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They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships

This verse from Psalms came to mind as soon as I began to watch the ships coming in and going out into the still waters around Crucita.

All day, heavy wooden boats are laboriously drug through the sand and launched into the water.  All day, men and boys sit patiently in their boats, mend nets or haul in fish.  All day, the boats and the men sway as one in concert with the waves and the wind. To a casual or romantic observer, all this seems pretty idyllic.

Our time in Crucita was as informative as it was entertaining.  Not only did we observe the fishing scene unfolding right before us, we were privy to a description of the inner workings of the fishing industry in Crucita.  And that’s where a more realistic, not so charming, picture comes into focus.

Barcos (trawlers) ply the waters for fish, staying some distance from the shore as they cast their nets.  Smaller boats venture out to meet the barcos and fill their boats with the day’s catch.  They then haul the fish back to shore, where they turn the catch over to crews of cutters.

Cutters work under covered makeshift wooden sheds.  Men, women and children are employed to work long hours performing the malodorous task of gutting and cleaning the fish.

Large trucks drive along the sand to pick up the filets.  Over time large swaths of the beach is blackened with oil that leaks from these trucks.

Fishing for a living is a precarious business.  The fishermen go out to sea without fishing vests or insurance.  They work with little protection from the ferocious sun.


A wooden trawler can cost $250,000.

The age-old patriarchy is alive and well in the fishing industry.  Barco owners are called maestros, or masters, and the smaller boat owners and fish cutters belong to a hierarchy that encompasses the entirety of the fishing “food chain.”

No one lower on the hierarchy wants to risk going against the wishes of the maestros at the top, so they generally follow the chain of command, so to speak.

And who’s at the bottom of this fishing food chain?  The children.  It’s easy to envision them with anchors around their necks.

For example, we were told about a fisherman with bright young sons.  They will not be pursuing an education because their father insists that they become fishermen, too.

Some of the fish cutters are so young they have to stand on wooden crates so they are high enough to reach the fish racks.  They spend the day gutting and fileting fish in the hot sun for low wages.

Three-thousand people work in the fishing industry in Crucita.  To avoid paying  IESS tax, (the Ecuador Social Security tax which provides workers with health insurance) business is mostly conducted with cash. The small boats pay the barcos cash for their load of fish.  The cutter organizers pay the smaller boats in cash and also pay their employees cash.


Toiling in the hot sun disemboweling fish naturally leads to health problems. The entrails and blood fall onto the sand.  Flies swarm.  A small cut can quickly become infected.  Low pay combined with no health insurance is a formula for disaster.

Yet year after year, nothing much has changed in these conditions in Crucita.  Conditions may be terrible, but like people everywhere, change can be frightening and is resisted vehemently.

Crucita is one of the few towns left where open chopping of fish is done on the beach.  This practice is illegal in other beach towns such as Esmeraldas.

The good news is that now a major change is underway in how the fishing industry is conducted.  A proposal has been made and finally accepted that will move all the cutting sheds off the beaches of Crucita and into a clean facility in town with toilets and showers.  22 cooperativos have agreed to stop chopping on the beach.  Within two months, the beach will be clear and clean.

This is a huge victory not only for the choppers but for Crucita tourism and for those who live along the shore.  A vast improvement in beach cleanliness and sanitation should soon be evident.

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6 Comments

  1. so who is actually against the fish shacks ? real estate developers and gringos who want the cheap beach front they could never afford in the US ? or the local ecuador people . it seems very racist to me how you paint this picture. flies and fish guts are not all so bad or the sun either. i am sure that in the new fish shack in town , they will pay rent etc and lose the view and the old family life.

    • How about 10 and 12 year olds working among the fish guts, flies and hot sun? Do you really think that because sweat shops are tradition, that change should not be promoted?

      And yes, the accord was signed among the residents of Crucita, whom by the way, own virtually all of the beach front in Crucita. And you are also absolutely right about the change in the fishing system. The costs will increase as taxes are collected, and the workers finally gain health insurance and a decent wage. Ultimately, of course, you will pay for it for every can of sardines you purchase. Which is as it should be. Sorry Justin, there is no such thing as a free sardine lunch on the backs of child labor, no matter how “traditional” it is.

  2. I hope the accord actually means something. for the last two years I’ve been hearing the the chop shacks will be “gone in two months.”

  3. Nice article, and as I have stated before, Crucita is a very ugly place, these 3,000 people that work for low wages have to live somewhere and Crucita is where they live. Change comes very slow and anyone thinking of living or buying in this area needs to know that little will change fast here, the shack next door with pigs and roosters in the yard will be there for decades to come.

    • Hi Dean,

      Just for your information, an accord was signed within the last couple of weeks between the “fish cutters” and the municipio, with all the local dignitaries including all the police present. As a result of this accord within two months all of the 20 some fish cutting sheds currently on the beach will move off the beach and into a cooperative building on the other side of town.

      An another side affect is that many of the people who are currently working for peanuts will now be making minimum wage, and will have social security benefits which include health insurance, dental and eye coverage.

      This was the result of the work of many people who believed that they could make a difference, and by one extranjero in particular who believed that Crucita could do better. She showed the locals what is possible, and they took over from there.

      Dean, I think you should have a bit more faith. Perhaps when you see something that you don’t like, instead of standing back and reporting how bad it is, maybe you should just roll up your sleeves and dig in. You may surprise yourself.

      Thanks for your comments.

      Gary

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