LAGUNILLAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Fishermen from San Luis on Venezuela's oil-producing Lake Maracaibo dive from their boats and minutes later return to the beach, arms loaded with piles of sticky garbage coated black with crude oil.
The area has been blighted in recent weeks by several leaks from the tangle of antiquated pipes, pumps and other oil installations that crisscross the lake, one of the oldest energy hubs in the Latin American OPEC member.
The world may be focused on the much bigger oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but Maracaibo has suffered decades of smaller leaks that have contaminated the environment, affected local industries and even led to the idling of several U.S.-bound tankers while crude was scrubbed off their hulls.
San Luis fisherman Alexander Vargas said the latest oil leaks were affecting his livelihood. "Last night I went out and caught just one fish," he told Reuters despondently. "It was such a bad night, it would have been better to stay at home."
Where he lives on the eastern shores of the lake, his fellow workers have been reduced to collecting crabs, which he said have been able to survive the pollution better than fish.
Many of those crabs are coated with oil, as are the mangrove swamps on the lake's edges. Jutting from the oil-sheened water, which sometimes gives off a rotten smell, are the rusted remains of oil equipment from years gone by.
State oil company PDVSA blames the latest leaks on thieves vandalizing facilities, and says last week it recovered a large amount of equipment stolen from the lake.
Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez downplays the spills, saying they only amount to a tiny eight barrels per day (bpd).
Western Zulia state in which Lake Maracaibo is located produces 80O,000 bpd of Venezuela's 2.9 million bpd output, according to the government.
Ramirez concedes that the situation in Lake Maracaibo is "chronic", with abandoned machinery and thousands of miles of pipelines snaked "like spaghetti" on its bed.
"We have taken out more than 100,000 tonnes of scrap, and repair 117 leaks each week," Ramirez told state television.
The latest spills were first detected early in June, but were initially denied by PDVSA. It later acknowledged there was a problem after local media broadcast images of the leaks. It has now hired hundreds of fishermen for cleanup operations.
TRUCKLOADS OF WASTE
Eliseo Fermin, head of the legislative council of Zulia state, estimated that slicks from the latest leaks were now affecting 8 percent of the surface of the lake.
"The pipelines are completely perforated," Fermin said.
Opposition politicians who run the regional authority say the situation in Maracaibo has deteriorated since President Hugo Chavez's government nationalized 76 oil service companies in the area last year. Local officials have demanded Ramirez and the environment minister resign over the spills.
But the fishermen are most concerned about how many days it will take before they can return to work on the lake.
For now, in the absence of any concrete plans to stop further leaks, some are making money with the cleanup crews employed by PDVSA to try to decontaminate the shores.
"We take out four truckloads full of waste every day from the 15 beaches in the Santa Rosa de Agua area," said Sergio Ortega, a foreman of one crew, whose members each receive 100 bolivars a day for their work (about $23).
The only thing PDVSA and the Zulia state authorities seem to agree on is a plan to relocate shipping terminals out of the lake to reduce risks to the environment in the future.
Ramirez has said PDVSA is "rethinking" its strategy for Maracaibo production. But that is unlikely to satisfy Zulia Governor Pablo Perez, who blames a lack of development in the area on 11 years of neglect by the central government.
"It's not just the lake ... It seems that being 800 km (500 miles) from Caracas is a sin," Perez told Reuters.