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Guardians of Guanabara Bay: Toroca

During the fieldwork, the research team took part in a variety of solid waste collection activities on Ilha do Governador and we talked to fishermen who do this work in Magé. In both locations, solid waste collection activities are financed by oil companies as part of environmental compensation programs for the damage caused by the petrochemical industry. These activities are mediated by national or international NGOs, which manage the funding and the hiring of fishermen to collect the waste.

Research Title: "Fishing for Plastics: The Social Effects of Waste on the Lives of Artisanal Fishermen in Guanabara Bay." Guanabara Bay, May 5th, 2023. Video by Camila Pierobon

In the fishermen's general perception, the environmental compensation programs aimed at collecting solid waste in Guanabara Bay are problematic. They fear that these programs could, in a way, turn them into recyclable material collectors. Although the fishermen recognize the importance of removing large objects from Guanabara Bay, they fear that this change of role, from fisherman to waste picker, could weaken their original identity. Furthermore, there is an additional concern that this change of role could result in a reduction in the official number of artisanal fishermen. This, in turn, could lead to an increase in the dominance of the petrochemical industries over the space, be it aquatic or terrestrial.

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Photo: Camila Pierobon. Date: 11/05/2023. Location: Fishermen's Colony Z-10, Ilha do Governador. The photo shows the results of the waste collection day in Guanabara Bay.

In the communities located on Ilha do Governador, waste collection is measured in tons, which means that fishermen set their collection targets based on projected weight. This means that they concentrate their efforts on collecting bulkier and heavier objects, such as sofas, mattresses, pieces of wood and iron, ropes from ships and other similar items. The second priority in waste collection is directed towards materials with the highest value on the recycling market. This includes PET bottles and other products made from better quality polymers, which are collected by the fishermen and then sold. In general, the money obtained from the sale of recycled materials is distributed among the fishermen. Single-use plastics, which are of inferior quality and have no value on the recycling market, are not collected. As a result, these poorer quality plastics remain in Guanabara Bay, and some of them end up in the ocean due to the movement of the tides.

Video: Camila Pierobon. Date: 06/15/2023. Location: Rio Suruí, Magé.

In the communities of Magé, waste collection takes place in a different way. Because the region is home to the largest area of mangroves outside the APA-Guapimirim, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) focus their efforts on removing solid waste from the mangroves. Some of our interviewees took part in these initiatives and shared their experiences with us. Although the collection of materials also focuses on the amount of waste, similar to what happens on the Ilha do Governador, the clean-up actions in Magé also aim to remove plastic from crab burrows in order to preserve their breeding environment. However, a specific challenge arises in this scenario, as waste collection is conducted on a territorial basis. This means that each NGO operates in a specific area of the mangrove and is responsible for removing tons of waste from that specific territory. However, the fishermen note that many of these actions take place in areas designated as environmentally protected, which means that fishing is prohibited or controlled in these areas. As a result, these actions do not directly affect the areas where the fishermen and crabbers carry out their fishing activities.


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As mentioned earlier, most waste collection projects in Guanabara Bay do not address the issue of single-use plastics. During the fieldwork, fishermen shared their concern about the huge amount of this specific plastic waste that continually arrives in Guanabara Bay and accumulates on the bay bed. In some places, the accumulation of waste can reach a thickness of up to two meters. This plastic waste causes various problems in the daily activities of artisanal fishing. 

The first of the challenges faced is related to the engines of the boats used in artisanal fishing, which in most cases are small, with engines of just 15 hps. These engines are relatively fragile and become easily susceptible to damage when they encounter solid waste in the water. The fishermen told us, for example, that it is quite common for plastic bags to get tangled in the propellers, resulting in damage to the engine. This has a direct impact on the income of the fishermen's families because damage to the engine reduces the time the fisherman can spend on the water, resulting in fewer fish being caught. Furthermore, there is the direct cost associated with repairing or replacing the affected engine, representing an additional financial burden for the fishermen.

Photo: Camila Pierobon. Date: 11/05/2023. Location: Fishermen's Colony Z-10, Ilha do Governador. The photo shows the 15 HP motor used by most artisanal fishermen.

Photo: Camila Pierobon. Date: 11/05/2023. Location: Fishermen's Colony Z-10, Ilha do Governador. The photo shows the same  motor used by most artisanal fishermen on their boats, this time with plastic wrapped around the propeller.

Plastic bags also have a negative impact on fishing nets. One of the traditional small-scale fishing techniques commonly deployed on the bay involves the use of nets. To apply this technique, fishermen set out in the early hours of the morning, position their nets, and return hours later to collect the fish they have caught. However, due to the movement of the tides, solid waste is also displaced by the water. It is therefore quite common for plastic bags, especially beer packaging, whose plastic is stronger, to become so firmly attached to the nets that they end up breaking them.

Standby Network

From the fishermen's point of view, plastic reduces the lifespan of fishing nets. The most experienced fishermen remember a time when there was less waste in Guanabara Bay and nets could last up to 5 years, whereas today they barely last 6 months. This results in a negative impact on the fishermen's household income, as they have to spend time and money to repair nets or buy new ones. These plastics also contribute to a greater amount of waste, since fishing nets damaged by plastics can come loose and end up on the bed of the bay.

Casting the Net


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Photo: Camila Pierobon. Date: 05/22/2023. Location: Ilha do Governador.

During our research, we came across an alarming problem: the considerable volume of tires disposed of irregularly in the rivers that flow into the Guanabara Bay. This issue is detrimental to both fishing activity and recycling efforts. On the one hand, when these tires reach the bottom of the bay, they fill up with mud and become heavy objects that break fishermen's nets. At the same time, for the fishermen, it is not economically viable to collect the tires. This is because they don't have the tools to collect such a heavy item and because the tire recycling company is located two hours away from the city of Rio de Janeiro. This distance represents an insurmountable obstacle due to the fishermen's lack of resources, NGO's lack of funding for this transportation, and the lack of responsibility on the part of the municipalities of the cities bordering Guanabara Bay.

As a result, the tires remain in the bay and accumulate, undergoing decomposition and releasing toxic gases and liquids that further threaten the fragility of this ecosystem. Today, it is important to note that 24% of a tire's composition is made up of synthetic rubber, a plastic polymer. It therefore seems important to us to include tires in the debate on the damage that plastic causes to artisanal fishing and the environment.

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