Fishermen live in stain of Venezuela's broken oil industry

Fishermen covered in oil get their boat ready for fishing on Lake Maracaibo near La Salina crude oil shipping terminal in Cabimas, Venezuela, July 9, ...
A non-operational oil pump, owned by state-owned oil company PDVSA, stands still in Cabimas, Venezuela, May 16, 2019. Venezuela's oil boom through the...
Oil-covered fishermen carry home the truck tire inner tubes they use to float on in Lake Maracaibo in Cabimas, Venezuela, July 12, 2019. Venezuelan fi...
A fisherman paddles from the inner tube of a truck tire on Lake Maracaibo near La Salina crude oil shipping terminal near Cabimas, Venezuela, May 22, ...
Jose Lugano collects crude oil leaking near the pipes that carry gas to his kitchen, near Lake Maracaibo in Cabimas, Venezuela, May 24, 2019. Nobody l...
Fishermen wearing oil stained uniforms from Venezuela's state-run oil firm PDVSA, catch bass known as "robalo" near La Salina crude oil shipping termi...
Fishermen Erick Alejandro, left, and Kelvin Alcala remove oil accumulated inside their boat after a workday on the oil-soaked shore of Lake Maracaibo ...
A fisherman wipes oil off his freshly caught crab from Lake Maracaibo on Punta Gorda beach in Cabimas, Venezuela, May 21, 2019. Crabs from Lake Maraca...
A boy sleeps as locals clean oil off of freshly harvested crabs from Lake Maracaibo, on Punta Gorda beach in Cabimas, Venezuela, May 21, 2019. Fisherm...
A spoon hangs inside a fisherman's kitchen, with walls covered in crude oil, in Cabimas, Venezuela, July 4, 2019. The world's largest crude reserves f...
The hands of fisherman Edward Alexander Barrios are covered in oil as he organizes bass, known as "robalo," that he caught in Lake Maracaibo as he ret...
Fisherman Antonio Tello jokes around with his daughter Genesis Tello as they clean oil off of crabs that he caught in Lake Maracaibo, on Punta Gorda b...
Fisherman Yanis Rodríguez and his family ride in the back of a 1970's taxi, driven by a PDVSA state oil worker who makes extra money as a taxi driver,...
Fishermen use an oil-blackened net to pull up their catch near La Salina crude oil shipping terminal, behind, on Lake Maracaibo near Cabimas, Venezuel...
Crab fisherman whose clothing and equipment are soaked with oil take a smoke break on Lake Maracaibo near Punta Gorda beach in Cabimas, Venezuela, May...
Fisherman Manuel Nune's stomach is covered in oil, as he cleans up after a day of crab fishing on Lake Maracaibo in Cabimas, Venezuela, July 4, 2019. ...
Fabiola Elizalzabal washes fish caught by her father near La Salina crude oil shipping terminal on Lake Maracaibo, next to an oil-covered shore in Cab...
Resting in a hammock, a fishermen's feet are covered with oil after a morning of crab fishing in Lake Maracaibo, in Cabimas, Venezuela, July 4, 2019. ...
A youth standing inside a well draws water from the roadside in Cabimas, Venezuela, July 12, 2019. Residents dug the well themselves as a way to resol...
A painting of Venezuelan national hero Simon Bolivar hangs in a bedroom at the home of fisherman Yanis Rodríguez in Cabimas, near Maracaibo Venezuela,...
Fishermen nap in front of a mural of Lake Maracaibo, full of oil rigs, after working to catch crabs in the lake in Cabimas, near Maracaibo, Venezuela,...
During a blackout, a man is illuminated by torches made out of crude oil, and known as "mechurrios," the name for the flares that burn excess gas on t...
A man points to a boat of fishermen working off the shore near La Salina crude oil shipping terminal, run by the state-run oil company PDVSA, on Lake ...
During a blackout, oil is added to a bucket of fire, known as a "mechurrio," the name for the flares that burn excess gas on top of oil wells, inside ...
Fisherman Jose Miguel Perez, whose nickname is "Taliban," navigates the oil infested waters of Lake Maracaibo, near Cabimas, Venezuela, May 21, 2019. ...
Fisherman Alejandro Elizalzabal, whose shirt is covered in oil from Lake Maracaibo, weighs his catch after a work day on the lake, in Cabimas, Venezue...
Fisherman William Vilchez stands on his boat on the oil-covered shoreline of Lake Maracaibo in Cabimas, Venezuela, May 18, 2019. The world's largest c...
Dogs search for scraps of fish left behind by fishermen on the shore of Lake Maracaibo blacked by oil, near La Salina crude oil shipping terminal in C...
Fishermen pull in their nets as they fish for shrimp near La Salina crude oil shipping terminal, behind, on Lake Maracaibo near Cabimas, Venezuela, at...

Fishermen covered in oil get their boat ready for fishing on Lake Maracaibo near La Salina crude oil shipping terminal in Cabimas, Venezuela, July 9, ...

