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© Claire Pattison- Valente

The Lobster War

      on Brazil's coast



Together with Cuba and Mexico, Brazil is Latin America's most important lobster exporter.


Sandra Weiss

Bildschirmfoto 2018-12-19 um

Behind this gourmet product, which is highly coveted in the USA and Europe, lurks not only violence, corruption and mismanagement but also a dangerous lean towards the complete extinction of the lobster. A fishing village fights on the front line against the lobster pirates.

2016: An excerpt from the documentary "He won her with fish" 

At night, Raimundo Bonfim doesn’t dare step outside his door, and during the day he leaves his little house with a view of the idyllic Redonda bay, only with company. The lobster war on Brazil's north coast has already cost too many lives and the 55 year-old wheelchair user is at the top of the lobster pirates’ black list. But that doesn't dissuade the former employee of the environmental authority IBAMA to stop his fight against the illegal fishermen. No more than does the paralyzing state bureaucracy.

Three kilometres away, at the beach pub of the neighbouring bay of Ponta Grossa, one would not suspect the mammoth task Bonfim has in front of him. There you'll find fresh lobster on the menu - even though it's the closed season. On the beach, a few young people hastily stow away the oxygen pump and the garden hose: lobster pirates are forbidden to dive for the coveted crustacean. Only traps are allowed. They are nervous and aggressive: "After all, we have to live off something in the closed season," one grumbles.

2015: Subtitled excerpt from the documentary: "Zoff im Paradies" 

„The pirate boats often belong to the front men of influential politicians and businessmen," says Rene Schärer, a retired Swiss environmental activist and social entrepreneur. Once a Swissair manager, he spends his retirement on the coast of Ceará in the fishing village of Prainha do Canto Verde near Fortaleza, where he has lived for over 30 years. At the time, Schärer was the first to fight on the frontline against the lobster pirates. "They hire young people who have to work under slave-like conditions," he says. “Sometimes they are on the water for days, until they fulfil their catch quota. Some only endure it under the influence of drugs. Others get the decompression disease because of their inadequate equipment and lack of care during the ascent. It partially or completely paralyses their bodies”.

Often only one bay separates those who obey the laws and those who break them. Fishermen versus fishermen - that doesn't make things any easier. Again and again, the artisan fishermen of the state of Ceará, who sail out to sea in wooden nutshells, have complained to the authorities: because their traps have been stolen, because the fishing grounds were as if swept clean by unlicensed  boats diving for lobsters and taking everything they can get their hands on - spawning females as well as juvenile lobster which are far too small. The Spiny Rock Lobster, highly prized abroad, arouses greed:  exported, they bring in ten times more money than fish.

„The pirate boats often belong to the straw men of influential politicians and businessmen"

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Even today, ‘Bank’ is the vernacular name for the reefs where the crustaceans like to gather. "All you have to do is sail out, collect a few, and you already have money in your pocket," smiles Tobias Suárez, president of the local fishermen's union.

But the golden days are over. Today he fights for the survival of his profession.

"It began in the 70s and was like a fever; everyone wanted a share." confirms Antonio Adauto, a lobster expert from the Labomar Research Institute at Fortaleza State University. "And because there are hardly any other jobs here in the poor north east, the state subsidized lobster fishing with cheap gasoline and tax breaks. The sector inflated like a ballon. Only a quick profit was important. There were rules and a closed season, but nobody obeyed them.

There were rules and a closed season, but nobody obeyed them. The lobster exporters financed campaigns; the politicians looked the other way”.

Fisch ausnehmen

The artisanal fishermen were disadvantaged when compared to the faster motorboats of the pirates. They were repeatedly put off by the authorities, their pleas ignored, - until they themselves bought a motorboat. Then they went on patrol and captured one pirate boat after another. They piled up a dozen such boats on the beach, then the pirates countered with pistols. Following the first deaths, the police intervened: reading the riot act to the artisanal fishermen. "The police allegedly kept  the confiscated boats for safe keeping," says the Union President, Suárez. "A few weeks later they had disappeared - back into the hands of the pirates.”

