Climate Change

A conversation with Raquel Gaspar, co-founder of Ocean Alive: Developing women’s leadership in ocean conservation


Last week, another conversation in the HerStory series took place with Raquel Gaspar, a marine biologist from Portugal devoted to engaging local communities in ocean protection and empowering women to engage in seagrass meadows conservation. The conversation was led by Vera Agostini, Deputy Director of the Fisheries and Aquaculture Division, FAO. 

"The only way to help women's leadership emerge in ocean conservation, share inspiration, and support one another." And that's exactly how, as a marine biologist, Raquel has helped get others involved in conservation, said Vera Agostini in her introduction. 

Before setting up the project ‘Keepers of the sea’ working with local fisherwomen to conserve seagrass meadows, Raquel spent nearly 20 years working for the Sado Estuary Nature Reserve where she monitored bottlenose dolphins in the Sado estuary,  using photo ID data to carry out population viability analyses of the declining dolphin population. 

However, by focusing solely on observing dolphins, she realized she was missing out on the other ocean treasures. 

"I was struggling– I felt like I was missing something, for 20 years, I never saw other ocean habitats. Sea meadows are one of them, and that, I found even more fascinating than only observing the marine surface." 

Seagrass meadows are the nursery habitat for both the prey of the resident dolphin population, and for the fish and shellfish which the fishing community’s economy depends upon. 

As Raquel began her research on seagrass meadows, she was also getting to know women from the Sado River fishing community and their stories. She realized the importance of empowering them as drivers of behavioural change. In fact, the degradation of seagrass meadows, and the consequent reduction in harvest had been seriously impacting the fisherwomen’s livelihoods, forcing them to turn to other sources of income. 

To counter this, Raquel leveraged the knowledge and potential of fisherwomen through Ocean Alive, Portugal’s first co-operative co-founded by Raquel and dedicated to ocean protection. These women, known as the ‘Keepers of the Sea’, are from the Sado River’s fishing community and they work with Ocean Alive to protect seagrass meadows. The co-operative has helped empower these women and boosted their incomes, at the same time contributing to conservation activities such as the monitoring and recovery of seagrass meadows. 

Raquel has also started a campaign to raise awareness on plastic pollution due to a widespread shellfish fishing technique. The technique consists of squirting salt into burrows to force the shellfish out, using plastic spray bottles. However, most of the time, these plastic containers get discarded at sea. The fisherwomen involved in this campaign carried out activities to inform others of the damage this was causing, and together collected more than six thousand plastic containers. 

"My work is not about a scientific language. It's a feeling, an ancient language. It's emotional and sensorial. That's how you engage the communities" said Raquel while describing her work. 

Thanking Raquel for sharing her unique story, Vera Agostini concluded, 

"We are fortunate to be women who have had the opportunities to follow dreams and make them a reality. Unfortunately, working and dedicating our lives to something we love is a privilege that not all women have."  

The HerStory Series is organized as part of FAO's Flexible Multi-partner Mechanism (FMM) 149 project, funded by Norway. The project promotes gender-responsive climate policies and actions in agriculture and women's leadership, at national, regional, and global levels. The series aims to spark engagement and knowledge-sharing among women, allowing them to share their stories – their road to success and how they navigated and overcame challenges and bias.