A non-operational oil pump, owned by state-owned oil company PDVSA, stands still in Cabimas, Venezuela, May 16, 2019. Venezuela's oil boom through the...

Oil-covered fishermen carry home the truck tire inner tubes they use to float on in Lake Maracaibo in Cabimas, Venezuela, July 12, 2019. Venezuelan fi...

A fisherman paddles from the inner tube of a truck tire on Lake Maracaibo near La Salina crude oil shipping terminal near Cabimas, Venezuela, May 22, ...

Jose Lugano collects crude oil leaking near the pipes that carry gas to his kitchen, near Lake Maracaibo in Cabimas, Venezuela, May 24, 2019. Nobody l...

Fishermen wearing oil stained uniforms from Venezuela's state-run oil firm PDVSA, catch bass known as "robalo" near La Salina crude oil shipping termi...

Fishermen Erick Alejandro, left, and Kelvin Alcala remove oil accumulated inside their boat after a workday on the oil-soaked shore of Lake Maracaibo ...

A fisherman wipes oil off his freshly caught crab from Lake Maracaibo on Punta Gorda beach in Cabimas, Venezuela, May 21, 2019. Crabs from Lake Maraca...

A boy sleeps as locals clean oil off of freshly harvested crabs from Lake Maracaibo, on Punta Gorda beach in Cabimas, Venezuela, May 21, 2019. Fisherm...

A spoon hangs inside a fisherman's kitchen, with walls covered in crude oil, in Cabimas, Venezuela, July 4, 2019. The world's largest crude reserves f...

The hands of fisherman Edward Alexander Barrios are covered in oil as he organizes bass, known as "robalo," that he caught in Lake Maracaibo as he ret...

Fisherman Antonio Tello jokes around with his daughter Genesis Tello as they clean oil off of crabs that he caught in Lake Maracaibo, on Punta Gorda b...

Fisherman Yanis Rodríguez and his family ride in the back of a 1970's taxi, driven by a PDVSA state oil worker who makes extra money as a taxi driver,...

Fishermen use an oil-blackened net to pull up their catch near La Salina crude oil shipping terminal, behind, on Lake Maracaibo near Cabimas, Venezuel...

Crab fisherman whose clothing and equipment are soaked with oil take a smoke break on Lake Maracaibo near Punta Gorda beach in Cabimas, Venezuela, May...

Fisherman Manuel Nune's stomach is covered in oil, as he cleans up after a day of crab fishing on Lake Maracaibo in Cabimas, Venezuela, July 4, 2019. ...

Fabiola Elizalzabal washes fish caught by her father near La Salina crude oil shipping terminal on Lake Maracaibo, next to an oil-covered shore in Cab...

Resting in a hammock, a fishermen's feet are covered with oil after a morning of crab fishing in Lake Maracaibo, in Cabimas, Venezuela, July 4, 2019. ...

A youth standing inside a well draws water from the roadside in Cabimas, Venezuela, July 12, 2019. Residents dug the well themselves as a way to resol...

A painting of Venezuelan national hero Simon Bolivar hangs in a bedroom at the home of fisherman Yanis Rodríguez in Cabimas, near Maracaibo Venezuela,...

Fishermen nap in front of a mural of Lake Maracaibo, full of oil rigs, after working to catch crabs in the lake in Cabimas, near Maracaibo, Venezuela,...

During a blackout, a man is illuminated by torches made out of crude oil, and known as "mechurrios," the name for the flares that burn excess gas on t...

A man points to a boat of fishermen working off the shore near La Salina crude oil shipping terminal, run by the state-run oil company PDVSA, on Lake ...

During a blackout, oil is added to a bucket of fire, known as a "mechurrio," the name for the flares that burn excess gas on top of oil wells, inside ...

Fisherman Jose Miguel Perez, whose nickname is "Taliban," navigates the oil infested waters of Lake Maracaibo, near Cabimas, Venezuela, May 21, 2019. ...

Fisherman Alejandro Elizalzabal, whose shirt is covered in oil from Lake Maracaibo, weighs his catch after a work day on the lake, in Cabimas, Venezue...

Fisherman William Vilchez stands on his boat on the oil-covered shoreline of Lake Maracaibo in Cabimas, Venezuela, May 18, 2019. The world's largest c...

Dogs search for scraps of fish left behind by fishermen on the shore of Lake Maracaibo blacked by oil, near La Salina crude oil shipping terminal in C...

Fishermen pull in their nets as they fish for shrimp near La Salina crude oil shipping terminal, behind, on Lake Maracaibo near Cabimas, Venezuela, at...

CABIMAS, Venezuela (AP) — Nobody lives as closely with the environmental fallout of Venezuela's collapsing oil industry as the fishermen who scratch out an existence on the blackened, sticky shores of Lake Maracaibo.

The once prized source of vast wealth has turned into a polluted wasteland, with crude oozing from hundreds of rusting platforms and cracked pipelines that crisscross the briny tidal bay. Much of it coats the fishermen's daily catch of blue crab that has to be scrubbed clean before it's shipped to market in the United States and elsewhere.