2015: Subtitled excerpt from the documentary: "Zoff im Paradies" 

Then it became headline news and finally enforcement patrols at sea began. But only briefly and selectively. "Lobster piracy never really stopped," declares Bonfim. He estimates that up to 80% of all lobsters caught in Brazil comes from illegal fishing.


Not even businessmen like Mark Kleinberg can dispute these figures. The stocky, pale manager sits in a white-tiled, windowless office in his factory in Fortaleza. In the past, his export company IPESCA had its own fleet, deep-freezing the catch while still at sea. This is no longer profitable. Now Kleinberg buys the catch - saving on fixed costs for boats and manpower - and outsources the risk to the fishermen. “The lobster is probably coming to an end”, he dares to forecast, but that doesn't bother him as he has long since diversified his business in the direction of prawn farming and fish export. For years, he’s made a turnover of eight and a half million dollars from lobster. He,  the descendant of US immigrants,  emphasises that he only buys from boats with a valid fishing licence. But he does not control whether they fished legally, i.e. with traps instead of diving. "This is the task of the state authorities, but they’re not interested," he says. "We have even made a boat available for enforcement trips, but the bureaucracy has not managed to assign it to a unit and put it into operation.

“The lobster is probably coming to an end” 

Bonfim sees this as pure cynicism: "Businessmen are only interested in maximizing profits. They mix legally and illegally fished lobsters, and on paper they simply increase the quantity that a licensed fisherman has delivered to them." Bonfim suspects this works because some officials are turning a blind eye. Brazil's bureaucracy is a Kafkaesque labyrinth. Until recently, the environmental agency had a single boat to control over 600 kilometers of coastline in the northeast. The navy does not feel responsible for the fight against illegal fishermen, and the Ministry of Fisheries was merged with the Ministry of Agriculture under President Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016). It is traditionally in the hands of big landowners and politicians who only know the sea from beach holidays and see themselves as advocates of industrial fishing.

2016: An excerpt from the documentary "He won her with fish" 

Brazil received the bill for such mismanagement: annual production has fallen by more than half, from 14,000 tonnes in 2002 to 8,000 tonnes today, sometimes even less.  "The situation looks bleak for the lobsters," says researcher Adauto. "They won't die out, but they will disappear as economic commodities." More than 100,000 jobs are at stake in the state of Ceará alone. Even now, the lobster fishermen have to be compensated by the state with a minimum salary of almost 1000 reais (equivalent to about 270 Swiss francs, equivalent to about £194 or $252 US) per month during the six-month closed season in order to survive.

A few years ago, the state intervened for the first time: during an inspection, around half of the licensed lobster fishing fleet lost its license. The pressure on Brazil's government is growing. Importers in the USA and Europe, who are the most important buyers of Brazilian lobster, are increasingly demanding certificates of origin. Consumers have become more demanding. As yet it is unclear whether this will ultimately help the artisan fishermen.

Jan. 2019

IBAMA confiscates 10 tons of fish in the northeast and donates these catches


IBAMA suspends wholesale fish trade from SP for lack of proof of origin

Dec. 2018

IBAMA confiscates 4.2 tonnes of closed season lobster catches in the northeast

IBAMA Zeitung

The inauguration of the right-wing populist, Jair Bolsonaro, in Brazil in January 2019, foreshadowed the restructuring of the fisheries sector. Since Bolsonaro wants to radically cut or even abolish certain social programs, the artesan fishermen fear the loss of their unemployment compensation during the closed season. Fishery experts admit that the loss of seasonal payment would be devastating for the fishermen. But they also see advantages. Many fishermen only fish for forms sake – to get unemployment benefits during the closed season – so in reality they are fraudsters, who, in adition, also contribute to overfishing. Without the compensation, many occasional fishermen would give up, and the remaining fishermen would – potentially – get larger catches.

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