Almost 20 years after first documenting the extent of seahorse trade in Viet Nam, we returned to see what, if anything, has changed.
Historical map makers – who worked before the world was fully explored – drew dragons and mermaids at the edges of the known world. Today these mythical creatures have vanished from our maps; the world has been mapped by waves of explorers, surveys, and satellites. We have grown incredibly precise at mapping features as diverse as ocean temperatures, aquifers, and ocean habitats. Yet much remains unknown.
By Jennifer Selgrath
If you want to save money, you can invest in a blue-chip stock and it might grow. But a financial advisor would suggest that you improve your returns by diversifying your portfolio. We might take a similar, diversified approach to managing fisheries so that they are sustainable.
Just like your savings, the marine ecosystems that fisheries depend on need to be managed in order to ensure a healthy, productive future. But researchers working on small-scale fisheries have most often recommended one tool: marine protected areas, or MPAs. So at IMCC3 in Glasgow this August, my colleague Kyle Gillespie and I organized a symposium to broaden our view of the diverse tools and approaches which can support sustainable small-scale fisheries.
Small-scale fisheries employ about half of the world’s fishers and are critically important for food security. But many are in trouble due to overfishing and ecosystem degradation. MPAs, or no-fishing zones, are the management option that is most frequently recommended for these fisheries. MPAs are an important part of the marine conservation toolbox. Project Seahorse has helped fishing communities establish many MPAs over the years. We also, however, want to make sure that we are making fishing sustainable in the 99% of the ocean that remains “unprotected.”
Our IMCC symposium — Complementing MPAs in the Management of Small Scale Fisheries: Other Tools and Approaches — opened with talks by me, Dr. Marcia Moreno-Baez from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and Dr. Gabby Ahmadia from WWF. We spoke about our experiences with small-scale fisheries in the Philippines, Mexico, and Indonesia, respectively. The small-scale fisheries in these three countries are quite diverse. For example fishers in Mexico use modern boats that allow them to travel far offshore while the fisheries in the Philippines use boats that are similar to outrigger canoes, keeping them closer to their coastal villages. Our talks included discussions about management tools ranging from modifying fishing nets to increasing membership in sustainably-minded fishers organizations.
After the talks, we held a discussion about successful – and unsuccessful, but interesting – tools and approaches for managing small-scale fisheries. For the discussion, we were joined by researchers who work in many other parts of the world, but who are addressing surprisingly similar challenges. Through our discussion it became clear that there was no tool could act as a magic bullet to make small-scale fisheries sustainable.
But, importantly, our discussions led us to see that there were commonalities in the approaches that worked for many participants. For example, we agreed that it was important to start any conservation program with clearly articulated goals that are integrated with local and scientific knowledge and values. When researchers or resource managers are developing conservation programs to meet these goals, it’s also important to consider the local culture’s relationship to their fishing practices. Communities’ relationships with fisheries include both social and financial arrangements. For example, fishers may prefer fishing with specific gears and such preferences are important to understand.
On a pragmatic note, many researchers found that it was helpful to start with small conservation projects that have a good chance of success. When this happens, fishing communities can see the relationship between the changes that they make to their fisheries and the improvements in biodiversity and/or catches. This helped the communities to trust larger-scale, longer-term management measures whose impact isn’t as immediately obvious. Another bit of advice was that it is important to have regular feedback between research and fishers. This feedback is important, even before we have perfect knowledge. Overall it was a lively discussion that gave all of us a broader understanding of approaches that have a chance of success in making these diverse fisheries sustainable.
“Can you lift it any higher, Jay?”
Jay was struggling to lift a very large ray out of the water so that I could take a picture. It was very beautiful, very heavy, and very dead. A wife and husband spearfishing team had come back with the GPS they had obligingly taken out with them, and my research assistants Jay and Aileen were there to measure the catch. As part of my research, I’ve been weighing and cataloguing the catches of local small-scale fishers to determine what they catch, who catches what, and what they eat versus what they sell. It’s part of a larger project that looks at gender roles in small-scale fisheries and their impact on food security and conservation.
