Mexico is home to 250,000 small-scale fishers. Day after day, they’re up before dawn, casting nets and dropping fishing gear into the water. They haul up catches of gleaming snapper, hand-sized abalone, prehistoric-looking spiny lobster and other fish that make their way to markets around the world.
They contribute 23% of Mexico’s national fishery production and are a vital part of its economy. They also have an essential role in building robust fisheries that can support their communities for generations to come.
Those small-scale fishers organized in well-functioning fishing cooperatives, or co-ops, have demonstrated strong environmental stewardship.
Some have achieved international sustainability certification through the Marine Stewardship Council and Fair Trade. Co-ops allow fishers to coordinate co-management, discuss challenges in their sector and look for solutions, as well as advocate for their collective needs with decision-makers. When Mexico’s fisheries authorities collaborate with well-organized co-ops, it’s a winning combination that leads to better management of small-scale fisheries.
But what makes a well-functioning co-op? How does that translate to prosperity for fishermen and robust fisheries? The National Diagnostic of Fishing Organizations (DNOP), which launched in 2016 with support from the Walton Family Foundation, was created to find out. Researchers discovered that collaboration is key.
The project brings together organizations representing more than 40,000 of Mexico’s fishers, the Mexican Confederation of Fishery and Aquaculture Cooperatives, the National Commission of Aquaculture and Fisheries, Sociedad de Historia Natural Niparajá, Mexican civil society organizations and Duke University.
Xavier Basurto, associate professor of sustainability science at Duke, helped lead the research and spoke directly with fishers and co-op leadership throughout Mexico.
“Learning about their needs, the way they communicate, showing how we’re able to listen – that was very interesting. [The fishers] had never worked in a close partnership with members of academia in a project that was to a very high degree co-designed,” Xavier said.
Researchers like Xavier needed to establish trust to have real conversations with fishers about how they see themselves and their co-ops. It was important “not to position ourselves as experts in a ‘we know better than you’ kind of way, as has often been the approach,” he said.
Amy Hudson Weaver, sustainable fisheries coordinator with Sociedad de Historia Natural Niparajá, said including a diversity of fishers and co-ops was vital to the work.
“Xavier and I have worked in particular places [in Mexico], but not at this scale. It was a challenge for us to think about if our methodology and the questions we were asking were going to represent that diversity,” she said.
The research measured co-ops’ efficiency, functionality, values and adaptability – and found more than a dozen factors associated with success.
One vital factor that distinguished the best cooperatives in the country from the rest? Collaboration - within and among co-ops and other organizations within their own sector, the government or members of civil society.
Mexico’s fishers care about the state of their fisheries, but also about being able to legally harvest enough fish to provide for themselves and their families.
“One of the concerns we heard over and over again was the availability of maintaining catches, which is connected to sustainability of stocks, but also other people having access to fisheries,” Amy said.
When too many fishers use a fishery, stocks can deplete rapidly. A decline in catches and fishing moratoriums can follow.
That’s where organized, well-functioning co-ops and federations are key – they can coordinate sustainable fishing actions and negotiate. For example, when one of the worst El Niño events in history struck in 1982, too-warm waters reduced the kelp abalone feed on, threatening abalone populations in the Pacífico Norte fishery.
The fishery’s well-established co-ops worked with the government to keep it open, while fishers complied with stricter harvest regulations and became more actively involved in management, hatcheries and monitoring activities. This cooperative effort protected fishers’ livelihoods while allowing abalone to recover.
So what’s next? DNOP is entering a new phase: assisting co-ops as they build capacity and co-manage fisheries.
Targeted interventions are being considered that will identify how to best scale up co-op capacity and develop stronger, better-prepared and well-functioning co-ops throughout Mexico – not just a few that are exceptions. For example, co-ops that need assistance will be paired with those that are well-established to encourage mentorship, information-sharing and collaboration.
As the research found, this collaboration leads to better outcomes for fishers, their fisheries and their communities. And together, Mexico’s fishing co-ops are poised to co-create a more sustainable future.