The sludge smears fishing boats, clogs outboard motors and stains nets. At the end of each sunbaked workday, fishermen wash oil clinging to their hands and feet with raw gasoline. They say the prickly rash in their skin is the price of survival.

"This seems like the end of the world," said 28-year-old Lenin Viera, acknowledging the hard reality hundreds of fishermen like him face near the city of Cabimas: If they don't work, their families don't eat.

The world's largest crude reserves fueled an oil boom making Venezuela — a founding member of OPEC — one of Latin America's richest nations through the 1990s. The lake's namesake city, Maracaibo, with more than a million people earned the nickname "Venezuela's Saudi Arabia" for its high-end restaurants, luxurious shopping and bright lights adorning an 8.7 kilometer (5.4 mile) bridge spanning the lake.

But the boom has since turned to bust. Venezuela's production nationwide has crashed to one-fifth of its all-time high two decades ago. Critics blame the socialist revolution launched by the late, charismatic Hugo Chavez. His successor, President Nicolás Maduro, accuses the "imperialist" U.S. of leading an economic war bent on destroying his socialist nation.

Environmentalists say Lake Maracaibo was first sacrificed in the name of progress starting in the 1930s, when a canal was excavated so bigger oil tankers could reach its ports. Sea water flowed in, killing freshwater wildlife, such as some plants and fish. In a second blow, agriculture surged to meet the growing food demand, discharging fertilizer runoff into the lake, further ravaging the ecosystem with algae blooms.

Venezuela's communications ministry and the head of Venezuela's state-run oil firm PDVSA didn't respond to written requests for comment for this story.

Today, the lake is an apocalyptic scene that's getting worse as oil-soaked gunk of trash and driftwood lines its downwind shore. A breeze running across the fetid banks sends the headache-inducing smell of petroleum from perpetual oil spills through the waterside villages of simple cinderblock homes with corrugated metal roofs, exposing people who depend on the lake for food and jobs.

This is not what 37-year-old Yanis Rodríguez envisioned for himself when he started fishing commercially as a teenager. He used to dream of one day buying a new car and sending his eight daughters to private school.

"But not anymore," said Rodríguez, who lives on rationed electricity and struggles to find sources of clean water for washing, cooking and drinking. "Everything is going from bad to worse."

Aside from potential long-term health risks from the polluted water, the dangers can be immediate. An explosion badly burned three fishermen recently when they fired up their boat's motor near a natural gas leak that bubbles up from the bottom of the lake, engulfing them in flames.

Villagers say they first noticed oil lapping ashore when the petroleum industry's downturn began under Chavez's rule. As oil workers from the once-proud state oil monopoly fled for more lucrative jobs abroad, the vast crude-pumping machinery fell into disuse and slow-motion decay.

Along a polluted shoreline called Punta Gorda one sweltering afternoon, a crew hauled in its catch of crabs — introduced to U.S. markets after a Louisiana oilman in 1968 spotted large numbers in the lake's oil fields and told his brother in the seafood business.

On the count of three, the barefoot fishermen leaned their shoulders into the rear of their boat, sliding it ashore over the spilled oil. In pairs, they carried heavy crates to the scale as the crabs clambered to escape, claws raised in self-defense.

Fishermen picked out oil-coated crabs from the bunch, tossing each one into buckets. Their wives, seated in the shade of a fishing hut, used toothbrushes and rags to clean them — sometimes shrieking in pain from being pinched.

The crabs were then weighed and trucked to processing plants for their eventual shipment to consumers in the United States, neighboring Colombia and locally in Venezuela, who have no idea the crab on their plates was caught in oil-soaked water.

Cornelis Elferink, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, said consumers occasionally exposed to oil-soaked crab don't likely face a health risk. Elferink hasn't inspected Maracaibo's fishing industry, but he led a five-year study of seafood contamination after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Rather, the Venezuelan fishermen are the ones at risk from persistent long-term exposure, he said. The oily water, petroleum fumes and daily diet of the contaminated seafood expose the local villages to a host of potential health problems such as respiratory illnesses, skin lesions and even cancer, he said.

"The Venezuelan fisher folks are living a hellacious existence," Elferink said. "They're at the epicenter."

Simon Bolivar, 53, said he had been fishing in Lake Maracaibo since age seven. Like his fellow fishermen, he ends his workday plunging each foot into a bucket of gasoline, then rinsing oil from his hands and face. Bolivar says he's become used to the sting.

Amid Venezuela's political crisis and food shortages, he's lost 46 pounds (21 kilograms) in the last few years, relying mainly on crabs and other seafood he catches from the lake to feed his family.

"We should be afraid," said Bolivar, named for Venezuela's heroic founding father. "If we don't go fishing, we won't catch anything. Then, what will eat? No one's going to come and rescue us."

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Associated Press photographer Rodrigo Abd and writer Sheyla Urdaneta contributed to this report from Cabimas, Venezuela.

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Scott Smith on Twitter: @ScottSmithAP

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support  from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.