Working With the Enemy to Save Wildlife

A conservation scientist in Baja California has saved up to 2,200 loggerhead turtles a year since 2007 by helping its fishing industry change practices. (Bonus: more profits.)

(Photo: Hoyt Peckham)

Richard Conniff is the author of The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth and other books.

It may seem counterintuitive and even downright risky. But protecting habitat often involves working closely with the people doing the damage. It can mean supplying efficient sawmills to rainforest loggers who might otherwise hack the timber they harvest into planks with chain saws. It can mean helping communities in Africa manage trophy-hunting concessions more profitably so they don’t need to kill as many animals. It can mean introducing better fishing practices to fishermen who are inadvertently killing thousands of endangered loggerhead turtles every year.

The object isn’t to make exploiting the environment easier, faster, more destructive. Instead, says Hoyt Peckham, it’s about setting up a framework to help people focus on resources that can withstand the pressure—and then get the full value from whatever they harvest. Helping them earn more while harvesting less gets their buy-in because they’re building better lives for their families, and it results in fewer dead turtles. An ineffectual call for a ban on fishing practices that kill turtles does neither.   

Peckham, a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center for Ocean Solutions, has been working on this delicate balancing act ever since he showed up in Baja California as a doctoral student doing marine biology research more than 10 years ago. 

One day not long after he arrived, Peckham discovered 17 dead loggerhead turtles and two live ones caught on 200-hook longlines. He watched a fisherman on one boat slit the throat of a turtle to get it off the hook while the skipper complained that the turtles were a nuisance, distracting them from the marketable fish they were really after. People in the small fishing community of Santa Rosa had no idea that the turtles were rare, much less endangered. It turned out the nearby waters were a hot spot for juvenile turtles that had migrated from spawning grounds in northern Japan. Baja California’s small fleet of open skiffs, or pangas, was responsible for one of the deadliest sea turtle bycatches in the world.

Because Mexico lacked the resources (or commitment, depending on your perspective) to enforce its natural resource laws, Peckham turned to working with the fishermen instead. With the help of government agencies and nonprofits, including Grupo Tortuguero de las Californias, northwestern Mexico's regional sea turtle conservation network, Peckham brought in sociologists, anthropologists, market researchers, and fishery experts to help the fishing community figure out a way forward. 

Maybe more important, he arranged for Efrain de la Paz Regalado, the leader of the Santa Rosa fishing community, to meet Regalado’s counterparts from Hawaii and Japan. Those fleets, operating on an industrial scale, were spending millions to avoid killing a single loggerhead. The 100-boat Hawaiian fishing fleet faced an annual shutdown if it had a bycatch of more than 17 loggerheads in a year—an amount the Santa Rosa boats were killing in a single day. Peckham recalls that when de la Paz Regalado heard the Hawaiians describe their efforts at that meeting in 2007, he was clearly shaken and immediately volunteered that the Santa Rosa fleet would give up its longline fishing gear. According to Peckham, that decision to switch to turtle-safe fishing gear has saved 900 to 2,200 loggerhead turtles every year since. 

The other tragedy of commercial fishing in the area was that fishermen were often stuck selling their catch to a single buyer on the beach, who Peckham says was paying them less per pound than they would’ve earned recycling soda bottles they picked up on the street. Low margins drove them to catch more fish, which just boosted supply and drove down prices, resulting in even less profit. "It's a kind of reverse alchemy," says Peckham. "They were taking fish that could be worth gold and inadvertently turning them into trash." Meanwhile, chefs in the nearby resorts of Cabo San Lucas were paying a premium to import the very same seafood from thousands of miles away. 

Even if these chefs had arrived in Baja California expecting the seafood paradise of the world, they usually abandoned the idea of buying local because the quality of the fish was so poor. The fishermen used gill nets in which the fish drowned overnight and then stewed for hours, as enzymes turned the quality of the flesh bloodier and fishier; they also had a shorter shelf life. When the fishermen hauled in their nets, they tossed the fish into the bilges and left them to rot in the sun. Peckham told me that a visiting Japanese fisherman wept at the sight, a spectacle that finally caught the attention of the Santa Rosa fishermen. 

On their own initiative, and with help from outside experts, many fishermen in the area are now abandoning gill nets. Instead, they hand-haul fish on individual lines, immediately bleed their catch, and store it in ice water, to deliver a near-sashimi-grade product suitable for sale to the restaurants in Cabo San Lucas. Peckham and his collaborators go around knocking on doors to persuade chefs that the local product is now consistently good enough to serve to four-star clientele.

Peckham is at heart still a marine biologist. “It’s daunting for me becoming a fishmonger,” he says, but none of the existing distributors could meet his standards for sustainability and social responsibility. “I feel that the fishermen should be owning that part of the supply chain.” 

The resulting social and commercial initiative, called SmartFish, is working well, though at a small scale. The Pew Charitable Trusts recently acknowledged Peckham’s work with a $150,000 fellowship in marine conservation; he hopes to use that money to scale up SmartFish to the international level. But every fishery is different, and it’s not easy to find what he calls “the sweet spot between sustainability and quality.” Fortunately—for fish and fisherman alike—these are the early days.

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