Get Social

How a Trip to Mexico Changed the Way I Think About Seafood

September 15, 2022
Joshua Ventress
Artisanal fishers in the Yucatán Peninsula are embracing sustainable fishing to protect the oceans – and their communities

“I come from a family of fishers,” says Lizbeth Tamayo, a fishing technician on the island of Cozumel. “My dad is a fisherman and ever since I was little, I loved fishing.”

Lizbeth is part of community of about 100 fishers on Cozumel, located in the Caribbean Sea about 12 miles from the eastern coast of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula.

I met her during a summer trip to Mexico to learn more about the efforts of artisanal fishers to protect local fish populations – and their livelihoods – by adopting more sustainable practices.

“Using marine resources sustainably gives us a guarantee that the next generation can also enjoy these species,” Lizbeth told me.

Her story – and those of fishers and chefs from across the country – gave me new insight into the threats facing global fish populations due to climate change and overfishing.

I was born and raised in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and study Communications at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Until my summer internship with the Walton Family Foundation’s Environment program, I hadn’t given much thought to the fish sold in restaurants and grocery stores where I live.

But after listening to Mexican fishers, I understand better the urgent need to find innovative solutions to improve ocean health and the socioeconomic conditions of fishing communities.

José Luis “Chino” Carrillo shows Walton Family Foundation intern Joshua Ventress some of the day's catch during a visit to a fishing community in Mexico's Yucatán state.

“I have fished since I was 18 years old,” said José Luis “Chino” Carrillo. “Many years ago, it was thought that marine resources were infinite. But we have realized that, over time, climate change and an excessive fishing effort have impacted fisheries.”

"Chino" was the first fisher I met in Mexico and accompanied me through much of my trip. He not only introduced me to the fishing communities in Yucatán, but also shared his experiences as a leader of the fishing sector. As president of the Mexican Confederation of Fishing and Aquaculture Cooperatives, Chino represents over 30,000 small-scale fishers.

He and others described an artisanal fishing sector that is embracing bold conservation measures, from the creation of no-catch fish refuges to community-based surveillance teams to keep illegal fishers out of their fishing areas.

Some examples of their hard work:

  • In Cozumel, artisanal fishers helped establish the first network of fish refuges on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. Since 2012, they have protected 1,048 hectares of coral reef and seagrass beds through a network of eight refuges that provide critical habitat for lobster, grouper and queen conch. “The fishing refuges are very important,” said Mauricio Pablo Leonar González, an accountant with the Cozumel Fishing Cooperative. “No fishing in these places allows fish that have commercial value such as lobster and finfish to reproduce again.”
  • Fishing cooperatives in the Yucatán coastal communities of El Cuyo, Río Lagartos and San Felipe formed a surveillance committee. Using their own fishing vessels, they patrol the fishing areas where octopus, lobster and other valuable species are vulnerable to illegal fishing.
  • Fishers are self-regulating by voluntarily stopping fishing for lobster before the official closing date of the fishing season to protect the small lobsters from being caught. Fishers who violate the rules face fines and fishing bans that keep them out of the water on the most productive days of the season.

The fishers I met come from families who have made their living on the water for generations – and they feel a deep responsibility to be good stewards of the ocean.

Walton Family Foundation intern Joshua Ventress (center) dines with fishers in Mexico's Yucatán state.

“The pride of being a fisherman comes to me because I inherited it from my father,” said Juan Solorio, president of the El Cuyo Fishing Cooperative.

“First of all, we must realize that the fishing product – the raw material – is running out. We must do surveillance rounds to take care of our coasts, take care of our products.”

Fishers from the Yucatán Peninsula provide seafood to international markets in the US, Europe and Asia, as well as to many of the restaurants and hotels in the Mayan Rivera, which includes the resort meccas of Cancun and Playa del Carmen.

Some of the nation’s leading chefs are committed to serving sustainably-sourced seafood – and educating consumers about the importance of knowing how and where their food was caught.

“If we keep catching fish in the way we used to, we won’t have enough fish in the future,” said Juan Pablo Loza, chef and director of culinary operations at Rosewood Mayakoba, one of Mexico’s leading luxury resorts that has sustainability commitments.

“Sustainable seafood to me is just to keep the balance of all the species and having respect and fair trade with the fishermen,” Juan Pablo said.

Chef Federico López is a founder of the Pesca con Futuro, a pioneer of the sustainable seafood movement in Mexico.

Chef Federico López, a pioneer of the sustainable seafood movement in Mexico known as #PescaConFuturo, told me his goal is to get fish “from the ocean directly to the table, as close [to the source] as possible.”

“As chefs we have an enormous responsibility to transmit and educate,” added Miguel Gómez, chef at the Andoz Mayakoba resort. “When people go to select a dish, (I want them to) wonder why it says sustainable and ask what is sustainable?”

When I flew into the airport in Cancún at the start of my trip, I was amazed by the turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean Sea. I soon realized the real treasure resides underneath the ocean surface. Several species of great economic value live in those waters, supporting hundreds of local communities and adding enormous value to Mexico’s national economy.

The fishers and chefs in Mexico helped me understand why the whole world needs to embrace sustainable seafood.
Joshua Ventress

Fishing is the heart and soul of the communities I visited in Cozumel and on the Yucatán coast.

The loss of fish and other marine species would mean the loss of livelihoods – and the cultures and traditions that make these places special. The fishers I spoke to were proud of their communities and eager to show me their boats, fishing warehouses and favorite restaurants.

They also shared their wisdom – about the importance of doing what you love, working hard for what you want and instilling those values in the next generation of fishing leaders.

The fishers and chefs in Mexico helped me understand why the whole world needs to embrace sustainable seafood – it’s about embracing changes that can make the world a better, healthier place.

I want to urge people to support sustainable fisheries by purchasing sustainable seafood at their local grocery store. You can find sustainable seafood by looking for the MSC logo on seafood packaging. And you can find consumer guides to sustainable seafood at Seafood Watch and at Pesca Con Futuro.

The more we promote sustainable seafood, the more we guarantee there is seafood for generations to come.

Recent Stories