Most commercial fishermen in Mexico belong to cooperatives, which makes it easier to promote sustainable fisheries there than in other countries. But because their fishing rights predate the creation of the 10 marine protected areas in Mexico’s portion of the MAR, many of those cooperatives do the bulk of their fishing inside national parks and reserves.
To prevent overfishing and improve protection of Mexico’s Caribbean reefs, Comunidad y Biodiversidad (COBI) works with fishing cooperatives and other organizations in the state of Quintana Roo, promoting a model of sustainable fisheries that it is showing success in the Sea of Cortez, where COBI has worked for many years.
In 2010, a more concerted effort began to bring together stakeholders from different sectors to step up this work. COBI was chosen to help coordinate an alliance of 33 organizations that includes fishing cooperatives, academics, NGOs and government agencies to create a network of no-take zones (alternately known as fish refuges or fisheries replenishment zones). The Alliance adopted the official name of Kanan Kay (caretakers of the fish in Maya language) and set an ambitious goal to secure at least 20% of Quintana Roo’s territorial waters in fish refuges to bring back the marine life abundance that one characterized their waters.
“Our main work is with the fishermen,” said Luis Bourillón, the director of COBI’s MAR program. “We establish a dialogue that can take years before it begins to give results, but it is the best way to achieve significant change.”
COBI collaborates with many partners, including RAZONATURA, RARE, Amigos de Sian Ka’an and National Protected Areas Commission (CONANP) to get cooperatives that fish inside Puerto Morelos Reef National Park, and the Banco Chinchorro and Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserves to adopt sustainable fishing practices and establish fish refuges there.
COBI and RAZONATURA have trained fishermen from cooperatives in basic marine biology and monitoring techniques, and work with them to monitor and evaluate the health of lobster populations ─ their principal source of income. By tracking lobster movements and identifying areas that are vital for their life cycle ─ as well as that of other commercial species ─ biologists and fishermen together have chosen areas to protect as fish refuges. Evidence elsewhere shows that if certain locations are 100% protected, marine life will reproduce enough to populate the adjacent areas in what is called the “spillover effect.”
We present it as a business opportunity,” Bourillón said. “The fishermen are fairly open to the idea because they’ve seen their fish shocks diminish over the years.”
RAZONATURA has also convinced cooperatives to adopt sustainable fishing practices such as catching and selling only live lobster, which helps them comply with size limits and release lobsters with eggs.
RAZONATURA has also helped the six cooperatives that fish inside the two biosphere reserves to develop marketing strategies such as selling live lobster under a collective eco-label, Chakay, and earning Marine Stewardship Council certification to provide economic incentives for environmentally friendly practices.
“It’s hard to sell the idea of sustainability by simply saying that you have to leave the small lobster so that they can grow and produce offspring. We have sell the idea that it will give the fishers a better income, because of the eco-label, or because the market will pay them more for live lobster,” said RAZONATURA founder Kim Ley.
The international conservation organization RARE and CONANP have complemented RAZONATURA’s efforts by helping two fishing cooperatives in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve to develop ecotourism and fly fishing as income alternatives to unsustainable fishing practices, such as setting nets. Those cooperatives have also identified three areas of the reef to protect as fish refuges.
To the north of Sian Ka’an, the Centro Ecológico Akumal (CEA) is working for the creation of a marine protected area in Akumal Bay, which is known for the sea turtles that forage and nest there. While striving to control that area’s growing dive and sport-fishing tourism, CEA is engaging commercial fishermen, local businesses and government agencies in an effort to establish a fish refuge.
The first group to create a fish refuge on the MAR was the fishing cooperative in Puerto Morelos, a coastal town 40 kilometers south of Cancun. The cooperative’s members primarily fish inside the Puerto Morelos National Marine Park, which comprises approximately 90 square kilometers of reef and related ecosystems.
Though the park has several small no-take zones, the fishermen hardly respected them prior to 2009, when the cooperative voted to stop fishing in an area that covers more than one third of the park.
Ramón Povedano, who was the Puerto Morelos’ cooperative’s president for 10 years, explained that its members’ total catch dropped very little after they created that fish refuge, because the fishing improved significantly around it. He added that the amount of conch and lobster inside the refuge has doubled in the past two years.
Some of the older fishermen opposed the refuge’s creation, but now that they’ve seen the fishing improve in the rest of the park, they’re happy,” he said.
Bourillón explained that a key to the strategy’s success is to involve fishermen in monitoring the reef and its fisheries from the start, because when they see what is happening underwater, they become more and more convinced of the strategy’s effectiveness.
COBI hires fishermen to participate in regular marine monitoring in their area and, according to Bourillón, they produce high quality data. He noted that involving fishermen in data collection and sharing the results of monitoring with all cooperative members makes it easier to convince them of the advantages of creating, and respecting fish refuges.
“The opportunity to participate in monitoring has changed the fishermen’s attitudes,” observed Povedano. Cristóbal Vásquez, a member of the Puerto Morelos cooperative that helps COBI monitor the reserve, says he enjoys the work because it has helped him to perceive things that he didn’t pay attention to before. “We are working to conserve the species that we depend on, not just for ourselves, but for other people too,” he said.