Colombia fisherman Jose Danilo Herrera holding a safety card
Jose Danilo Herrera was stranded at sea after his boat capsized

Jose Danilo Herrera was fishing in open sea when the storm hit.

His boat was just 30 kilometres (18 miles) from Loma de Arena, a small town on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. But it was too old and weak to power through a churning ocean. Then a huge wave flipped the vessel over, hurling Herrera and his two boatmates into the water.

The trio clung to the wreckage. Afternoon turned to dusk. Through the night, they tried not to think of the many sharks in these waters.

There were times they even heard the motors of ships searching for them in the dark. They screamed at the top of their lungs. It was all to no avail. "I am the kind of person, that, even when in the greatest danger, I never lose hope and calm," says Herrera. "But the truth is, I feared for my life."

Finally, the following afternoon, the fishermen were found – exhausted, famished and dehydrated, but alive.

Yet such stories have ended in tragedy. In the past, Colombian anglers caught in storms or suffering mechanical breakdowns have lost their lives.

The World Trade Organization and the United Nations are among authorities that are concerned about the vulnerability of small-scale fishing in coastal communities, especially those where the practice is deeply embedded in the culture and where fish are a major food source.

In recent years, however, through a programme sponsored by Shell, fishermen and women from Colombia’s coastal communities have adopted new safety practices designed to reduce risk. Now, they claim, their artisanal fishing is not just safer. They say it's more lucrative.

Working together

The collaboration began several years ago, after Shell began exploring the feasibility of developing offshore activities in the region. As part of that assessment, the company asked fishermen and women for help collecting data on the volume of their catch and the health of the fish.

By studying these factors, Shell could monitor whether exploration activity was having an effect.

No effect was found. Shell's exploration activities were in deep water far away from the relatively shallow depths where fishing occured. But these interactions sparked other ideas among Shell staff – like how the safety culture around fishing could be improved.

"They would just go out in their boats without any personal protection equipment," says Ana Duque Vallejo, Shell's Country Chair in Colombia. "It was a struggle at first, because they didn’t understand why they should wear a lot of clothing and use a lot of equipment. They said it would be hot and uncomfortable. But it all comes back to the same question: Do you want to make it back home?"

One of Shell’s core values is to invest in community projects that advance social and economic conditions in the communities where it operates.

In a series of workshops, fishermen and women were invited to create their own set of safety rules. They were also given life vests, sun protection, whistles and global positioning system (GPS) devices that would help them navigate the ocean. Radios were also given that could be used to check weather reports for impending storms. Some also received new boats.

Colombia fisherman Ronald Herrerra holding a safety card
Ronald Herrera was involved in six incidents during his 25 years of fishing

Towards a safer future

Ronald Herrera has seen his boat capsize six times during his 25 years of fishing. Three times he has been stranded by a broken engine.

"The new boat we have now is safer," he says. "It's very difficult to sink, unlike the one we had before. The radio and vests also give us more protection."

Fishermen and women have received new nets and hooks that have made them more effective at catching adult fish while sparing younger fish, aiding the sustainability of the region’s fishing stock.

Through the programme, the fishing community also gained refrigeration facilities where a catch can be kept fresh and sold the next day. Herrera claims that his profits have increased since he received the new equipment.

"It changed my life, because I got the tools to make it better," says David Sanchez Anaya, who has been fishing for 20 years. "Now I always have something every day – fresh fish. And I feel safe."

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