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Helping to reduce bycatch in Latin America and the Caribbean

In recent years, the bycatch (the fish or other marine species caught unintentionally when targeting different species) of fishery resources has become a concern for various actors, including commercial and recreational fishing industries, scientists, policy makers, conservation organizations and the general public. Public scrutiny has grown alongside a heighted interest in conservation issues and concerns about the magnitude of food loss and waste.

The levels of bycatch can vary tremendously from industry to industry, but the general trend raises concerns. For instance, on average, the quantity of bycatch for a tropical shrimp trawl can reach a level 3 to 15 times higher than the targeted species. 1.9 million tonnes of bycatch is discarded annually from shrimp trawlers alone.

One FAO project in Latin America and the Caribbean is working to address these concerns by reducing bycatch and promoting more responsible fisheries practices.

REBYC-II LAC, a five-year GEF-funded project promoting the Sustainable Management of Bycatch in Latin America and Caribbean Trawl Fisheries, is a partnership between six countries – Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago. This initiative aims at reducing food losses and encouraging sustainable livelihoods by improving the management of bycatch and minimizing discards and sea-bed damage. In this way, the project aims at transforming bottom trawl fisheries into responsible fisheries.

Carlos Fuentevilla is FAO’s Regional Project Coordinator for  REBYC-II LAC from the sub-regional office in Barbados. He spoke with us about various aspects of the project: 

-Do the six countries taking part of this project face similar challenges? Are they able to learn from the actions taken and lessons learned from one another?

The six countries participating in the REBYC-II LAC project face similar challenges in their bottom trawl shrimp fisheries. The foremost is that bottom trawl shrimp fisheries have a bad reputation. Most of the criticism is fair, but some of it is misguided or unconstructive and fails to realize the contribution of the fishery to food security and livelihoods.

When carried out irresponsibly, this fishery can damage sea-bed habitats and capture unnecessarily high numbers of ‘by-catch’, included non-targeted species, juveniles, turtles, sharks rays and other demersal creatures. All of these countries are fortunate to have a valuable resource that is a source of employment, income and food and where there is extensive room to build sustainable fisheries. Unfortunately, due to weak enforcement of current regulations, lax monitoring and low buy-in from fishers, unsustainable practices are common. 

One of the most common challenges across the six project countries is the poor understanding of the socio-economic impacts (who sells, who consumes, who benefits from local trade) of bycatch, making it difficult to quantify the true impact of shrimp trawl fisheries on local food security and livelihoods. Additionally, these fisheries suffer from high levels of discards, largely because of the lack of markets for low valued species and a lack of success of value adding indicatives.

Other challenges are more pronounced in some countries, particularly related to our understanding of catch composition. While some several of the six countries have long standing studies on shrimp trawl catches, others have either never carried out these surveys or have done so irregularly.

In general, the REBYC-II LAC seeks to promote by-catch management through actions to: (i) improve collaborative institutional and regulatory arrangements for bycatch management and co-management; (ii) strengthen management and optimizing utilization of bycatch within an ecosystem approach to fisheries (EAF) framework; (iii) create sustainable livelihoods, diversification and alternatives. While the specific interventions will differ in every country, by focusing on all three goals mentioned above, REBYC-II LAC main challenges  seeks to confront the main challenges facing trawl fisheries in the region.

As far as lessons learnt, countries such as Mexico, Colombia and Costa Rica are using the REBYC-II LAC to follow up on the results and lessons of the first REBYC project.  Mexico, for example, greatly improved the sustainability of its Pacific fleet during the first REBYC and will use REBYC-II LAC, to transfer those advances to its fleet in the Gulf of Mexico. REBYC-II LAC will also provide a platform for countries to communicate successes and failures to each other, thus making sure that the same pitfalls are not repeated and successes can be replicated.  

-How do you balance the need for conservation and the preservation of biodiversity with the need for livelihoods and food security?

We tend to erroneously believe that the opportunity cost of conservation and preservation of biodiversity is a loss of livelihoods and a worsening of food insecurity. However, if we look at fishing and its relationship with aquatic ecosystems, we find that responsibly managed fisheries actually improve livelihoods and increase food security by boosting both productivity and income, both in the medium and long terms.  Healthy aquatic ecosystems with ecologically appropriate genetic diversity provide a greater source of food and livelihoods than degraded, overfished habitats.  A 2010 study by FAO and the World Bank Sunken Billions - showed that the world was losing 50 billion USD a year just due to mismanagement of fisheries. Now, there are some assumptions in that calculation and increasing revenue is an uneven indicator for food security and improved livelihoods, but it does give you an idea of how much could be recovered if we managed fisheries sustainably. We must consider that factors outside of fishing also influence conservation and preservation of biodiversity. Pollution, urban development, climate change and many other factors can have negative effects on the ability of aquatic ecosystems to provide secure livelihoods and food security, so they must be rightfully integrated into fisheries governance. 

