From Nets to Networks

Dr. Rachel Graham squints at the sunlight shimmering across the water. The sea off the coast of Belize is a collage of blues and greens that sparkle like gems, oscillating ripples of sapphire and emerald. Beneath the water’s surface, eagle rays move like underwater birds, their fins flapping like wings, while tropical fish flaunt their colors amongst the crags and caverns of the MesoAmerican Reef. Unfortunately, due to unsustainable fishing practices, this incredible marine ecosystem is imminently threatened. As founder of the conservation organization MarAlliance, Rachel has been helping to build a transnational network of fishers that are working together to protect it.

Fishers are a primary source of, and thus a necessary solution to, the problem of unsustainable fishing. Moreover, they live and breathe the ocean, they are finely tuned to changes in marine environments and have a deep understanding of issues affecting those ecosystems. Therefore, MarAlliance works with a network of fishers in two ways: advancing conservation through “fisher science” and improving fishing practices.

As MarAlliance has expanded their network of fisher scientists—fishers they’ve trained to gather data, identify species, and satellite tag sharks—the network has evolved. Fishers who underwent training have become trainers themselves, sparking a chain reaction of ‘fishers training fishers’ from Mexico through Central America. This multi-country network helps MarAlliance collect data much faster than they could alone and enables them to knit together their own research with insights from fishers. In turn, fishers are paid well and benefit from learning new techniques and broadening their network of peers.

MarAlliance’s transnational network of fishers was considerably strengthened in 2019. They’ve been video conferencing and using the platforms WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger to unite over shared hopes and challenges like fish population declines and pollution. As a result, fishers have reported feeling less isolated and better supported.

In 2019, MarAlliance also ramped up their work with fishers to transition them to sustainable fishing practices and away from using gillnets and catching sharks. Conservationists often refer to gillnets as “walls of death,” which sounds dramatic until you realize it’s accurate. Gillnets indiscriminately catch large numbers of fish and other marine life in one massive haul. As many governments, including Belize, are shortsightedly reluctant to ban gillnets, MarAlliance’s work to help fishers abandon this practice is essential.  Additionally, MarAlliance’s approach of fishers and conservationists working together has led to important attitude and behavior changes in several fishing communities. Almost 80 local fishers in six countries have reported a reduction or cessation of gillnet use, or no longer target sharks.

In the face of imperiled fisheries and political inertia, these grassroots networks are working to safeguard ocean life: fishers are connecting with each other to learn new techniques and share experiences; conservationists and fishers are exchanging vital information about marine ecosystems. These collaborations are a source of hope and a driving force behind MarAlliance’s work to protect our oceans and their wildlife.

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