Using GPS Technology for Sustainable Fisheries

Improving Small Scale Fisheries Management Through the Collaborative Application of GPS Technology in the Gulf of California – A Day of Fieldwork with the Gulf of California Marine Program’s “Trackers” Program.

The Gulf of California is one of the most productive and bio-diverse bodies of water on the planet. Whenever people talk about the Gulf they almost always mention JacquesYves Cousteau, the French naval officer, explorer, conservationist, filmmaker, scientist, photographer, author and researcher who studied the Gulf in the 1970’s and famously dubbed it “The Aquarium of the World,” due to the rich abundance and diversity of marine life that he and his team encountered. Sadly, within just decades, much of this abundance of life was depleted by multi national fisheries that came and went with no concern for their overall impact which was devastating. Nevertheless, the Gulf of California still provides for many socially and economically important Mexican and international fisheries, with over a half-million tons of seafood taken from its waters annually. This is not including illegal fisheries, which are common, or the wasted “by-catch,” which would likely quadruple that tonnage (Brusca, 2010)! Mexico, which claims the Gulf’s waters, sources 70% of its total catch in the Gulf, with over 23,000 artisanal fishing boats catching a conservative estimate of 28,000 tons of fish worth about US$19 million per year (   

The Gulf of California Marine Program (GCMP), a collaboration between Mexican and American researchers and conservation professionals, has been applying best scientific practices available towards recovering the Gulf’s diminishing resources.  Small scale fishing has long been associated with natural uncertainty – after all, as my French neighbor used to say, it’s called fishing not catching. But the GCMP seeks to reduce the the man-made component of this uncertainty, such as the impact of climate change, the loss of crucial habitats, and shifting socio-economic priorities that leave fishermen hanging out to dry. Integral to this process is not only collecting robust data from fisheries, habitats fished, and the socio-economic drivers of the fishing industry, but also making this data readily available to government managers, academics and experts, and most importantly, the fisherfolk. In this way, equitably informed, round-table discussions can take place around marine protection, climate change, depleted fish stocks, endangered species, and the capacity of coastal fishing communities in Mexico to maintain their incomes and ways of life into the long term future. 

This is where the Trackers Program comes in. The Centro para la Biodiversidad y la Conservación (CBMC), a Mexican non-profit in La Paz, Baja California Sur, and a body of the GCMP, has been building trust through nurturing interpersonal relationships with local communities, turning around the ineffectual paradigm of “conservationists vs. fisherfolk.” The GCMP feels that empowering small-scale fishers will help ensure the sustainability of the ecosystem services their livelihoods depend on. The way that divers and experts from the GCMP monitor marine habitats from deep water to shallow water echoes their grassroots model for change, which is from the bottom up. Essential progress is being realized partly through the GCMP’s “Trackers Program,” an initiative that applies emergent technology in GPS tracking devices to map artisanal fishing activities over significant areas. The outdated idea of experts coming into a community to extract and squirrel away information is being replaced by a crowd sourced, citizen-science model, where fisherfolk and other community members collaborate with researchers and conservationists to obtain their own data, map, and make predictive models of their own resources. This way the science is more robust and at the end of the day it is put to more effective use.

On our latest Trackers field trip, four scientists from the CBMC loaded into the truck and headed thirty minutes out of the dusty city of La Paz along the eastern highway to La Ventana, a small fishing community with scattered residences and a light but growing tourism infrastructure. Among the attractions here are diving, spear fishing, and an epic view of the long and mountainous Isla Cerralvo, which lies just 17km offshore. Our first stop was to see Ivan, aka “the onion”  – his cement home a sturdy structure representative of its owner. Like many of the houses in rural Baja, Ivan’s home looks only half built, and yet offers everything that’s needed, and more. Ivan was relaxing because the fishing had recently been very good. The desert plants in the sandy “garden” were well tended, the family paper store was open for business and the kids had brand new toys laying in the yard. 

Nevertheless, Ivan had become increasingly concerned about the state of his fishing grounds.  One thing he has noticed was that more gringos, an inoffensive slang for anyone from the United States, were flying in and spearing trophy snappers, filling their permit quotas, and their buddy’s quotas too should someone come up empty handed. This is especially problematic because, in Ivan’s words, “taking one record-size fish is equivalent to taking many smaller ones in the future.” this is because the largest “trophy” fish are also the most reproductively viable and thus the brood stock of Ivan’s artisanal fishery. 

