Océanos Iluminados

Latest update May 18, 2019 Started on June 1, 2017

The lives of fishermen and sea turtles collide along the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua, resulting in mutual misfortune. We are exploring how enlightened knowledge can reconcile this relationship by sustaining fishermen and saving turtles.

June 1, 2017
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In The Field

Our field season has officially begun, as I write this to you while sitting on the sandy shores of El Astillero, Nicaragua! The beach bustles with the sound of fishing boats crashing through the waves and the sight of community members darting between sea and shore to transport fishing supplies. The past month has been a whirlwind of preparation for this moment and we are elated that it is finally hear!

The greatest hurdle before arriving in the field was making the call on a rather substantial change in our project plan. While sketching a logic model, it became clear that there is a lack of knowledge on the current state of the fishery here in El Astillero. Without a solid baseline, throwing another variable into the mix – even in the form of a promising conservation solution – would be putting the cart before the horse. To ensure that resource management approaches are indeed the most effective and avoid unintended consequences, my team and I decided to hold off on our plan to experiment with illuminating gillnets with LEDs for this year. Instead, we are focusing on a different connotation of illumination, as we seek to clarify and reveal the state of the fishery by collecting data at sea and in the fish market. This leads us to the following questions:

  1. What are the primary fishing efforts, including number of sea days, time each net is in the water, fishing locations?
  2. Which fish generate the most income, based on price per pound (quality) and pounds of fish (quantity)?
  3. How does the incidental catch of turtles impact the catch rate of targeted species (i.e. does turtle catch negatively impact fishers)?
  4. How many turtles are incidentally caught during the arribada season?
  5. Which gillnet fisheries catch the most turtles?

To tangibly fill this research gap, this year’s project plan is anchored in implementing a voluntary observer program that at its core is about working with, and for, fishermen. By employing 3 local community members to be observers, each going to sea with one fishing boat per month, for 7 months, we will sample around 20% of the gillnet fishery. The story exposed through this data will then be presented to the fishing community to decide which actions they are interested in taking in order to increase the sustainability of their fishery. If the data supports, and the community decides, that illuminating gillnets with LED lights would indeed be the most effective, then excellent! We will move forward with the original experimentation plan next year. If another management solution proves to be more promising, we will step in this direction instead. Although antsy to jump into tangible action, we believe that stretching out our project timeline to first properly characterize the fishery will produce more sound results in the long run, both ecologically and economically.

Once this project change was decided and approved, we hit the go button on ordering gear and it was a constant string of decision making as we attempted to plan for the unexpected that always seems to accompany field work. I arrived in Nicaragua on May 1st to meet up with local team mate, Manuel Cortez. Our final team mate, Luca Marsaglia, arrives in Nicaraguan from Italy on Tuesday. And from there the learning journey will continue – poco a poco, little by little!

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The village of El Astillero survives off of fishing, as it is the main economic activity and driver of community commerce. Francesca Ward, my friend and volunteer of the non-profit Casa Congo, would go to the local bakery every day to ask how sales were doing. The response would always be dependent upon the fishing activity, varying from, “It was a good morning at sea, so it is a good day here,” to, “No fish caught today, so no baked goods sold.” The culture and economy of this fishing village is directly tied to the sea. As such, to have a healthy community, it is pivotal to have a resilient fishery and marine ecosystem.

My team and I believe conservation needs to serve both people and nature, for their well-being is interdependent. Nicaragua is rich in beauty and resources, yet is the poorest country in Central America and the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere. Specifically, El Astillero is abundant in sea turtles and dream-worthy surf breaks, yet is gripped in poverty. While we admire sea turtles, we equally value the less-sexy, yet economically important, fish and crustaceans. With this, one of our project goals is to explore how sustainable fishing practices and conservation methods can be used to optimize fishermen’s catches. We are hopeful that a more sustainable fishery could boost food and livelihood security. It is a long, salty, road ahead and one we are eager to be embarking on.

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Expedition Background

While bobbing in a fishing boat off the coast of El Astillero, Nicaragua, I observed three fishermen heave a gillnet up from the deep. Suddenly, all hands flew overboard to tend to a lifeless sea turtle entangled in monofilament. The fishermen explained they do not intend to catch turtles, but it is a daily occurrence, for their home town borders one of the seven major olive ridley sea turtle nesting sites in the world, known as Chacocente. This unfortunate encounter between turtles and fishing gear not only devastates sea turtle populations and ocean ecosystem functions, but also the livelihood of coastal communities, as fishermen catch minimal fish in tangled nets and risk being fined or arrested for catching endangered species. This fishing village is caught in a chaotic intersection, where meeting basic human needs and sustaining marine ecosystems stand in opposition to each other.

With support from the National Geographic Society and Lindblad Expeditions, my team and I seek to find harmonious solutions that bring both economic and ecological benefits to El Astillero and Chacocente. To do so, we are taking three key steps. First off, we are partnering with fishermen to listen to their keen ocean expertise and to better understand their needs and wants from the fishery. Secondly, we are training students to be observers, which is a fancy name for going to sea on fishing boats and collecting catch data. This information will help tell the elusive story of what is actually happening beneath the waves. And lastly, we are experimenting with illuminating fishing nets by way of light emitting diodes (LEDs) as a way to send visual cues to sea creatures, further deterring turtles and attracting fish. This seemingly odd use of light has produced some promising past results, which we hope to recreate in Nicaragua. Trials in Indonesia and Peru showed that LEDs on fishing gear decreased turtle catch by sixty percent and increased fish catch by twenty percent. Quite the win-win situation for turtle populations and fishermen’s livelihoods! Through enlightened knowledge and illuminated nets, we are on a mission to restore harmony between society and the sea.

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Thank you all, for your support and encouragement on this journey!

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