Fishing for the Future

In Sinaloa, Mexico, fishers are pairing up with researchers to monitor sea turtle populations and reduce bycatch.

Sinaloa, Mexico, is one of the most infamous states in North America. A simple Google search will turn up thousands of headlines related to the Sinaloa cartel, drug-busts, and recent murders, giving the region a reputation steeped in violence and fear. This reputation is remarkably similar to the one that haunts community fisheries around the world, which are often portrayed as villains in the fight to save our oceans. Local fishers bear reputations of killers, poachers, or resistors of change. Yet here, where Sinaloa’s farmlands meet the Pacific Ocean coastline, a wave of reform is serving as a reminder that these claims don’t often hold true. Here, a new generation of Sinaloan fishers is rewriting the narrative of both their home and the future of our planet.

In La Reforma, Mexico, small-scale fishers are working to improve the sustainability of their operations. Photo by Keegan Sentner.

Rodolfo Ayón, a fishing captain who has lived within the Cerro Cabezón fishing community his entire life, sits on the edge of the dock, gazing off across the Navachiste Bay that serves as a backdrop for the fishing village he calls his home. Ayón is a stocky individual dressed in a green t-shirt with the words “research in progress” across the chest, sporting a bright red San Francisco 49ers baseball cap. He’s welcomed me and my colleagues from Blue Turtle Sustainable — which buys seafood from local fishermen who, in exchange, collect bycatch data on sea turtles — to spend an entire day on the water with him and his crew. The crew illustrate their daily grind to us, setting their fishing nets in the water and collecting buckets of oysters, while also teaching our team about the patterns of the bay, sharing their intimate understanding of the ocean.

Ayón and his crew are working with Blue Turtle Sustainable to collect bycatch data for their operations, to make improvements to the sustainability of their fishery, which could include adjustments to their fishing zones or the implementation of turtle-safe equipment. But, he explains, that wasn’t always the case. As he puts it, at one point in time, “he was the worst of them.” As a fisherman, he lacked the high regard he now holds for marine life. He was an avid sea turtle poacher, frequently reeling in 15 to 20 turtles a day to sell for profit on local markets.

He’s not alone. Sea turtles in this part of Mexico have historically been used as meat, their shells used as gifts to celebrate life events, or discarded as nuisance species when caught as bycatch. It is a common occurrence for fishers to kill turtles they incidentally catch in their nets and sell them. A dead turtle can provide food for the fisher’s family or draw a considerable profit on the local market. This cultural attitude towards sea turtles compounds other threats to the animals, like those associated with climate change, boat strikes, and bycatch.

There is virtually no information on sea turtle populations in Northwest Mexico, yet researchers fear their numbers are declining. Groups such as the sea turtle conservation network Grupo Tortuguero de las Californias are trying to fill that gap, and have been taking a citizen science approach, engaging fishers to help monitor regional sea turtle populations. Grupo Tortuguero, which began as a coalition of different communities involved in sea turtle conservation, collects data on sea turtle populations in the northern Mexico region.

Data regarding bycatch — which poses a massive threat to marine species worldwide — is limited too, particularly when it comes to artisanal or small-scale fisheries. In fact, the Mexican government doesn’t require most artisanal operations — defined as vessels operating with less than 10grt (gross in register tons) — to report bycatch data at all. Nor does the government often monitor local fisheries or enforce rules meant to reduce bycatch, such as the required use of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) in shrimp trawl fisheries, which limit bycatch by filtering sea turtles out of fishing nets through an exit door in the net.

Blue Turtle Sustainable is working with Grupo Tortuguero to start filling this data gap as well by collecting data on the bycatch of sea turtles. The priority of Blue Turtle Sustainable is to understand the factors that play a role in bycatch and find out where it is prevalent in the region. The organization also works with fishers to institute conservation practices to limit bycatch incidences while sustaining their livelihoods.

