After traumatic losses, José Sanchez Surille and his fellow fishermen in Yabucoa have been risking their lives to earn a living and feed their community.
Known by everyone as "Junior," José Sanchez Surille is a second generation fisherman in the municipality of Yabucoa, on the southeastern shore of Puerto Rico. The 65-year-old is President of La Puntita (The Little Point) Fishing Association at Guayanés Beach, where he leads a group of 16 fishermen and women.
Until a recent illness, his wife Maria also fished and ran the association's kiosk where fishermen sold their daily catch of grouper, red snapper, lobster, chapin, and conch directly to locals and commercial clients. His daughter and two of his sons carry on the family tradition but have been unable to return to fishing since the hurricane pounded the island.
Considered ground zero for Hurricane Maria, Yabucoa was the hardest hit municipality in Puerto Rico. The fishing association lost 95% of its infrastructure, including the local pier, the kiosk marketplace, 13 boats, 9 boat motors, 5 boat trailers, 700 traps, refrigerators, and freezers.
Junior says he felt a rush of panic when he first laid eyes on the fishing village after the hurricane. In his 43 years of fishing and battling storms, he had never witnessed such devastation. His fishing village and his livelihood were in tatters, and he wondered how his family and his fellow fishermen would carry on.
With panic causing a dramatic spike in his blood pressure, Junior was hospitalized for several days. But he's always been a fighter and understands what it takes to persevere. Once his blood pressure normalized, he was determined to get back on the ocean.
Resuming work with very limited supplies, Junior and his 16 colleagues have been forced to share 3 boats, compared to their usual 16. And, without a pier, the fishermen and women must anchor their boats offshore and swim their coolers full of product to the beachfront in the wee hours of the morning, between 1:00 and 2:00 am, which is a dangerous undertaking.
These courageous men and women have been risking their lives for the past year to earn a living and provide food for their community. In a fitting tribute, locals have taken to calling Junior and his colleagues "Warriors".
Thanks to generous donations from our supporters, Yabucoa's pier is being rebuilt and the fishing association has been given two new refrigerators to store its catch. We have also hired an engineer to assess the association's solar energy needs.
In the near future, the Paloma del Carmen Fund will provide the association with a new boat motor and solar panels so that it can be energy independent and no longer reliant on the island's weakened power grids.