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Shearwaters - Poacher to Savior

Gil Fortes was a poacher of the Shearwater chicks for almost 30 years­, brought to the edge of extinction; he now finds himself following in his daughter’s footsteps; Isabel Fortes (Bella) to save the Cabo Verde Shearwater.


Interview translated by Rosi Lima

In his own words…

Isobel (Bella) and father Gil Rodrigues. Photo: Simon Ager / Sea ShepherdIsobel (Bella) and father Gil Rodrigues.
Photo: Simon Ager / Sea Shepherd
From the age of 16 I have been a fisherman for most of my life. I started catching Shearwaters in 1976. When I wasn’t catching Shearwaters I was fishing.

I came from a poor family; our parents were not able to afford us an education.

The village where I live, it was a tradition to catch the Shearwaters going back many generations. My father did this all his life.

We looked at the Shearwater as not only food but they also made us very good money. The Shearwaters were good business; I would make 200 Euros in 8 days. With the money we fed our families and paid all our debts in one month. When we stopped catching the Shearwater we had a lot of trouble with money, the family and the village.

The month of October was the time Shearwaters would have the chicks. We had three boats and twenty-four fishermen who would come to the island of Raso.

In the beginning each boat was taking about 2500 Shearwater chicks, on the island there were roughly 10 to 12000 chicks, so we were taking over 7500 chicks in one season.

We would reach into the nest using sticks to hook the chick and pull them out. To kill them we would grab them close to the head and spin them around to break the neck.

Head of Shearwater. Photo: Bisofera 1Head of Shearwater. Photo: Bisofera 1As time went on we saw those numbers become smaller and smaller; we were catching less than half the number of chicks from when we first started. We saw the Shearwater was becoming extinct, we knew what we were doing was wrong.

Our conscience started playing with us, we felt bad about what we were doing. It was then that we really thought about the effects of our actions; it was time to stop.

We have many economic troubles, fishing doesn’t give us the good money, and we think a lot about how we are going to feed our families. Sometimes we would think about coming back to Raso; but I know we cannot come here again to catch the Shearwaters; we need to do something different to survive and also help the Shearwaters.

Now I do campaigns, I try to educate the people. I would explain how we killed them and why we had to stop. How it was to see the huge piles of dead Shearwaters. It is difficult for many to understand, because catching the Shearwaters helped all the families and the village to survive so people don’t like us because we stopped.

It is very important to do campaigns to educate the people.

I speak with other fishermen too, in Santo Antão (Sinagoga),, the people like to eat Shearwater, it is important to me to try and explain why we cannot continue doing this.

I started working with Biosfera on some campaigns; it was this connection that saw my daughter Bella join them a few years later. After she became a marine biologist she started her work with Biosfera and the Shearwaters on the island of Raso. With her work she was able to give me more information about what was happening.

Bella always loved the sea; she has known the Shearwaters all her life, now she works to preserve them. Her influence was very strong, the fishermen stopped coming, they would think about returning after she leaves. Thinking that they will return some day when the Shearwaters grow up and the population is healthy again.

Now they know this is not an option and it is not talked about anymore. I am so very proud of Bella’s work!

Using my experience; this year I have been assisting with the program, locating 4836 chicks on the island and over 9000 mature adults.

We have many years before the birds are back to their original numbers; assisting my daughter is my way of helping to make things right again, to better myself and be better than my father……

Bisofera 1 and Sea Shepherd will maintain a physical presence on the island as a poaching deterrent until the middle of November; the first two weeks will see the juveniles migrate from Raso.

Mountain of Shearwater carcasses. Photo: Bisofera 1Mountain of Shearwater carcasses
Photo: Bisofera 1
Shearwaters being defeathered. Photo: Bisofera 1Shearwaters being defeathered
Photo: Bisofera 1
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