Fish in the middle of oil spots in Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela

There is no one who is suffering from the environmental consequences of the collapse of the Venezuelan oil industry other than the humble fishermen in the dirty and blackish waters of Lake Maracaibo.

The famous lake of western Venezuela, located in an area of ​​intense oil production, has now become a desolate quagmire from which crude oil from pipelines and cracked platforms emanates. Much of the oil substance covers the fish and shellfish collected by fishermen, who must clean and scrub them before they can be sold for export.

The spots cover the fishing boats and the motors and nets spoil them. At the end of each heated day, fishermen eagerly wash their hands and feet with pure gasoline. They get rashes on their skin but they say, resigned, that this is the price they must pay in order to survive.

“This is like the end of the world,” says Lenin Viera, 28, one of the fishermen who recognizes the harsh reality of working there, near the city of Cabimas: If they don’t go fishing, their families don’t eat .

Venezuela has the most abundant oil reserves on the planet, which made the country _ one of the founders of OPEC _ in one of the most prosperous until the late 1990s. The city of Maracaibo, which gave its name to the lake , with more than one million inhabitants, he earned the nickname “Saudi Arabia of Venezuela” due to its luxurious restaurants and shops and the huge bridge of 8.7 kilometers (5.4 miles) long that crosses the lake.

But the days of prosperity are left behind. Venezuelan oil production is now only one fifth of what it was two decades ago. Many attribute the crisis to the “socialist revolution” of the now deceased Hugo Chavez. His successor, the current president Nicolás Maduro, says that the fault lies with an “imperialist campaign” launched by the United States to overthrow it.

Environmental experts say that oil pollution in Lake Maracaibo began in the 1930s, when a canal was dug there to allow navigation of large oil tankers. In a short time, salt water from the sea entered, which killed part of the lake fauna. Apart from that, agriculture developed in the area near the lake, which poured fertilizers into its waters and destroyed part of the ecosystem.

Neither the Venezuelan Ministry of Communications nor the president of the state company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) responded to requests for comment for this report.

Today, the lake is a desolate quagmire where dirty and stained debris appears on the shore. A foul odor permeates the area and reaches the surrounding villages, of humble homes made of bricks and zinc roofs.

That is not the reality that Yanis Rodríguez, 37 years old today, when he began fishing there as a teenager. At that time he dreamed of buying a new car and sending his daughters to a private school.

“I don’t dream that anymore,” said Rodriguez, who lives under a regime of rationing electricity and barely gets clean water to drink, bathe or wash. “Here things go from bad to worse.”

Apart from the health risk involved in living near contaminated water, there are more immediate dangers. An explosion left three fishermen severely burned when they started the engine of their boat just where it was pouring a gas leak, engulfing them in flames.

Local residents say the first time they saw oil stains on the shore was at the beginning of the Chavez government, when the oil industry began to deteriorate. As PDVSA employees fled the country in search of better paid jobs, the infrastructure fell into deterioration and disuse.

In a nearby area called Punta Gorda, a hot recent afternoon, a group of fishermen took crabs out of the water, a product that began to be exported to the United States after an oil businessman from Louisiana in 1968 detected a large amount in the lake and He told his brother, who was in the seafood industry.

Barefoot fishermen counted to three and pushed the boat together towards the lake, in the middle of the oil-stained waters. Two by two they placed the boxes on the scale to weigh them while the crabs were shaken in a desperate attempt to let go.

The fishermen took out each oil-stained crab one by one and threw it in containers. Their wives, sitting in the shade of a nearby hut, cleaned the product with rags and toothbrushes, and sometimes screamed when one of the tongs pinched them.

Then the cargo is placed in trucks to be taken to processing plants, where it will be marketed in other parts of Venezuela or exported to neighboring Colombia or the United States. Nowhere is it reported that the product was taken from contaminated water.

Cornelis Elferink, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Texas at Galveston, said that occasionally ingesting crab collected from contaminated water probably does not pose a health risk. Elferink has not inspected the products that leave Lake Maracaibo, but led a five-year survey of marine wildlife pollution after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

However, Elferink believes that those who are at serious risk are fishermen, who must work in a polluted environment day after day. Oleaginous water, toxic vapors and daily ingestion of contaminated products can cause a wide variety of diseases such as respiratory difficulties, dermal lesions and even cancer, he estimated.

“Those Venezuelan fishermen have an infernal existence,” said Elferink. “They are at the epicenter of everything.”

Simón Bolívar, 53, says he has been a fisherman in Lake Maracaibo since he was 7 years old. Like his companions, he ends up sinking his feet in a gasoline container every day and washing the oil from his hands and face. He says he is already accustomed to burning skin.

With the political crisis and food shortages that affect Venezuela, Bolívar has lost 21 kilos (46 pounds) in recent years, and basically supports his family thanks to crabs and other products he takes out of the lake.

“We should be afraid,” says Bolivar, baptized with the name of the South American independence hero. “If we don’t fish, what do we eat? No one will come to save us.”

With information from El Nuevo Herald.

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