, a long line that is prohibited in the gulf. So we cut one of those, and we found a net in the fishing area recently, but we know the person that the net belongs to. He is sick, he just had surgery, so we tell him we know you didn’t do this on purpose— but we still take the net and give it to the coast guard. We know the conditions and don’t harm the people who aren’t doing it on purpose. They are our neighbors. You know, they are just doing their job.”

It is not the first time I have encountered this attitude, this idea of a give-and-take, the cheetah and the gazelle, just clocking in. When I was deep inside the mangrove estuaries once, I witnessed a small boat come speeding up the channel and turn into an inlet, disappearing from the vista of the open water. I walked back to find the boat and discovered two young men, bandanas covering the faces, picking dead fish out of their nets and tossing them into the sand; they were far to small to feed a child. They told me they had been out trawling and the Coast Guard had started chasing them, so they had come in here to get rid of the fish they’d caught by accident as they had sped into the shallow waters; they had never had the time to pull their nets. I asked them if they were angry at the Coast Guard for restricting where and how they could cast their nets.

“No,” they said, like it was simple. “They are just doing their job, and we’re doing our job.” Evidently, the poachers still get out sometimes. But the years of hard work— almost two decades— have paid dividends. “The corvina are starting to come back,” a local fisherman tells me. “The snook have started to come back. The groupers are coming back and some are so big we cannot pull them out.” The gulf is a resource that is worth protecting, and members of the Association see themselves as the stewards of their own future. “In the sea there is a lot of richness,” says Gabriel, “but we have to know how to take care of it...”

There is no shortage of work ahead for the Fishermen’s Association, and they understand all too well how easy it will be for them to fail; they have seen into a possible future. Seventeen years ago, the Clammer’s Association on Chira was facing the same challenges as the fishers; due to overharvesting, the pianguas were beginning to disappear from the mud flats among the mangroves. To protect their resources, the Clammer’s Association began implementing size and harvesting regulations, but without support, they were unable to stop the poachers. Now the old buildings of the Clammer’s Association are a ghost town, and the women who used to spend their days harvesting clams among the tangled mangroves have to find another way to make their living. This is what awaits the fishers should they fail.

Now Gabriel is putting on his shirt and bringing the big gas can down to the water’s edge, where his boat sits tilted in the mud waiting for the tide and for the veil of night to fall again. I will go out with him tonight to comb the bruisey darkness for the lights of poachers, to listen for the spray of water from the casting of a net. We will drive the line between the buoys of the past and I will lose the count of hours, until Gabriel lets the engine die and runs his boat aground up onto a sandbar in the middle of the gulf, like the spine of some submerged and unseen creature. The fisherman will leave the boat and I will follow him, not knowing where he is going, where I am going, where we will end up. Then he will point down at the water moving at his feet, and I will see the sparks of the bioluminescence glinting in the surf— thousands of microscopic glowing creatures filling the black water with the light of existence, and I will suddenly understand why the men agree to spend these long nights patrolling in the cold; what they are protecting, what they have to lose. These fireworks will go on bursting in the cool swells of the ocean long after we have gone, and that night we will find no poachers, but in a few hours the sun will rise and the fishermen will take their boats out once again, and the air will be filled with the sound of many hooks—size seven— hitting the water as they cast their lines.