Finally, I would like to point out that it is critical to involve those directly impacted by fishing in the decision making process. We cannot expect a community to be a responsible steward of the environment if they are not fully informed and involved in the decisions we take regarding their livelihoods.

-How do you ensure that the fishermen and women are fully involved in decision-making processes as you shift to more sustainable fisheries practices?

There are two interlinked answers to this question. The first is that we need to create an enabling institutional and regulatory framework to allow effective participation of fishers in the decision making process. In the REBYC-II LAC project we are working with the participating countries to review their legal and normative framework and make sure that they have the structural basis for increased involvement by fishers. We may have the best ideas in the world but if this is not clearly articulated in national legislation and national policies, it will be very difficult for fisheries administrations to institutionally integrate fishers into the decision-making process. This is where the process espoused by the ecosystem approach to fisheries really comes into play.

On the other hand, fishers and their organizations need to have the capacity to effectively participate in the decision making process. This is only possible through strong organizations that are able to represent fisher views and demands.

In the REBYC-II LAC project we seek to work with fisher organizations, associations, cooperatives and other forms of collective action and improve their ability to responsibly participate in management now, and in the future.  In this regard, the project is also looking to strengthen the role of women in the decision making process and within fisher organizations. Women actively participate in shrimp trawl fisheries, particularly in processing and trading of bycatch.

The second answer to this question is more abstract. As managers, even if it is difficult, we need to stop thinking of fishermen and fisherwomen as people to be managed and more like partners. We need to improve truthful cooperation and foster trust between government and the civil society representing fishers (as well as other interested stakeholders) through open and transparent dialogue. Fortunately this is something that has been radically changing in the last decade and I trust we will soon begin to see the results of these global efforts.
To put it bluntly, fishers are not effectively participating in the decision-making process and levels of trust and transparency are low, there will be no sustainable fishing practices in Latin American bottom trawl fisheries.  That is the reality.

-How can projects such as REBYC contribute to reducing food loss and waste?

REBYC-II LAC’s approach is the result of various intergovernmental institutions working with national and regional partners to apply best practices and modern knowledge to a singular problem. In the past, a project or initiative to address bycatch in a particular fishery would probably focus on a particular issue in the fishery (such as improving technology, or enhancing the value chain).

However the lessons we have learned from these past experiences teach us that these are complex issues that need to be addressed holistically. We will not be able to sustainable manage bycatch if we do not address the overarching institutional and legal frameworks, if we do not address the livelihoods of those involved in the activity and if we do not apply EAF approaches.

EBYC-II LAC not only addresses the technological aspects of the fishery, but also asks itself, what can we do to improve the livelihoods of those that depend on these fisheries? How can we make sure that their livelihoods and food security are not negatively affected by stricter management measures?  The answer lies in improving revenues and food derived from currently wasted products. Improvements to the value chain can derive from increased revenue for fishermen. This may go from creating a market or products for currently discarded fish, to improving the value chain of the products that are already being sold. This is a difficult process, because much of it is eventually defined by consumer tastes, but strong investments are required to explore the potential of bycatch in the market place.

When exploring new products and markets, we should of course always keep in mind that local communities often depend on cheap low value bycatch for their food and nutrition security.

REBYC-II LAC and its partners will provide the technical knowledge of a global organization such as FAO or regional organizations such as OSPESCA, CRFM and WECAFC to reduce loss and waste.  Experiences and lessons learned from other projects and initiatives can be channeled to the region, adapted and applied. The involvement of so many regional and national partners also provides and opportunity to create channels of communication and partnerships that ensure that good results or failures are easily disseminated.

-What are some success stories emerging from your regional REBYC project?

The project has just started its activities so this is a question that I hope we revisit in one year. However in the short time-frame that the project has been operational, we can begin to see some. The project has opened avenues of cooperation with the US’National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA will receive fishers from our project countries for a week of hands-on training on sustainable fishing technology. Based on their good experiences in the past, some countries have already offered south-south technical cooperation and know-how throughout the region. Mexico’s technological advances in the first REBYC, Colombia’s improvements with data collection and Suriname’s experiences with MSC certification have all been discussed and are leading to on the ground cooperation both inside and outside the context of REBYC-II LAC. At the national level, some project countries have already begun to establish national collaborative groups to supervise the project and to improve communication between fisheries and government. In Brazil, for example, regional management committees for shrimp have been established in order to promote collaboration and cooperation between stakeholders.

At the regional level, the project and various other partners has re-established a Working Group to enhance shrimp trawl fisheries in the North Brazil-Guianas shelf. The working group has already produced bio-economic assessment and is currently developing an investment for this fishery. 

REBYC has launched its new web site – available in Spanish and English. You can follow all the news and events of the project on these pages.


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