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When Poverty and Marine Conservation Are Linked, Start a Responsible Fishing Movement

The Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic (LEX-NG) Fund aims to protect the last wild places in the ocean while facilitating conservation, research, education, and community development programs in the places we explore. This blog entry spotlights some of the exciting work our grantees are doing with support from the LEX-NG Fund.

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re an artisanal fisherman from the Gulf of Nicoya, Costa Rica.

The moon is rising over the mangrove forests when you take your small boat out to the local fishing grounds. Cutting the motor, you cast your gill net. Wipe the sweat from your brow with your threadbare sleeve. Pray for a good catch.

Hours later, you pull up the net and your heart sinks. There aren’t as many fish as you’d hoped. There never seem to be anymore. Steering your boat to shore, you hurry; spoiled fish fetch low prices. Your local receiving center weighs and inspects your fish. Pays you. Not as much as you’d like, but it’s something. You try again the next night to hopefully catch more fish to sell so your family can eat.

And you do it all with barely an elementary education and for roughly $12 a day.

An artisanal fisherman in Costa de Pájaros, Costa Rica repairs a gill net. While handline fishermen catch fish during the day, gill net fishermen cast their nets at night. Photo © Randall Viales
An artisanal fisherman in Costa de Pájaros, Costa Rica repairs a gill net. While handline fishermen catch fish during the day, gill net fishermen cast their nets at night. Photo © Randall Viales

Regional nonprofit and LEX-NG Fund grantee, MarViva understands that in areas such as the Gulf of Nicoya in Costa Rica, conservation is intrinsically tied to the people who depend on these over-exploited marine resources for their survival.

As MarViva’s Co-Director of Investments Alejandra Pacheco describes it, “the need for marine conservation has a human face. We are not dealing only with an environmental problem, but also with significant institutional, social, and economic challenges that require serious attention and integral long-term solutions.”

But how can MarViva, for the sake of conservation, ask these fishermen to protect the environment when they’re already living in poverty? By crafting a brilliant strategy that includes encouraging artisanal fishermen to adopt responsible fishing best practices, improving product traceability, and fostering stronger partnerships between corporate buyers and local sellers, that’s how.

The result? Artisanal fishermen are bringing in better quality catches that merit higher price-per-fish, allowing an overexploited marine resource to begin recovering. Here’s how it works.

Artisanal fishermen in Costa Rica earn an average of $370/month, well below the country’s minimum wage of $530/month. MarViva is working to improve artisanal fishermen’s wages while also conserving marine resources. Photo © Nash Ugalde
Artisanal fishermen in Costa Rica earn an average of $370/month, well below the country’s minimum wage of $530/month. MarViva is working to improve artisanal fishermen’s wages while also conserving marine resources. Photo © Nash Ugalde

Step One: Create a responsible fishing movement among artisanal fishermen.

What’s the best way to improve a marine resource? Fostering market incentives that will convince the people who use the resource—namely, fishermen—to catch fish in a responsible way, such as trading indiscriminate gill nets for handlines or large-mesh gill nets.

To achieve this end, MarViva hosts workshops for local fishing groups that teach responsible fishing best practices and why they’re beneficial—for people and the environment. Training also includes information on product handling and the advantages of investing in ice to preserve fish on the way to receiving centers to maintain the “cold chain,” i.e., freshness by cooling.

Many artisanal fishermen are embracing the movement. “I enjoy the hand line. I feel happy when a fish bites,” says artisanal fisherman Abel Herrera from Costa de Pájaros, Gulf of Nicoya. “If it is caught in the gill net, it is already dead. The gill net hurts the fish, many times it is damaged being stuck there so long. Instead, a fish caught with a hand line will always look good.”

Many artisanal fishers like Abel Herrera of Costa de Pájaros prefer using a handline rather than a net, which improves the quality of their catch, eliminates by-catch, and lessens the strain on marine resources. Photo © Randall Viales
Many artisanal fishers like Abel Herrera of Costa de Pájaros prefer using a handline rather than a net, which improves the quality of their catch, eliminates by-catch, and lessens the strain on marine resources. Photo © Randall Viales

Empowered with these new skills and knowledge, artisanal fishermen aren’t only helping an overexploited marine resource recover by reducing their impact on the ecosystem, they’re adding value to their product through improved handling. That brings me to step two…

Step Two: Implement a system that can trace fish products from source to sale.

