Lobsters Inspire New Paradigms for Sustainable Fishing

Mexico | Quintana Roo

Along the coast of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo lie the Sian Ka’an and Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserves. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987, Sian Ka’an appropriately means “gift of heaven” in Maya. The reserve includes 23 archeological sites from the Mayan civilization, as well as a series of complex ecosystems including forests, mangroves, coastal dunes and coral reefs. Banco Chinchorro is a coral atoll in the open sea, around 30 kilometers off the coast from Mahahual, separated from the coast by a kilometer-deep channel.

Both reserves have something in common: lobster fishing.

The lobster fishers, the NGO Colectividad Razonatura A.C., the Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP), CONABIO, COBI, as well as other (governmental and non) organizations, are working together with the shared objective of giving added commercial value to the lobsters, highlighting both their provenance from marine protected areas and also the sustainable fishing practices that protect the environment and the species. Six fishing cooperatives work in the two reserves, joined together in a cooperative society named Integradora de Pescadores de Quintana Roo.

Kim Ley Cooper, a marine biologist and director of Colectividad Razonatura, works with the local fishing cooperatives. “The association is working in two directions,” he said. “On the one hand, promoting sustainable fishing practices among the fishers, and on the other guaranteeing a better sales price for their catch.”

As well as carrying out scientific evaluations and developing projects targeted at individual fishing zones in the two reserves, Razonatura also advises on ecosystem management and helps the fishers to adopt sustainable techniques and expand their direct sales, allowing them avoid middlemen in order to receive a fairer share of the price.

The Caribbean spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) is one of the most important biological resources within the Mesoamerican coral reef system, and the species with the highest market value. Thanks to its abundance and wide distribution, it is the main source of income for many fishers.

The six cooperatives together have 300 families who have been granted permission to fish in these marine protected areas. The member-fishers have divided the sea bed into campos langosteros, zones where each fisher can fish and use their own traps, known as casitas.

The fishers catch the lobsters by free-diving down to 15 to 20 meters. With no equipment, they must rely on a single breath. Diving allows them to respect the legal size limits and to choose only those lobsters whose tails are over 13.5 centimeters long. Additionally, they cannot go deeper than 20 meters, leaving the lobsters with a free zone where they can shelter and reproduce. This artisanal fishing method has allowed the protected lobster population to be maintained for decades, and also preserves the biosphere’s ecosystem.

The adult lobsters migrate down to the deeper areas of coral to mature and reproduce. They start to reproduce at around the age of 3 years, which is also when they reach the minimum legal catch size.

The casitas system has replaced the hooks used in the past, and allows the lobsters to be caught alive. This means undersized specimens can be thrown back into the sea, plus the live lobsters command a better price on the market.

“It’s hard to convince the older people that they should change the habits of a lifetime in order to better preserve the reserve and the sea,” said Kim. “The young people are much more enthusiastic towards the project but of course the older generations have a huge amount of experience behind them which the young people don’t.”

A protocol regulating fishing in these protected areas has been deposited with the Instituto Mexicano de la Propiedad Intelectual, under the brand CHAKAY (“lobster” in Mayan). Each cooperative gives some of their catch to the Integradora de Pescadores de Quintana Roo, an association that unites all the local cooperatives, so that they can guarantee direct sales. The process that led to the creation of this collective brand was overseen by Razonatura, a civil society organization that works in a participatory way with the fishers.

The brand offers a geographic indication linked to the Sian Ka’an and Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserves, allowing the product to be linked with the 300 fishing families who belong to the local cooperatives and certifying that the wild lobsters were caught using regulated and sustainable methods.

The brand’s association with a geographic identity allows consumers, restaurateurs and chefs to commit to supporting the conservation of the species, to promote sustainable practices within marine protected areas and to encourage responsible fishing practices and therefore healthier seas and oceans.

Only with the consumption of seafood caught using sustainable practices, with the help of responsible fishers and a commercial network of informed and conscious consumers, can concrete actions be taken to safeguard natural marine resources.

The cooperatives are also involved in the process of having their work and their product certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The MSC certifies sustainable fishing methods around the world. In Mexico, only lobster fishing by cooperatives in Baja California, on the Pacific coast, has been certified by the MSC.

“Considering the dramatic situation facing the sea and oceans today, I think we have to act with a high level of care. On the other hand, this situation means that new ideas, new concepts and paradigms are emerging, laying the foundations for a better future,” Kim concludes optimistically.

Kim was interviewed during the 2010 edition of Terra Madre. He talks about the fisher community he works with.


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