Adalberto Garcia, a fisherman with two shining silver teeth and a poetic manner of speech, explains why he became involved with conservation programs. He understands that the future of the ocean depends on the actions of individuals such as himself. In recent years, Garcia has paired with local biologists and conservationists to find ways to limit his impact on the ecosystem. This involves collecting data, tagging, and monitoring sea turtles, creatures that he considers paramount to the natural balance in the ocean.

Fishing Captain Adalberto Garcia has paired with local biologists and conservationists to find ways to limit his impact on the ecosystem. Photo by Keegan Sentner.

There is virtually no information on sea turtle populations in Northwest Mexico, yet researchers fear their numbers are declining. Five species of sea turtle are known to live there, including green sea turtles, pictured. Photo by P.Lindgren.

Garcia is one of the leaders of the La Reforma fishing community, which sits two hours south of Ayón’s fishing camp. La Reforma is one of the largest fishing communities in the entirety of Mexico. Its dirt streets are lined with cement houses, seafood stands, and the occasional beer vendor. The port is a sight to behold. I count at least two hundred boats in the marina, a vast population of opportunistic seabirds, and fishing crews tucked away into little groups like platoons of soldiers readying themselves for battle.

Garcia is a leader in this community when it comes to sustainability and conservation. He has worked with Blue Turtle Sustainable for several years, eagerly sending pictures of bycatch incidents, helping tag turtles, and sharing his wealth of information on the fishing practices of La Reforma. Garcia’s crew is registered under Grupo Tortuguero’s tagging permit to tag and monitor sea turtles in the fishing zones outside La Reforma, where his team fishes for tuna, shark, and shrimp. His crew is one of the very few in the world to utilize a more sustainable form of shrimp fishing known as “Suripera.” This method involves using wind sails attached to small skiffs to power a trawling net behind their boat. The method is less destructive because the trawling net has plastic knobs built into the bottom of the net so it limits the nets ability to scrape the ocean floor.

“The nets are only in the water for a few minutes until we can determine if shrimp are present,” Garcia explains. If there are no shrimp present, the nets are immediately removed to prevent the bycatch of other species in the water, as opposed to traditional commercial trawls, which keep nets in the water for up to 24 hours, regardless of the catch.

Garcia’s crew consists of four other men. These men are finely tuned fishing machines, and are equally invested in marine conservation. They all grew up in the town of La Reforma and have been fishing for 30-plus years. They are proud individuals, commanding their roles with authority, and always bantering amongst one another. A fellow captain, JulioCesar Avila, a burly man whose smile and laugh could light any room, proudly tells us that his son is going to university to be a marine biologist, a humbling reminder that these fishers are also fathers, husbands, and environmental stewards.

These types of fishing communities account for the majority of fishing in Mexico. According to CONAPESCA (the National Commission for Aquaculture and Fishing, or Comisión Nacional de Acuacultura y Pesca) statistics released for 2017, there are 74,286 reported small-scale fishing vessels, comprising over 90 percent of the total fishing operations in the country. There are also 3,900 registered community fishing cooperatives — partnerships of fishing crews — throughout the country. Worldwide, artisanal — or small scale — fishing comprises the majority of all fishing, but critiques of the fishing industry often fail to distinguish between industrial and artisanal operations. As a result, small-scale operations sometimes suffer undue criticism. This stigma, in turn, can lead to less support from buyers, more resistance to change, and a propensity for poaching.

One morning, my colleagues and I meet Garcia’s team at the end of a boat ramp, readying the supplies for the day. Before we set off, Garcia gives one of his crew members a bright green Grupo Tortuguero “research in progress” shirt. As we look around, we notice a crowd. The fisherman being given the shirt is Avila. Avila stands tall and proud of his new rank. I slowly realize that this is no mere exchange of clothes — the shirt means something to this fishing community. It means Avila is joining the research team. A team that embodies progress, change, and the future of conservation for La Reforma.

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