Why is it so important for buyers to be able to trace fish to its source? Because with improved transparency, they can differentiate responsibly-caught fish from other products on the market.

It’s like the difference between buying free range chicken from a local, small-scale farm versus the big corp chicken factories that mass-raise and slaughter poultry by the thousands. In the case of the small farm, you can trace the chicken to its point of origin and see precisely where the chicken foraged, what it ate, and where and how it was processed. The traceability of the product allows you to confirm its quality. In the case of the chicken factory? Not so much.

By monitoring capture sizes and improving traceability, receiving centers are adding value to responsibly-caught fish products. © Nash Ugalde
By monitoring capture sizes and improving traceability, receiving centers are adding value to responsibly-caught fish products. Photo © Nash Ugalde

Same goes for fish. With products from commercial fisheries, buyers don’t know precisely where their fish came from: whether it was this legal fishing ground or that illegal one, when or how it was caught, and if it was handled properly prior to sale.

That’s why MarViva is working to implement traceability systems at small-scale, local receiving centers. Products with added value—such as improved environmental and social responsibility—quality, and traceability demand higher prices. Higher price per kilo and better market conditions improve the lives of artisanal fishermen and brings them closer to earning a living wage.

Step Three: Increase consumer demand for responsibly-caught fish and strengthen partnerships between buyers and sellers.

Artisanal fishermen are adopting responsible fishing practices and more receiving centers are implementing traceability systems. Now what? Get people—the consumers—clamoring to buy responsibly-caught fish!

MarViva works with grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, and ships in the travel industry—the last stop before fish reach people like you and me—to recognize the added value of responsibly-caught fish and stock those products.

Lindblad Expeditions supports the artisanal fishing sector in Central America by annually purchasing roughly 3,000 pounds of local, responsibly-caught fish for its ship National Geographic Sea Lion. Photo © MarViva
Lindblad Expeditions supports the artisanal fishing sector in Central America by annually purchasing roughly 3,000 pounds of local, responsibly-caught fish for its ship National Geographic Sea Lion. Photo © MarViva

The more these places offer responsibly-caught fish, the more awareness is raised among consumers. The more consumers know, the more they want higher quality fish, which puts pressure on corporate buyers to provide them with such a product. This, in turn, inspires more artisanal fishers to join the responsible-fishing movement to meet buyer demand, spurring the cycle and making a greater environmental and social impact.

It’s an ambitious, complex initiative…and it’s working.

Thanks to MarViva, there have been continuous improvements in conservation efforts and the quality of harvested fish. Small-scale artisanal fishermen are adopting fishing best practices and being rewarded with higher price per kilo and other incentives. Receiving centers are incorporating business tools and technology to create transparency in artisanal fishing activities and boost their negotiating power with corporate buyers.

An artisanal fisherman uses live bait on a handline to catch weakfish —a responsible fishing technique. Photo © Nash Ugalde
An artisanal fisherman uses live bait on a handline to catch weakfish —a responsible fishing technique. Photo © Nash Ugalde

Mario Zamora, ex-fisherman and founder of Z&M, the family-owned processing center that annually supplies Lindblad Expeditions’ ship National Geographic Sea Lion with over 3,000 pounds of local, responsibly-caught fish, is grateful for MarViva’s influence in the industry.

“MarViva has provided training, support to establish the traceability and documentation of the origin of the products, capacity building with the staff, [and] awareness generation. I believe this has been very important. They have been the pioneers in working with communities in responsible fishing,” says Mario.

Thanks to MarViva’s efforts, and support from the LEX-NG Fund, Costa Rica’s over-exploited marine fisheries can improve…along with the lives of the people who depend on them for survival.

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If you would like to learn more about the artisanal fishing sector in Central America, or other projects supported by the LEX-NG Fund worldwide, please contact the Fund by email. To contribute to the LEX-NG Fund, click here.