Interview by Katiana Murillo, Rainforest Alliance
“By using scientific information and alerting the public, we will try to pressure the government at the appropriate time. We will definitely design an effective management plan, but getting it implemented is something else.”
In February 2003, the Argentinean NGO AquaMarina began the enormous challenge of drawing up a management plan for the coast of Buenos Aires, which is 684 miles (1,100 kilometers) long and home to 40 percent of Argentina’s population. AquaMarina’s project, which includes research, environmental education, and participation from fishermen and local communities, is supported by the Overbrook Foundation, and is part of the conservation group’s overall goal to protect Argentina’s coasts, focusing on Buenos Aires.
We spoke with Pablo Bordino, director of AquaMarina, about the project’s goals and challenges. Bordino has a B.S. in biology and a Master’s degree in Coastal Management Science from the University of Buenos Aires and Nova Southeastern University in Florida. In 2002, received the Whitley Conservation Prize from the United Kingdom.
Question: What do you hope to accomplish with this project?
Bordino: The project encompasses the entire coast of the province of Buenos Aires, where 40 percent of Argentina’s population lives. We hope to better understand how to effectively manage the coast. Our challenge is to find a way to develop a management plan in an urban area that can be a model for other areas as well.
We want to evaluate the condition of the coast, which suffers from industrial contamination and overfishing — about 70 percent of coastal fishing in the country occurs in the Buenos Aires province. Urban planning has been insufficient, and that’s caused a high level of erosion in tourism areas, which are also nurseries for fish and crustaceans. Populations of commercial species have declined quite a bit in the past decade. In fact, the yellow clam has disappeared completely, probably related to an emerging disease. Some species of sharks have been overexploited, especially the narrownose smooth-hound (Mustelus schmitti), plus other important food fish species like the whitemouth croaker (Micropogonias furnieri) and the Argentine hake (Merluccius hubbsi).
Without a doubt, the impact of human beings on the area is severe, and we have the serious problem of not knowing the actual condition of the coast’s biodiversity. There’s just not much information available, and little has been done to collect it.
The coast of Buenos Aires province has nine protected areas, but none has an adequate management budget. Local and national budgets don’t take the Buenos Aires coast into account, in spite of the fact that it is the most urbanized coastal area and therefore the most threatened in all of Argentina.
Our project also includes environmental education and professional development. We plan to write a field guide for the general public with basic information about coastal species in addition to the problems that they currently face.
Q: When will the management plan you’re developing be ready?
Bordino: The local authorities will have the last word. Each country has its own way of doing things. One of the lessons we have learned is that we have to change our strategy with government authorities because there is a lack of coordination that can cause problems — for example, they are giving fishing permits in protected areas, which is not exactly legal. By using scientific information and alerting the public, we will try to pressure the government at the appropriate time. We will definitely design an effective management plan, but getting it implemented is something else.
Q: What do you consider to be your most important achievements to date?
Bordino: In terms of research, we have done a survey of all present species, collected information about new species found in the study area, and we are doing more analysis. There are species that are common in the area but were not found previously in Buenos Aires and there is no evidence that a change in the environment caused them to appear. This supports the idea that there is very little reliable baseline data. Some of the new species that we found have commercial value, including crustaceans.
Q: Describe the work you are doing with local communities.
Bordino: The local fishing community is part of our project because overfishing is one of the principal problems. We are developing a fishing management plan, but to do this we have to have a more global vision of the coast and involve policy makers, as well as local communities and fishermen. We are focusing on environmental education with the local communities, explaining the positives and negatives of having a protected area and a management plan for the coast.
We already know the fishing community because we have been working in the area since 1992. We aren’t working with all the fishermen because not all want to participate in the project. But there is a group of fishermen that can give us access to trustworthy data.
Q: How have local residents responded in general to the AquaMarina project?
Bordino: There are people that have supported us and others who have little interest in what we are doing. For the past four years, the situation in Argentina has been difficult. According to the official statistics, there is a 25 percent unemployment rate, although this country produced three times what it needs for food. There is a serious problem with distribution of resources. Sometimes this is a real challenge for us — how do you talk about conservation when many children are going to school more to eat than to study, and their father is a fisherman? Sometimes it’s difficult to talk the same language. We are learning how to do a better job at communicating with the communities.
Q: What has been the most effective way of communicating with local residents?
Bordino: Long-term education is the most effective along with working with the government to change the overfishing situation. We are trying to make changes by working with new fishing techniques and permits, better prices at the market, and so on. The goal is to establish a sustainable fishing industry, or nearly so. Also there are cultural issues that we haven’t been able to figure out yet.
Q: How large is the Buenos Aires fishing industry?
Bordino: About 300 boats, but it varies and is difficult to measure. There are small boats doing subsistence fishing. If the fishermen on these boats don’t catch anything, the family doesn’t eat. It all depends on how the economy has been in a given year. No one knows what will happen tomorrow. The fisherman is worried about getting food for that day and isn’t thinking about the future. There’s also the problem of competition — there are increasingly fewer fish, so you have to continually work harder to catch them. It’s a complex situation but also a critical challenge for us to find a solution.
Q: How are you working with the local fishermen?
Bordino: Many of our trainees are women. If we need to contact the fishermen for the first time, we send a woman instead of a man and that starts a completely different dialogue. We also try to come up with an economic benefit. We don’t pay salaries to the fishermen who participate in the project, but there are certain benefits. For example, we contact them when we need to take samples. We have a boat but we are limited to traveling only within five nautical miles, because it’s a small boat. We buy them fishing equipment, satellite positioning devices, or rain gear. We also have contracts with businesses that, for example, donate lifejackets. This kind of interaction makes it easier to communicate with the fishermen and work with them.
Q: How do the fishermen participate in the project?
Bordino: They take water samples, bring voluntary observers on their boats, set nets to capture plankton and other fish samples for us. Fourteen volunteers and three graduate students are participating in the project. We have institutional support from the government and local and international NGOs, like Wildlife Trust.
Q: What have been your biggest challenges so far?
Bordino: In spite of having support from the national government, we find barriers at the provincial level. The relationship between the federal and provincial governments isn’t always the best and that means it’s difficult to convince them to have similar policies. We are evaluating our strategy, and once we have a draft management plan, we’ll see how we can have it enforced. An NGO or public university can not carry out a management plan. The decisions are 100 percent political.
We had thought that the situation in Buenos Aires was relatively bad, but it’s worse than we thought. No policies exist for really important issues. It seems that certain decisions depend more on your relationship with a particular member of the federal or provincial government than they do on whether you have a solid policy that aims to protect natural resources.
In a country in the midst of a difficult economic crisis, the exploitation of natural resources is a valid way to manage the economy in coastal communities. You have to take into account the government’s, the community’s, and the fishermen’s needs, as well as the need to protect certain ecosystems and species. Without baseline data, that is not going to happen.