All over the world, commercial fishing vessels have earned a bad reputation because of their enormous negative impact on marine ecosystems and wildlife. Not as widely known is the deadly impact of small-scale artisanal fishers, whose nets accidentally drown tens of thousands of whales, turtles, seabirds, dolphins, and sharks every year.
Along with commercial fishing, small-scale artisanal fishing is responsible for the incidental capture of unwanted species that are thrown back into the sea either dead or seriously wounded. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that bycatch accounts for 40 percent of the global marine catch.
This situation is evident along Peru’s 1,865-mile (3,000-kilometer) Pacific coastline. Here, fishing is the country’s second largest industry, providing the main source of employment and income for coastal communities. Although the Peruvian fishing industry has historically concentrated on commercial fishing, artisanal fishing has grown so much — 54 percent between 1995 and 2005 — that its total incidental catch is now equal to or greater than the impact of commercial fishing vessels, explains Joanna Alfaro, founding member of Pro Delphinus, a Peruvian conservation organization that has been working to protect cetaceans and marine species since 1995.
According to Alfaro, while there are between 700 to 800 commercial fishing vessels in Peru, there are at least 9,000 artisanal fishing boats. “Hypothetically speaking, if each artisanal fishing boat catches just one sea turtle per year, this represents an annual loss of 9,000 turtles. This number is troublesome, because we know that the number is much greater.” Another issue is that the majority of artisanal vessels operate along the coastline, where there is a higher concentration of marine life that is exposed to increased risk of incidental capture.
Recognizing that reducing artisanal bycatch would have an enormous benefit to the conservation of marine species, Pro Delphinus has launched the Darwin Sustainable Artisanal Fisheries Initiative with support from the Darwin Initiative. This new project is assessing the impact of bycatch in 30 Peruvian ports in order to identify the priority areas that will be involved in the program. Artisanal fishers in the selected sites receive comprehensive training and technical assistance to reduce bycatch through sustainable fishing methods.
“Most fishers don’t know that bycatch is an unsustainable practice that has a negative impact on the marine ecosystem, and they don’t realize that these species are critically endangered. We know that if the fishers had a choice, they’d prefer to avoid bycatch,” Alfaro points out.
Studies by Pro Delphinus show that incidental bycatch causes losses in money, time, and equipment. For example, the whales and dolphins that become entangled in nets break them as they try to escape; bait is lost when seabirds snatch the fish from hooks, and then often drown; and fishers can spend valuable time and expensive fuel attempting to free entangled or hooked turtles and dolphins.
Pro Delphinus is working “from the bottom up,” identifying fishers who are interested in sustainable
fishing and who will spread the word throughout the community.
The program includes environmental education workshops to raise awareness about marine species conservation and to highlight that sustainable fishing will not affect the fishermen’s income but will improve the quality of their catch as well as their reputation. The workshops also introduce local fishers to the concept of certification, which can give them access to premium markets and prices.
Participants receive training in best practices and fishing techniques. They also learn how to use gear that can substantially reduce bycatch such as sound devices that can be affixed to nets and emit frequencies to deter whales and dolphins and weights that can be attached to longlines to make them sink quickly, so seabirds will have little time to snatch bait. Pro Delphinus provides this gear free of charge.
Learning proper methods to release entangled wildlife is another key aspect of the training that can save countless animals. Fishers learn how to bring the animal on board — when possible and necessary — how to remove the net or bait, how much time to let the animal rest, and how to release it back into the water. Fishers are encouraged to keep gear such as release hooks, scoop nets, and knife scissors on board to help load and release sea turtles. Line cutters, which are long poles with a blade at the end, are given free of charge to release dolphins, whales, and sharks from nets without having to load them onto the boat.
“Even if only one animal can be saved by one fisher, then we can say that our work has been a success,” Alfaro notes. The project’s successes go beyond Peruvian waters to support global efforts to conserve marine species, as this area is located along important migratory routes for many marine species. For example, sea turtles that nest in Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, the Galapagos, and even Australia pass through Peruvian waters. Humpback whales are temporary visitors along their journey to Antarctica, and seabirds that migrate from North America, Australia, and New Zealand use the Peruvian coast as a feeding and resting ground.
Pro Delphinus intends to share information about its work and findings with the general public and government-level decision makers such as the Instituto del Mar del Perú and the Minister of the Environment. Alfaro hopes that in the future, sustainable fishing will become the norm in Peru and that artisanal fishing will not only continue to support thousands of families, but will also have far less of an impact on marine species.