In the Baja Peninsula, where thousands of American tourists travel to watch gray whales each year, Mexican fishers are implementing sustainable fishing practices and finding ways to fight illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.
The fishing cooperative Buzos and Pescadores operates three satellite radars that monitor the waters surrounding Natividad Island on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, home to valuable marine resources like abalone and red lobster. This technology has helped fishers be more efficient at the surveillance of their fishing grounds. The radar screens detect the presence of vessels around the island, reducing the need for fishers to work long night shifts on watchtowers.
Esteban Sandez, president of the cooperative Buzos y Pescadores, says that if an intruder is detected on a radar screen, fishers can arrive to the exact location with a patrol vessel, thus combining the best of old and new surveillance practices to tackle illegal fishing.
Reducing illegal fishing one fisher at a time
Unauthorized fishing in Mexico is not only fought with surveillance. In other cases, fishers find incentives to get a fishing license and adopt sustainable practices.
Yanett Castro has fished her entire life in Altata Bay. People who live along Mexico's coastline believe that they have the right to fish anything they want just because they were born by the sea, she said.
"I had always done it. I was a fisher, as they say, 'by birth,' but in fact, I was not formalized, I did not have a fishing license, and today I have it," says Yanett, president of the fishing cooperative Almejeras de Santa Cruz.
In Altata Bay, a productive coastal lagoon in the Gulf of California, illegal fishing and overexploitation wiped out the chocolate clam population. Yanett realized how other communities benefited from fishing legally and implementing sustainable management initiatives. She was especially interested in how others had restored fish populations through Fishery Improvement Projects (FIP), a multistakeholder effort to address environmental challenges in a fishery. She decided to become an agent of change to protect the clams and her community’s traditional way of living.
After 2017, Castro and other fishers from Altata Bay applied for their fishing license and with the support of NGOs launched a fisheries improvement project (FIP). Participants worked with local fishing authorities to establish a two-year harvesting ban for the chocolate clam, which was officially approved by CONAPESCA in April 2020.
In two previous attempts, the federal government tried to restore the chocolate clam without success. But Castro feels this time is different "in this occasion the fishers are involved, and we have joint responsibility." she said.
Although the measure has been successful in recovering the clam population, Yanett points to another challenge. Local restaurants and street-side seafood carts 'carretas de mariscos' are still buying and selling illegally-harvested clams.
"On our pier, there are around 80 seafood carts and restaurants, and in all the 'carretas' there is chocolate clam. That is how you realize that people are taking it out (from the sea)," she says. This situation shows that unregulated markets play against fishers that are betting on sustainable practices.
Castro emphasizes that part of the authorities' efforts to fight IUU fishing must also focus on the market demand side, by requesting legal forms to know who sold the seafood products to restaurants and street-side carts. If unauthorized fishers can't sell their product, they won't fish illegally anymore, Yanett explained.
Following the fish
While black markets are a complex problem that requires the effort of multiple actors, preferential markets that demand sustainable seafood products have motivated fishers to adopt good fishing practices and traceability systems to track seafood from boat to plate.
In San Carlos Bay, Andres Grajeda, president of the 29 de Agosto fishing cooperative, is betting on seafood traceability to curb down IUU fishing. He recalled how fishers used to write down the information of fished products like yellowtail, red snapper and gulf grouper in a notebook, a procedure they do now through a mobile app.
"Who, how, when and where. Complete traceability," Grajeda listed as the potential questions that could be answered with the app fishers use to report their catch. The traceability information provides certainty to the first buyer and processing plant about the legal origin of the product and gives the end customer complete information through a QR code.
Traceability is expanding in the fishing world and more Mexican fishers are also implementing it. The cooperative Buzos y Pescadores from Natividad Island has a certified plant that uses QR codes to trace the fish steaks they sell in the national market. Currently, they are working to expand the use of these codes on other products they export, such as lobster, abalone, and snail.
"What person wouldn't like to know where each food comes from by only using a cell phone?" asked Sandez.
With an eye on the prize
Fishers who choose legality and responsible fishing practices benefit economically. International markets and a growing group of Mexican retailers, restaurants and boutique seafood stores with sourcing commitments are seeking sustainable fishing products certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or Fair Trade, or that come from fisheries that are on the path to become sustainable through a FIP. Fishers are willing to meet certain sustainability standards to secure access to these preferential markets.
Andres explains that their FIP for multiple finfish species has been financially favorable for the fishers, as they demonstrate improvements in fisheries management.
"There is an increase in the product price by a minimum of 25%, all at once. That directly impacts the pocket of the fishers, so there is not a need to be a predator. What you get is enough."
In Mexico, many fishing cooperatives are taking the path to sustainability. There are 26 active FIPs, four MSC certified fisheries and two small-scale fisheries that are FairTrade certified.
These efforts align with the Walton Family Foundation’ Oceans strategy in Mexico, which focuses on leveraging market power and empowering diverse fishery stakeholders to improve the ecological and socio-economic performance of important fisheries in the Gulf of California and the Yucatan Peninsula.
Sustainable practices have made Mexican fishers realize that there is a more efficient and productive way of fishing. By tackling illegal fishing with technology, co-management and market approaches, fishers may not only ensure healthy fish stocks that would otherwise disappear, but also increase the competitiveness of the fishing sector and improve the livelihood of fishing communities in Mexico.
This article was authored by Causa Natura, a Mexican non-profit organization and Walton Family Foundation grantee that was founded in 2014. As part of its work to advance the efficient, equitable and sustainable management of natural resources it publishes investigative journalism articles examining efforts to improve the sustainability of Mexico’s fisheries.