Fishers go virtual

As COVID19 is forcing everyone to find new ways of connecting, Mediterranean fishers are increasingly catching up with digital technologies and innovation for sustainable development

Conil de la Frontera © Jorge Saez Jimenez

By Simone Niedermueller, WWF Mediterranean Marine Initiative Regional Projects Manager

Last year, we had planned to take more than 30 fishers from the Mediterranean to visit one of the best community-led fisheries WWF is working with: Conil de la Frontera in Spain. Then COVID hit and our plans were dashed. To say we were disappointed — as were the fishers — is an understatement.

So, as the entire world moved to online platforms to continue working, learning and talking with friends, we decided to do the same: we would take fishers on a virtual exchange to meet the fishing community of Conil and learn how we can build sustainable and economically viable small-scale fisheries (SSF) across the Mediterranean directly from their experience.

Obviously, nothing can compare with the rich experience of a face-to-face exchange visit. The curiosity on fishers’ faces as they discuss gears, boats and catches, the hum of several languages being spoken at once as they question each other’s fishing strategies and share photos of prize catches is without equal.

Nonetheless we wanted to give fishers in Italy, France or Tunisia the unique opportunity to see (even virtually) and hear from other highly committed coastal communities how to jointly manage fishing areas, increase monitoring against illegality and develop a top-quality and profitable market for local fish.

Despite our initial fear that fishers would be discouraged by spending hours on a digital platform, in the end more than 50 fishers from 10 countries connected to the digital meeting from their boats, their cars, their living rooms and stayed throughout the entire session. They raised lots of questions and shared their views, supported by the skilled multilingual WWF project team that helped translate and keep the conversation flowing in 8 languages! “We like what we saw in Conil. It’s a great inspiration and a great story” concluded Sime Baric, a fisher from Croatia.

So let’s start our virtual visit of Conil and hear directly from its fishing community about how we can best improve small-scale fisheries sustainability.

We are in the Strait of Gibraltar, a hotspot for biological richness. Here, 260 artisanal fishers are members of the local fishing organisation, Organización de Productores Pesqueros Artesanales de la Lonja de Conil. Since its creation more than 100 years ago, the organization has been a pioneer in sustainable fishing as comes out from this interview with Manuela Leal, the first woman representative of fishers in Spain. The group has created the brand “Pescado de Conil” to increase the market value of its seafood. Tags with QR codes are attached to their fish providing customers with information, and their whole SSF fleet is equipped with an electronic monitoring system the so called “green box” system. In addition the group submitted a proposal to establish the largest fishing reserve in Europe that was recently approved by the Spanish government and set up a Fisheries Local Action Group, whose funds are benefitting the entire community — a must-see for anyone interested in community-led sustainable development.

Conil de la Frontera © Nicolas Fernandez

“It is all about selling better, not fishing more” said Nicolàs Fernàndez, manager of the OPP-72 and descendant of a family of fishers. He describes himself as a “land sailor,” referring to the people who dedicate their lives to the fishing community without actually going to sea themselves. As he explains, the key to generating profit in the area lies in providing fresh and sustainable fish to consumers. Currently, the 22 fish species labelled as “Pescado de Conil” and traced with a QR code have a premium position on the market. “I encourage you all, especially the smallest communities, to realize that only by being united we will be able to face tomorrow’s challenges” advised Nicolàs.

“At the moment, the green box is the best available tool to monitor artisanal fisheries” affirmed Jorge Saez Jimenez, an enthusiastic and knowledgeable “land sailor” who works for SOLDECOCOS, a local NGO that partners with WWF. Simple, cost- and energy-efficient, the green boxes are effective tracking tools that once installed onboard provide information on where boats are fishing. This kind of equipment really does improve fisheries management, deter illegal fishing and ensure the safety of workers at sea.

The community system developed by Conil is described by Maria-José Domínguez Corrales: “The fishing community represents an engine of growth and job creation for the local economy! She is the executive secretary of the Fisheries Local Action Group Litoral Cádiz Estrecho, one of the seven associations connecting fisheries actors with local private and public stakeholders in Andalusia. Over the past years, they have funded more than 80 projects and created more than 100 jobs to match the area’s needs — be they economic, social and/or environmental. The Tuna Museum, food festivals and a locally run network of hostels are just a few examples of how fishing activity can act as an engine for other socio-economic and cultural activities throughout an entire village.

In addition to their successful story, what made this virtual visit remarkable was the enthusiasm with which the people from Conil shared their experiences with other fishers.

“If there are no fish left in the sea, we cannot live” said Dimitris, a Greek fisher. It’s as simple as that. The urgency to find a way to prevent this dramatic scenario is what brought fishers together for this digital learning experience and to be part of WWF’s regional SSF project. Whether they be Turkish, Spanish, Greek, Albanian, French, Croatian, Slovenian, Tunisian or Algerian, these fishers are united by their desire to help recover fish stocks in the Mediterranean and preserve their cultural heritage for generations to come. Digital exchanges will never be equally valuable as face-to-face exchange visits but while the pandemic still keeps many countries in its firm grip we need to turn challenges into opportunities.

*WWF Mediterranean Marine Initiative (MMI) is running the largest regional initiative aiming to transform small-scale fisheries in the Mediterranean (5 years, 10 countries, 24 pilot sites). This initiative is part of the SSF University program organised by the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM-FAO). The exchange and mutual learning of best practices among fishers is part of WWF’s project and supports the implementation of the Regional Plan of Action for Small-Scale Fisheries in the Mediterranean and Black Sea (RPOA-SSF).

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