Bright Spots: Fishing Communities in Guatemala Take Action

September 5, 2018

Rare is connecting its Fish Forever approach to the Mesoamerican Reef, where we will support locally-led initiatives to protect the reef system, improve livelihoods for fishers and their communities, and catalyze grassroots efforts from across the region into a movement of community-based, sustainable fisheries management. Rare partnered with the Summit Foundation to identify and share “Bright Spots,” stories of the local leaders and their communities whose inspiring efforts to change community behavior offer real hope for this global biodiversity hotspot and the people that depend on it.



Río Sarstún, or the Sarstoon River, flows along the border between Guatemala and Belize, opening up into the Amatique Bay in the Gulf of Honduras. Abraham Castro, a fisher and former president of the Barra Sarstoon River Fisher Committee, says fishing is the way of life for most people around the river and coast. “The majority of us who live in the community depend on fishing,” he says. “We can say, 95 percent, it is the most important activity in our community.” Fisher Angélica Méndez agrees. “Like me, many parents have gotten everything from the sea — our children’s education, our survival.”

Over time, it’s been harder to bring in the same catch as that of years past. A cycle has come into play, says Marco Cerezo of FUNDAECO, an organization that has worked with the Sarstoon community on fishery recovery. “The destruction of natural resources creates more poverty, and poverty then generates more environmental destruction,” he says. “It’s a vicious cycle of environmental damage and impoverishment.”

Cerezo says multiple parties must come together to disrupt the cycle. “Collaboration between fisher associations, NGOs and government is very important,” he says. Historically, however, bringing the different groups together has been difficult to do. Méndez says part of the problem has been the scattered nature of fishing communities. “There were no organized fisher groups,” says Méndez of the sector 20 years ago.

Méndez, Castro and other local fishers decided to turn their concern into action, by self-organizing and taking proactive first steps in marine protection and enforcement. Today, groups like the Sarstoon River Fisher Committee give fishers a cohesive voice. In addition to these groups, fishers came together in 2014 to create the Caribbean and Izabal Lake Fisher Network. Composed of 32 different fisher groups from the area, including Sarstoon, the network and the work it does for conservation is unprecedented in Guatemala.

It wasn’t easy to form the fisher network at first, says Méndez, who helped assemble its first 12 groups into a single entity and still serves as the network’s coordinator. “Organizing is hard,” she says. “There’s fear. You go in and tell people they have to organize, and they tell you, for what? So you have to convince them that it’s for the best, because going alone is not the same as going in a group. The experience was beautiful.” The fisher network carries out education and awareness efforts for fishers and community youth, and encourages dialogue by hosting ‘roundtables’ for fishers on the state of key species like seabass, shrimp and anchovy.

Recently, the network also created a no-take reserve in Amatique Bay to allow local fish populations to spawn and repopulate. Alongside the reserve strategy, members plan out a calendar of closed seasons each year to allow for fish reproduction, an effort they carry out in collaboration with DIPESCA, the fisheries directorate in Guatemala.

Though some fishers initially fought decisions like the reserve, with objections to fishing restrictions in any areas of their waters, the network worked with them to get everyone on the same page. “What we’ve tried to do is talk, fisher to fisher,” says Méndez. “We all do something different, we do tons of activities, so we need to talk and communicate.”

Now, the network hopes to do the same with the government, and receive legal support in creating and enforcing reserves. Fishers are onboard. “What’s interesting is that it is the fishers who now ask fisheries and government authorities to step up their surveillance efforts and apply the regulations they’ve accepted,” says Marco Cerezo.

The government is ready to listen and help, says Blanca Rosa García, Caribbean Fishing Inspector of DIPESCA. “Part of what we want is to have tools so that the fishers themselves can apply their own rules within the fishing grounds,” she says. Reserves are a big part of that picture. “What we hope to achieve through these areas is the spillover of fish, that they become refuges for fish, and banks where the fishers can be sure that the area is preserving the resource.”

Fishers associations will help decide the future of coastal fishing in Guatemala and the wider Mesoamerican Reef, as communities find ways to balance their use and protection of critical marine resources. Guatemalan fishers and their groups are ready to take on the responsibility. “We want to do those negotiations, strategies, alliances, because at the end of the day, the goal is to protect our resources,” says Angélica Méndez. “I believe if we work together, we can still recover much of our fisheries.”