Mesoamerican Reef

Working with Fishers to Protect Fish Spawning Aggregations in the Mexican Caribbean

Nassau grouper at spawning aggregation in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, Mexico. Credit: Alfredo Barroso


Comunidad y Biodiversidad (COBI) had been working with fishing communities to improve small-scale fisheries and marine conservation in the Gulf of California for 17 years, when in 2008 it sent staff to Quintana Roo. COBI works closely with fishers to improve their livelihoods, looking to increase their incomes through better business practices and sustainable fishing activities that can eventually be certified by international label bodies such as the Marine Stewardship Council and Fair Trade. Independent certifications can help fishers win better prices for their sustainably caught seafood in premium markets.

Working with fishers in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, COBI focuses on the strategically important fish spawning aggregation sites, where commercially valuable species such as groupers and snappers reproduce at predictable times, leaving them highly vulnerable to overfishing. When they spawn, fish release eggs and sperm for the next generation—essential to maintaining healthy fisheries and coral reefs.

Strategically located no-take areas that fully protect the unique spawning events create benefits for both fisheries and conservation. “Many fish spawn in huge groups,” said Will Heyman, an expert in fish spawning aggregations. “Because they spawn at the same site each year, creating a small marine reserve can be an effective way to protect the fish at this important stage of their life cycle.”

Nassau grouper spawning aggregation in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, Mexico. Credit: Alfredo Barroso

Summit started supporting protection of fish spawning aggregations in Belize in the late 1990s, resulting in the creation of 11 no-take areas there. In Mexico, effective protection of spawning aggregations began when the José María Azcorra Fishing Cooperative created fish refuges on two snapper and grouper spawning sites, including the highly endangered Nassau grouper. Trained local fishers monitor the sites during the spawning season.

With support from Summit and the Alianza WWF-Fundación Carlos Slim, COBI and the Vigia Chico Fishing Cooperative from the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve produced a technical study that was shared with Mexico’s Federal Fisheries to create two new fish refuges (30 km2). During the Nassau grouper spawning season, more than 1,000 fish gather to spawn in the fish refuges, making it one of the most important sites in the Mexican Caribbean.

To date, 50 spawning sites have been identified by traditional fishers’ knowledge. Fishers previously trained in advanced SCUBA diving techniques for reaching deeper spawning sites have explored 35 of the 50 sites, creating bathymetric (ocean depth) maps to identify spawning sites.

“Working with the fishers to find the sites is critical,” said Stuart Fulton, COBI’s Marine Reserve Program Coordinator. “Their traditional ecological knowledge about their fishing grounds is key to locating the sites, and for their eventual protection.”

Fishers in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve searching for spawning aggregation sites. Credit: Jacobo Caamal/COBI

“Fishermen have been quick to realize the long-term value of protecting the spawning aggregation sites,” Heyman explained. “COBI has invested heavily in training and involving fishermen in science and conservation. Fishers and managers will be reaping the benefits of creating these marine reserves for years to come.”

COBI and its fishing co-op partners continue to explore, document, and protect all important spawning sites along the Mexican Caribbean coastline. Protecting all viable spawning sites is critical to advancing the mission of the Kanan Kay Alliance (see related article).

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