Thirteen years ago in Baja California, hundreds of Mexican red rock lobster fishermen made some history for their nation, and for the then-fledgling sustainable seafood movement.
Their fishery became one of the first in the developing world to receive Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) Certification, confirming it was being sustainably managed.
These artisan lobstermen had already been working together for several years in community-based cooperatives on the Pacific Coast, implementing a series of practices that dramatically reformed and improved the way they harvested their natural resource. They had agreed to size limits on their catches, set escape vents in their traps that allowed small lobsters to escape and protect females bearing eggs, among other self-regulatory measures.
More important, because lobster populations in the region have remained healthy, the fishery continues to be a pillar of the economy for the communities that depend on it for their livelihood.
The success of this red rock lobster fishery – which has been re-certified on two occasions since its initial designation in 2004 – provides vivid proof that sustainability works. For Mexico’s small-scale fisheries, which directly support 270,000 jobs, it is likely the key to continued survival.
The nation is facing a critical inflection point in the health of its fisheries. Mexico is the world’s 16th largest fishing nation, producing roughly 2% of the global catch by volume. But decades of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing have resulted in a growing number of overexploited and collapsed stocks.
The good news is that there’s a determined effort – within the industry and in government – to better manage Mexico’s fisheries for the long term benefit of communities and industry. This month, Mexico’s national fisheries agency (CONAPESCA) is partnering with the country’s seafood industry-run nonprofit (COMEPESCA) on a new consumption campaign that promotes sustainable fisheries. Branded under the hashtag #PescaPeroBien (Fishing, But Good Fishing), the campaign is aimed at encouraging Mexican seafood buyers – restaurants, chefs, big retailers – to buy sustainably-sourced product.
The campaign will focus on trade shows and other industry events. It has the potential to drive up demand for sustainable seafood and act as incentive for small-scale fishermen – who sell much of their catch in the domestic Mexican market – to change how they operate.
We know there’s an appetite for reform – and that fishermen understand the looming threats to their livelihood. Since the lobster fishery received its MSC certification in 2004, several other small-scale and large-scale fisheries have been awarded the same distinction.
In 2016, a group of artisanal shrimp producers in Sinaloa, on the Gulf of California in northwest Mexico, received a Fair Trade certification for meeting high standards for environmental and social responsibility in their operations.
Indeed, many fishermen in Mexico see not only the ecological benefits of sustainable fishing, but the social benefits as well. The red rock lobster cooperatives, for example, have established savings accounts to help families absorb losses in difficult fishing years. They have college accounts to pay for post-secondary education for their youth. They also offer retirement support and insurance to their members.
Reform is no small task, to be sure. More than 95% of Mexico’s commercial fishing fleet consists of small-scale vessels – those under 12 meters long – and oversight is a persistent challenge.
Just the sheer number of people engaged in small-scale fishing makes industry management a huge undertaking. The government needs additional capacity and the small-scale fishermen need better reasons to do things differently.
That can be done with incentives that reward fishing communities that adopt better management practices, or through a system that values and demands sustainably caught seafood.
Without a system of incentives that allow these fishermen to sustainably manage their fish, the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people in Mexico’s coastal fishing communities are at risk. The new sustainable seafood campaign represents another critical step for an industry that, while currently facing huge challenges, knows there’s a path toward a healthier, more prosperous future.