[Editor’s Note: the following post is written by Karla Milani, marketing specialist for The Nature Conservancy in South America. This is the first in a series chronicling her journey along Colombia’s Magdalena, River. Read more here.]

It’s the second day of our journey through the Magdalena River basin.

We wake up before sunrise to travel to the Llanito Lake, about 45 minutes from the city of Barrancabermeja, Colombia.

It’s still night and in the distance we can see flares of fire from the country’s largest oil refinery.

The sun begins to creep up and “Millo,” our fisherman-host, arrives. After brief introductions, he quickly grabs his fishing nets and machete and we jump in the canoe to start a day of fishing.

As the canoe motors across the lake, a golden sunrise creeps up over the horizon. We join the other fishermen – eight canoes in all – and sail in single file before opening up in to a circle. Nets are thrown out at the same time, forming a corral to catch the fish.

An artisanal fishermen casts his net on the Llanito swamp.

Millo has arrived late, so he can only throw his net in the middle of the circle, after all the others, forming what’s call the “crown.” When the nets are pulled out, it’s obvious that this will be a slow day.

The circle breaks up and the canoes move on to the next fishing spot. As the canoes row across the lake, the fishermen chat between the boats, cracking jokes.

Next attempt brings a little more luck; Millo catches a tilefish and then another.

This collective fishing, once typical in the Magdalena River basin, has been lost. Now, only a few river towns continue the tradition.

Fish stocks have fallen in the Magdalena River basin from 80,000 tons a year to 8,000 tons. Fishermen blame contamination, overfishing and cattle ranching for harming one of the country’s largest sources of protein.

“It’s not like it was before,” says Millo. “There are good days of fishing and other days when nothing gets caught. What can we do? Return home with empty hands?”

For Millo, the Magdalena River and its lake is everything. He finds it hard to imagine a life without fishing, as like many in this region he’s received little formal education. To save these livelihoods, a policy of sustainable fishing must be introduced before it’s too late.

[Image: An artisanal fishermen casts his net on the Llanito swamp. Image credit: Paul Smith]

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