Behind the airport on Rio de Janeiro’s Governador Island, fishermen live in an area called the “Molotov Cocktail,” so known because of the pollution found there.
These fishermen catch their fish in Guanabara Bay — the place where Olympic sailors will compete that’s become something of a legend over the past year because of the high levels of sewage, viruses, and trash lurking in the water. Guanabara Bay is huge, and the fishermen don’t work near the Olympic competition area.
But they still have to contend with pollution and the increasingly poor reputation of the body of water.
Alex Sandro Santos, president of the Tubiacanga Association of Free Fishermen, is a third-generation fisherman in the area. Fifty years ago, he says, you could find dolphins swimming in Guanabara Bay. But when a Petrobras petroleum plant opened up four decades ago, things started going downhill.
“With the growing population here, everything goes in the bay without treatment,” he told Tech Insider during a visit to Guanabara Bay in 2015.
At the beginning of that year, Santos recalls, a journalist from local publication O Globo threw a red ball into his bathroom toilet. He later found it in the bay.
“There are still fish here, but most species have disappeared. There used to be shrimp, oysters, mussels. No more,” says Santos, pointing to a garbage pile that used to be a sanctuary for crabs.
“Another species going extinct [in the bay] is fishermen,” says Sergio, a fisherman who works on the bay. “The public power has no interest in keeping us alive.”
The city promised to clean up Guanabara Bay in time to host the Olympics, but it hasn’t happened. It’s as filthy as ever.
Only 13% of the bay is even usable by fishermen at this point because of all the oil-refinery activity in the area. Nonetheless, there are still about 20,000 fishermen supplying the community, according to Sergio. They make enough money to live, but there aren’t enough fish to sell beyond the local area.
Plus, many customers no longer want to buy from them because they’re afraid of pollution.
Most fishermen have second jobs. They’re construction workers, cleaners, and boat renters for tourists on the side. Younger local residents see the dismal future in fishing on the bay and have started looking elsewhere.
“There are lots going to deal drugs,” says Sergio.
It’s not just fishermen who are affected by what’s happening on the bay. The people who make the boats, the ones who fix the boats, the restaurants that sell fish — all are feeling the impact.
Amazingly, these aren’t the only hardships fishermen have been dealing with in recent years.
As NPR reports, the fishing community has struggled with numerous unexplained disappearances and deaths. There’s no evidence that oil companies are directly linked to these deaths, but the fishermen I spoke with had their suspicions, speculating that the state wants them to stop fishing to make room for more oil and gas projects.
Petrobras released a statement to NPR denying any responsibility.
So while the world is focused on how the bay’s pollution will affect the Olympics, the fishing industry will deal with the repercussions long after the games have gone.
Ariel Schwartz reported from Brazil as a fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP).
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.