The Centro para la Biodiversidad y la Conservación (CBMC), a Mexican non-profit in La Paz, Baja California Sur, and partner of the GCMP, has been building trust through nurturing interpersonal relationships with local communities and turning the tide on the ineffectual paradigm of “conservationists vs. fishers”. The GCMP feels that empowering small-scale fishers will help ensure the sustainability of the very ecosystem services that their livelihoods depend on; and just as we monitor habitats from deep to shallow, it’s literally a bottom to top model.
The outdated concept of extracting and squirreling away information is also being replaced by a crowd sourcing, or citizen science model, where stakeholders collaborate with researchers and conservationists to obtain their own data and to map and model their own resources. This is being realized partly through the GCMP’s Trackers Program, an initiative that applies emergent technology in GPS tracking devices to map artisanal fishing activities over significant areas.
On our latest Trackers mission, four scientists from the CBMC loaded into the truck and headed thirty minutes out of the dusty city of La Paz along the eastern highway to La Ventana, a small fishing community with scattered residences and a light tourism infrastructure. Among the attractions here are diving, spear fishing, and an epic view of the long and mountainous Isla Cerralvo, just 17km off shore.
Our first stop was at the cement house of Ivan “The Onion,” a sturdy structure alike to the owner. Like many of the houses in rural Baja, it looks only half built, and yet offers everything that’s needed, and more. Ivan was relaxing because the fishing had recently been so good. The desert plants in the sandy “garden” were well tended, the family paper store was open for business and the kids had brand new toys laying in the yard. Nevertheless, Ivan has become increasingly concerned about the state of his fishing grounds.
One thing he has noticed is more “gringos,” an inoffensive slang for anyone from the United States, flying in and spearing trophy snappers, filling their permit quotas, and their buddy’s too should someone come up empty handed. In Ivan’s words, “taking one record-size fish is equivalent to taking many smaller ones in the future.” Indeed, these big fish are the most reproductively viable and thus the brood stock of his artisanal fishery.
Ivan joined the Trackers team a few months ago, after talking with a mutual colleague who had benefited from working with the program in the northern Gulf. He was more than happy to go over his data with us, which we brought printed out on a satellite map, and he pointed out, among other things, what species he fished and where. Our analysts can interpret much from looking at the tracks, but there is no substitute for information straight from the fisher’s mouth. For example, Ivan told us where he had caught barillete, or skipjack tuna, Katsuwonus pelamis, a commonly exploited commercial fish that he uses as bait. Ivan’s target species, fished with a hook, line and buoy method, are shark (the particular species is unknown – an example of key information that we hope to attain) and guachinango/pargo, or Pacific red snapper, Lutjanus peru, a carnivorous reef-fish.
In my experience, fishing captains have always guarded their secrets like magicians, so it felt like real progress to have earned this one man’s trust. More specific information we pledge to keep confidential, in order to protect the fisher’s permitted rights from guateros, or illegal fishers. Interestingly, Ivan’s fishing map showed high route-fidelity; it appears that he follows pelagic fish along a single path out to sea. This data can be used to reveal his highest value catch areas, as well as where he needs to go for bait, how much gas he is using and the physical risks of his operation. Indeed, the usefulness of this data is more boundless than fish in the sea, and what is more, we employ our own experts to mine and refine the data, a time-consuming service that is rarely provided to other businesses gratis.
Our work is not without expenses, and in the near future we hope to reduce costs by improving the technology, for example with automated trackers that transmit directly to a satellite and charge via solar panels. We can imagine a fleet of vessels with mounted tracking systems continuously relaying information to a platform that is easy enough for the fishermen to use at their own leisure, and to their own benefit.
For example, by comparing historical tracking data with catch and income data, fishers can identify over-exploited areas and create their own management plans. This has already occurred in the northern Gulf, where our Trackers partners have used their data to negotiate fair compensation with the government for temporary fishing closures, as well as to revise quotas for the sustainable exploitation of fish like the Gulf Curvina, Cynoscion othonopterus, a historically over-fished species that is listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN red list. The new data also stimulated them to experiment with alternative methods that reduce by-catch of species, namely the highly endangered Vaquita Marina, or Gulf Harbor Porpoise.
Our next stop was at the abode of a fisherman named Gill, aka “Don Yo-Yo”. Gill is older and balder than Ivan, and has been a fisher his whole life. He claimed, perhaps with a little regret, that he never had the opportunity to study, but the opportunities offered by the Trackers program did not elude him. Gill will be our monitoring trip captain, and he offered us a fair price on his 26ft panga, an open, outboard motorboat, originally designed for net fishing, typical of the Gulf. Gill seemed to enjoy hanging out in the lot chatting, and I admit that after living in New York the flow of life here can feel viscous. On the other hand, the extra time provides a degree of deliberation and makes it easier to build close interpersonal relationships.
Next, we searched for Doña Angelica’s house to secure our trip’s meals. “Turn right at the cactus,” Jose kept saying amidst a street lined with cacti, until we got a call from the top of the hill from where our hosts had been watching us drive in circles. Night had fallen over the desert, and two grey foxes scattered from the road as we drove up to the sizable, adobe style property, with cars and pangas alike parked in the yard. Everyone was sitting outside contemplating the clear, moonlit sky, including a temperamental little dog and an ultra-relaxed cat sprawled across the sand. We went from standing, to sitting and drinking coffee, and from making food arrangements with the women of the house to setting up a makeshift presentation about the Trackers program for the four fishermen present.
After decades of experience in the field, Ismael has perfected his sales pitch. He was personable, joked around, used language that was simple and easy to understand, and provided key examples of how previous fishers had used the program to their advantage. While one of the men was slow to catch the significance of the lines on the map, another lit up; an important, and complimentary, service was being provided by people that could be trusted. “We are not the authorities,” Ismael made clear, “we are scientists who want to work with you so that you have the tools to negotiate fairly with the authorities.” In other words, “we are on your side.”
During the meeting a little girl rollerbladed around the house knocking over glasses in the kitchen, and a her younger sister burst out of the kitchen yelling out, “I want coffee!” We had a few laughs, shook hands all around and promised to return for our delicious meals and to further discuss a Trackers partnership. Many of the fishers are closely related, and we hope that positive words about the program will spread quickly through the community.
Author: Alan Ruiz Berman
Education and Communications Coordinator at the CBMC.
Alan is a recent MA graduate in Marine Conservation from the University of Wellington, NZ, and previously studied (Prescott College – Kino Bay) and worked (CEDO Intercultural, Puerto Peñasco) in the northern Gulf of California. He has returned to the sea that first inspired him to join the CBMC team in La Paz, where he hopes to help bring awareness to the progressive science and community-based conservation work being undertaken by the awesome GoC Marine Program team in Mexico.