Ivan had joined the Trackers team a few months ago, after talking with a mutual colleague who had benefited from working with the program in the northern Gulf. He was more than happy to go over his data with us, which we brought printed out on a satellite map, and he pointed out, among other things, what species he fished and where. Our analysts can interpret much from looking at the GPS tracks, but there is no substitute for information straight from the fisher’s mouth.  For example, Ivan told us where he had caught barillete, or skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis), a commonly exploited commercial fish that he uses as bait. Ivan’s target species, fished with a hook, line, and buoy method, are shark (the particular species is unknown – an example of key information that we hope to attain) and guachinango/pargo, or Pacific red snapper, (Lutjanus peru) a top predator and keystone species on the Gulf’s rocky reefs.

Even in my limited experience, I learned that most fishing captains guard their secrets like magicians, so it felt like real progress to have earned this one man’s trust. More specific information that we attain from fisherfolk, we pledge to keep confidential, to protect the fisher’s permitted rights and keep information from the hands of guateros, or illegal, unregulated fisherfolk from outside the community. Interestingly, Ivan’s fishing map showed high “route fidelity,” and it appeared that he tends to follow pelagic, or open ocean, fish along a single path out to sea. This data can be used to reveal his highest value catch areas, as well as where he needs to go for bait, how much gas he is using, and the physical risks he is taking through his operation. Indeed, the usefulness of this data is more boundless than fish in the sea, and what is more, we employ our own experts to mine and refine the data, a time-consuming service that is rarely provided to other businesses gratis. 

Our work is not without expenses, and soon we hope to reduce costs by improving the technology, for example with automated trackers that transmit directly to a satellite and charge via solar panels.  We can imagine a fleet of vessels with mounted tracking systems continuously relaying information to a platform that is easy enough for the fishermen to use at their own leisure and to their own benefit. For example, by comparing historical tracking data with catch and income data, fisherfolk can identify over-exploited areas and create their own management plans.  This has already occurred in the northern Gulf, where partners have used their data to negotiate fair compensation with the government for temporary fishing closures, as well as to revise quotas for the sustainable exploitation of fish like the Gulf Curvina (Cynoscion othonopterus), a historically over-fished species that is listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN red list.  The new data also stimulated fisherfolk in the North to experiment with alternative methods that reduce by-catch, namely of the critically endangered Vaquita Marina, or Gulf Harbor Porpoise (Phocoena sinus).

Our next stop was at the abode of a fisherman named Gill, aka “Don yo-yo.” Gill is older and balder than Ivan and has been a fisher his whole life. He claimed, perhaps with a little regret, that he never had the opportunity to study, but the opportunities offered by the Trackers program did not elude him either. Gill will be our ecological monitoring trip captain in the near future and he offered us a fair price for the use of his 26ft “panga,” an open, outboard motorboat originally designed for net and shark fishing that is typical of the Gulf’s small fishing communities. Gill seemed to enjoy hanging out in the lot chatting, and I admit that after living in New York the flow of life here can feel viscous. On the other hand, the extra time provides a degree of deliberation and makes it easier to build close interpersonal relationships.   

Next, we searched for Doña Angelica’s house to secure our trip’s meals. “Turn right at the cactus,” Jose kept saying amidst a street lined with cacti, until we got a call from the top of the hill from where our hosts had been watching us drive in circles.  Night had fallen over the desert, and two grey foxes scattered from the road as we drove up to the sizeable, adobe style property, with cars and pangas alike parked in the yard.  Everyone was sitting outside contemplating the clear, moonlit sky, including a temperamental little dog and an ultra-relaxed cat sprawled across the sand.  We went from standing, to sitting and drinking coffee, and from arranging food with the women of the house to setting up a makeshift presentation about the Trackers program for the four fishermen present.

After decades of experience in the field, Ismael has perfected his sales pitch. He was personable, joked around, used language that was simple and easy to understand, and provided key examples of how previous fishers had used the program to their advantage. While one of the men was slow to catch the significance of the lines on the map, another lit up with the idea that an important (and complimentary) service was being provided by people that could indeed be trusted.  “We are not the authorities,” Ismael made clear, “we are only scientists who want to work with you so that you have the tools to negotiate fairly with the authorities.”  In other words, “we are on your side.” During the presentation a little girl rollerbladed around the house knocking over glasses in the kitchen and her even younger sister burst out of the kitchen yelling out, “I want coffee!” We had a few laughs, shook hands all around and promised to return for our delicious meals and to further discuss a Trackers partnership.  Many of the fishers are closely related, and we hope that positive words about the program will spread quickly through the community.   

This blog was written by Alan R.B. for the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation (CMBC), when he was working as Communications Coordinator from Laz Paz, BCS, Mexico in 2016.