Fisheries work best with community engagement: Q&A with Nicolas Gutiérrez on his groundbreaking Nature report

As a marine biologist studying in Uruguay, Nicolas (Nico) Gutiérrez studied everything from penguins to sea lions. But as an observer on countless fishing boats around coastal communities it was the social aspects of fishing that fascinated him most. Conversations with all of the stakeholders in the community captivated him and he learned from their experiential knowledge. He has since focused his master’s and doctoral work on the analysis of fisheries, and recently dove head first into research on how social factors influence the functionality and sustainability of fisheries. 

Gutiérrez poured over heaps of literature and started conducting his own interviews to try and determine what factors made a community co-managed fishery successful or not. What began as a relatively small study turned into a massive effort that looked at 130 fisheries around the world. The results were recently published in Nature magazine and indicate that strong community leaders are the most important attribute for successfully co-managed fisheries. Rare recently spoke with Gutiérrez about his study and how it relates to the work that Rare does.

Your study shows that having a strong community leader is perhaps the most important aspect in ensuring successful co-management of a fishery. How do you determine what makes a good leader?

In the fisheries on which I worked, I could identify a leader pretty easily and that’s where I believe all the efforts should be directed. It is important to identify the right leaders. These leaders are really committed to the community. In many cases, co-management fails because leaders were misguided by self-interest or not really committed to the community.

Rare’s approach to combat overfishing involves training local leaders to engage communities in the establishment and management of no-take zones (areas where fishing is not allowed). Do you think that this is a good way to manage fisheries?

Absolutely. I believe that a no-take area that does not involve the community, especially in developing countries, will probably not succeed. My personal opinion is that when a community is involved in all of the different steps of designing and implementing a protected area, as well as being able to extract and take some benefits from that reserve, those fishermen will not only be prone to follow the regulations, but also more likely to enforce them. It’s a lot more powerful when that area is decided upon with input from the local community and we bring that community into the management of that zone. Let’s build a community-based enforcement or community-based monitoring program so the fishers themselves can actually enforce regulations.

Do you really think that the community will engage in enforcement of the protected areas and fishing regulations?

When the community itself, fishers and other stakeholders, are part of a very well-organized and structured community organization, self-enforcement mechanisms are more likely to exist and be effective. For example the local abalone fishery in Chile is very well organized in different cooperatives. Management goes beyond national or regional regulations; each cooperative works in its specific cove (caleta) and has its own norms and statutes. There are different components to self-enforcement and one key example of that is public embarrassment. Even though there may be economic sanctions, there are social sanctions as well, and that’s a very powerful tool when a fisherman feels a strong connection to a community.

Are there areas where you see an opportunity for Rare’s work to succeed and make a bigger impact?

One of the important things to keep in mind about this co-management system, especially at the local level, is the domino effect. It is a lot easier to replicate an experiment or successful story in a place where the cultural, social and political settings are the same than to start in a community where there is not that experience. In terms of starting new co-management systems, I believe that a good place to start is with a community that is well-organized and cohesive and has some sense of ownership and some sense of pride in the fishery. In other cases we saw that co-management systems emerged from a critical situation where the catches had been decreasing for a long time and fishers were really concerned about the resource and their livelihood, so they are more willing to accept this approach.

Can you identify specific geographic areas that you think would benefit from this type of approach?

In less developed countries there is a higher need for this kind of input. I believe that we need to work from the bottom up and really target and identify community leaders that are involved in the fishery. Of course there is a need to include the relevant stakeholders in any project for it to be successful, but I think that starting from the bottom is always a more amenable approach than to try to impose from the top.

Are there any other specific factors to be considered when working with fisheries in developing countries?

One of the differences we saw in more developed countries was the presence of a long-term policy management program within the fishery. In some developing countries there is a big input carried out by non-governmental organizations but often on short-term projects. Even if they do capacity building in the community those projects are not long enough, or they are not directed in the right way, to actually follow that program afterwards.

Is there a specific type of work within the communities that you think would enhance community management of a sustainable fishery?

Nowadays there is a lot of interest in improving fish stock assessment and management methodologies in data-limited fisheries. Right now is a very good moment to identify a group of people within a community and try to teach them how to collect and analyze their own data in a simple way. Let’s start to educate the stakeholders and fishers on how to watch their own resource. That’s a very powerful tool: they can understand the resource, they can take action, they feel more empowered and they feel like they actually have a voice in terms of the status of the resource. It is not just an evaluation coming from the top telling them how to fish. I think that kind of community-based data collection program is very important. Let’s try to educate people to gather and analyze their own information.

My impression is that we are really good at identifying problems, but sometimes we are not good at actually finding and implementing the solutions. And I think that is the next step for these community-based co-management programs to go further, be more comprehensive and expand regionally.

What do you think about Rare’s work in general?

Personally, I believe that it is a great way to approach not only fishing but all conservation efforts. Since I am more knowledgeable about fisheries, I think that it is great to help communities use their own resources within a conservation framework. I think that it is a great organization with a great mission. Congratulations on your work. It is very inspiring.

News_Gutierrez 2To read the abstract and article in Nature magazine click here.

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