Fishing Communities Step Up As World Hunger Threatens
Diana Vasquez grew up in the fishing village of El Aceituno, Honduras, where her grandfather was a fisherman. To this day, she clearly envisions her little world surrounded by “shells everywhere. There were thousands and thousands.”
“When I was a kid, the main street was covered with these white clam shells. And the walls of the houses – it was like a concrete of crushed shells. My grandmother built an outdoor bed of shells just to dry clothes because shells absorb the heat of the sun.”
But under the pressures of overfishing, pollution, and climate change, El Aceituno is a shadow of its former self. Once a vigorous artisanal fishing community, it has diminished greatly.
Today, motivated by a love of country, a connection with the ocean and those who live from it, Vasquez advocates for the fishing communities of Central America with nonprofit global environmental organization, “Rare.” The mid-sized NGO (FY2022 budget $32 million) is based in Arlington, Virginia. Grants from governments and foundations as well as contributions from individuals support Rare’s global staff of 178 with their environmental work, on both land and sea. This includes not only the time-tested work of grass roots organization, but also the scientific gathering and sharing of data about the state of waters, the creatures that live in them, and the families dependent upon a robust catch to provide food to their families and beyond.
All over Honduras, communities now need to mobilize to hold on to their coastal livelihoods in the face of not only climate pressures but also the impact of overfishing, great and small – from big commercial trawlers to local fishermen. Vasquez has been helping community groups there to organize and work with their government to produce outcomes that preserve their unique way of life, born of the link between ocean and culture.
The challenge is not peculiar to just Honduras or even just Central America. The U.N. this summer advanced its global “Blue Transformation” endeavor, to, as it says, “enhance the potential of food systems underwater and feed the world’s growing population sustainably.”
There have been few times in contemporary history where the hard work of ocean preservation, marine biodiversity restoration and sustaining global food supply have intersected in the kind of perfect storm now facing the planet.
Rare says almost three billion people around the world rely on fish as a major source of protein. Indeed, the ascendance of fish as a significant food source is of critical importance, the World Food Programme reporting this month that global hunger is on the rise, with an estimated 828 million people in a state of hunger in 2021. In fact, the U.N.’s WFP has raised a red alert on rising global hunger due to the war in Ukraine, climate change, and pandemic and economic stresses.
It’s a lot to take on, and where to start is possibly the most daunting question of all. Yet, beyond the big international themes of ocean repair and sophisticated scientific diagnosis, there are people who are doing the painstaking in-place work of methodically building back. Rare’s coastal fisheries program called “Fish Forever” reaches over 1.6 million fishing community members on four continents. Rocky Sanchez Tirona is the program’s Managing Director.
“Rare is about behavior change; we call it behavior-centered solutions,” says Tirona. “We work to get people – whether it’s the community or the leaders or even the national government – to align around a shared vision for more sustainable coastal fisheries and then act on that together.”
The target of these efforts is the “territorial seas,” coastal ocean waters subject to a local government’s authority. These waters extend up to 12 nautical miles from shore. Compared to the earth’s entire aquatic landscape, these coastal waters make up less than six percent of the sea. But Rare notes this is where the ocean’s highest biodiversity is found and where, with nearly 500 million people living in these areas, some of the most intense human need is experienced.
Tirona breaks it down even further. “The territorial seas make up six percent of the ocean. But 70% of marine biodiversity can be found in that six percent, because that’s where the coral reefs are, mangroves, sea grass, all the species that are associated with those habitats. In terms of employment, these are small scale fisheries, where a total of almost 113 million people work for either jobs or subsistence.”
Beyond this, the quality of the catch from these fisheries is critically distinct. “Between small scale fisheries and industrial fisheries, 40% of the catch is in small scale fisheries. That seems like a small number,” says Tirona. “But 97% of that catch of that 40% is for food.” That is in stark contrast to industrial fishing, she says, which is turned into food for animals or other things.
Marine ecologist and nature photographer George Stoyle is the digital architect of Rare’s Fish Forever data pipeline of widely available aggregated data about ecosystems health, climate change resilience, fisheries production, household surveys, and, most contemporary, the impact of the Covid pandemic.
He’s visited and photographed all four continental Fish Forever locations.
“Informed decision-making is the end-goal of the data,” says Stoyle. “We have country teams that collect data in the field, aggregate and analyze it, and make it available in a form useful to municipal governments to aid in the decision-making process to best manage resources.”
Fish Forever, with an annual budget of $10.5 million, works constantly to expand the vast network of people who directly or indirectly benefit from the work of Rare. They can be found along the Caribbean coasts of Honduras and Guatemala, the Amazon coast of Brazil, the long coastline of Mozambique, the small island state of Palau, Sulawesi, Indonesia which is part of the Coral Triangle, and 6o municipalities in the Philippines, where the Fish Forever program started in 2013.
Rare’s challenge: how do coastal fishing communities meet grand global visions, like the initiative endorsed by close to a hundred nations that seeks to make 30 percent of the planet’s land and water areas “protected spaces” by 2030 – or, in shorthand, “30 by 30.”
Great goal, says Tirona, but who’s going to make it happen?
“In a lot of the places we’re working in, that’s going to be really hard. We say – the science tells us that if you leave 20% of the critical habitats alone and don’t touch them and let them recover, you’ll actually see more fish coming out of that area. So they’ll talk among themselves: can we handle 20% ? Maybe that’s still too high. So perhaps they’ll start with ten percent and work their way up to 20% later.”
In England, a team of University of Cambridge scientists this summer identified what they see as fifteen of the top challenges to marine biodiversity. Enumerated in the Journal “Nature Ecology and Evolution,” they range from the impact of wildfires, resource exploitation, overfishing, ocean mining of several types, and of course rampant pollution.
On the immediate receiving end of these stresses are the constituents of Rare – buffeted in hurricanes, suffering through extreme heat and drought, casting lines in depleted waters. By extension, though, so are we all.