My conversion - from shearwater hunter to protector of birds and ocean

Isobel (Bella) and father Gil Rodrigues. Photo: Sea Shepherd / Simon Ager.
Isobel (Bella) and father Gil Rodrigues. Photo: Sea Shepherd / Simon Ager.

Marine biologist Isobel (Bella) and her father Gil Rodrigues Fortes. Photo: Sea Shepherd / Simon Ager.

For nearly 30 years, Gil Fortes was a hunter of Cabo Verde's shearwater chicks, helping to drive the bird to the brink of extinction. But following a life-changing rethink, he and his daughter Isabel (Bella), are now at the forefront of efforts to save the shearwater and rebuild its perilously low numbers.
We think a lot about how we are going to feed our families, 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.

I came from a poor family; our parents were unable to afford us an education. In 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 eight 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 when shearwaters would have their chicks. We had three boats and 24 fishermen who would come to the island of Raso.

 In the beginning, each boat was taking about 2,500 shearwater chicks, so we were taking more than 7,500 chicks in one season. On the island there were roughly 10,000-12,000 chicks.

Year by year, the birds were getting fewer

As 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 that the shearwater was becoming extinct, and 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 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 and I try to educate the people. I explain how we killed shearwaters and why we had to stop. I explain 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 to explain why we cannot continue doing this.

A proud father: 'now my daughter is a marine biologist'

I started working with Biosfera on 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. Because of her work, she was able to give me more information about what was happening.

Bella has always loved the sea. She has known the shearwaters all her life, and 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 conservation program, locating 4,836 chicks on the island and more than 9,000 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.

The first two weeks of November saw the juvenile shearwaters migrate from Raso, with Bisofera 1 and Sea Shepherd maintaining a physical presence on the island to deter poachers until the birds had all flown. Next year, we'll be back to welcome the shearwaters home.



This article was originally published by Sea Shepherd.

Translation by Rosi Lima.

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