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.
When he was younger, fisher Juan Ramírez from the town of Punta Allen in Quintana Roo, Mexico, didn’t recognize the importance of a pregnant lobster. In the past, he and other fishers used to catch and sell them like any other, quick to dispose of their eggs without buyers ever knowing. “We didn’t realize the damage we were doing,” he says. Now, Ramírez says he and his fellow fishers know better. “If there is a lobster that weighs three kilograms but is pregnant, it’ll yield you a lot of money, but you’ll end up killing thousands of offspring,” he says. “It’s better to put it back… you’ll benefit in the long run.”
On Mexico’s Caribbean coast, lobster populations are critically important to fishing livelihoods. Lobster reproduction — and the ability of females to spawn before being caught — is key to ensuring abundant populations. Spurred on by the realization that overfishing, particularly of pregnant and juvenile lobster, could threaten long-term fishery health, groups of fishers in Quintana Roo are using innovative methods for sustainable fishing and management.
One such method is an alternative choice in gear for catching lobster. Members of the Vigía Chico Cooperative like Ramírez have switched from more traditional (and more destructive) fishing gear to casitas and have found success with them. Casitas are traps usually made from cement that act as shaded shelters for lobsters on the seafloor. Lobsters crawl in, then fishers free dive to the shades and lift them to collect live, higher-value lobster. Because they free dive to the casitas, fishers that use them are limited by depth in where they operate — leaving adult lobsters more room to migrate to deeper areas to reproduce and keep up the population.
The casitas are part of a suite of sustainable management practices that fishers in Quintana Roo have adopted, ranging from respecting no-take reserves to fishing lobster that meets size requirements. The fishers’ changing practices have been transformative for the marine environment. “There were other fishing methods, but they contaminated the water and hurt the reef, since you manipulated marine life in the reef,” says Ramírez of life before using methods like casitas. “Fishing was more impactful then versus now, since we’re trying to practice more sustainable fishing both for us and the environment.”
Our idea today is to fish less but sell better. That’s the goal we have as an organization.”José Canto Noh, President of the Cozumel Cooperative
Members of the Vigía Chico Cooperative and the Cozumel Cooperative, two of Quintana Roo’s oldest fishing cooperatives, use the new methods alongside a rights-based approach they’ve adopted to manage fisheries, called the concession system. Under the system, areas of the Sian Ka’an Reserve and Cozumel’s coast, where the respective groups fish, are divided up into smaller plots. When given concessions, fishers are granted exclusive access to one of those plots. “Every fisher has a parcel, a plot,” says Ramírez. “Everyone invests as much as they can into their space. If a fellow fisher goes to your plot, you can go to the cooperative and the surveillance team, and they take action. If they do it again, then we impose stronger sanctions.”
The concession system relies on compliance by the whole group of fishers, with members keeping each other in line. The idea behind managing access, rather than leaving it open, is that the sense of ownership that fishers feel for their areas of exclusive access propels them to enforce their protection. Ramírez says that fishers in Punta Allen need the concept to prevent overfishing, not just from within the community, but also by outsiders. “If there wasn’t this privatization, most people would steal from you, like it happens in other places with open access,” he says. “You know now you can go to your parcel and harvest what you’ve sown.”
José Canto Noh, the current president of the Cozumel Cooperative, says that organizing fishing using the concession system, in addition to having closed seasons, has changed everything for local fishers. “In past years, our production was in decline, and today, it’s steady,” he says. “Our idea today is to fish less but sell better. That’s the goal we have as an organization.”
Juan Ramírez believes that kind of change in perspective is possible across Mexico’s coast. Reflecting on progress so far, he hopes the next generation — including his daughter, who has fished since age eight — will embrace the same ideas, and continue to make a living from the same waters. “Fishing, beyond a job, is something beautiful,” he says. “It runs in your veins.”