One look at the ray and we all knew the 4000g electronic weighing scale, which usually does a fantastic job on small shells of all descriptions, would be woefully insufficient for this behemoth catch. Jay had first estimated the ray at 50 kg. When we finally did manage to weigh the fish, it was 37 kg and change. At 65 pesos a kilo this catch was still worth just under 2500 pesos — about US $55-60.
The fishers’ excitement about their catch was understated yet discernable. There was a brouhaha trying to find a big enough scale, and people were gathering around to take a look. One small boy even climbed on the ray’s back. I sat in the corner while the fisher woman recounted the story of pulling the ray into the boat.
The animal was what is known around here as a jackpot catch. Although 2500 may not seem like much, the other catches we measured in this community ranged in worth from 16-350 pesos ($0.40–$8).
I find the concept of ‘jackpot’ to be an interesting one, especially when it comes to fishing practices. I talked to my colleague Bernie about this after the ray had been measured and sold, and confirmed something that had been floating around in my brain: there is no jackpot in gleaning, only in offshore fishing.
Most studies detailing how people decide what fishing methods to use outline the risks and rewards, and like many things in life there is a tendency for those two things to be positively correlated, and (surprise, surprise) it also often plays into the gendering of particular fishing methods.
Dr. Rebecca Bleige Bird’s new research from fishing communities in Torres Strait, between Papua New Guinea and Australia, highlights this point. She discovered that offshore fishing was riskier, both in terms of the possibility of drowning and the chances of catching nothing, but people, mostly men, were drawn to it because there was always the chance of a big catch. And with a big catch comes big prestige.
On the other hand, Bleige Bird found that gleaning — which is done primarily by women and children and involves collecting shells, sea cucumber, octopus, and sometimes fish as they walk the shoreline — is the choice of people who need first and foremost to get food on the table. When food is scarce, you can’t take the risks associated with chasing the big catch.
Blige Bird detailed how, in Torres Strait, women are expected to put food on the table every day, and that leads them to choose gleaning. In my own research, we ask women why they don’t fish off shore in boat, and the answers we get usually mention the physical risks —drowning, exposure to the elements, seasickness, and so on.
As with most gendered activities (that is, activities that are associated with men or women but not both) there is a tension between expectations (men fish, women glean) and reality (men also glean, women also fish). It is this tension between the gender ideal and actual practice that I think presents the possibility of understanding how social change might occur.
So to recap I’ve somehow managed to connect a 37 kg spotted ray with social change and gender equality. I wonder what I’d do if someone caught one of these.
By Danika Kleiber
Today I’m visiting Batasan, a tiny island on Danajon Bank, Philippines, where I hope to find a site for my doctoral research into the role of gender in small-scale fisheries. Leading the way are Marivic Pajaro and Eli Guieb, Project Seahorse alums who did their own doctoral work in the area. I’m hoping that by having Eli and Marivic introduce me to the community here, I’ll be considered cool by association!
Batasan is a small and very densely populated island. The houses line a single street stretching down the middle of the oblong island. The last time Eli and Marivic visited Batasan was six years ago, when they were doing research for their own PhDs, and if the joyful greetings of the community members is anything to go by, they were well liked.
At every house Eli and Marivic catch up with old friends. My grasp of Cebuano, the local language, is still rudimentary, but I practice catching certain words and phrase structures. I realize from these conversations that time is mostly measured in the growth of children. Babies have become little people, and little people have become bigger people. Eli tells me that there are many new houses and more people since the last time he was here.
We have a particularly long conversation with Jerry, a local fisher whom PhD students often hire for his skills as a researcher assistant. Jerry reminds us that there have also been less pleasant changes. There are fewer fish. He tells the story of a fisher spending an entire day fishing and only finding a single crab.
With more mouths to feed and marine resources declining, I can’t help but wonder how the people of Batasan will meet their dietary need for protein in the future. Batasan has an old and well-respected marine protected area (MPA), but by itself it cannot sustain the food needs of this growing community. We touched on this problem during the Marine Protected Areas workshop hosted by Project Seahorse in late June: Small community MPAs are undoubtedly effective at many levels, but they can’t be the only answer.
Danika Kleiber is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.