BEAUFORT, N.C. – When it comes to protecting a crucial resource in the face of changing conditions, it’s important to know how the humans reliant on that resource have organized themselves. Especially if there isn’t a lot of government supervision.

A new study of small-scale fisheries in Mexico’s Gulf of California has found that the fishers’ response to a changing climate can be strongly influenced by what they fish for and how they’re organized. The work appears in the January 2024 issue of Global Environmental Change.

“When we study climate change adaptation, we haven't paid nearly enough attention to how those fishers, these farmers, these water irrigators are organized,” said Xavier Basurto, the Truman and Nellie Semans/Alex Brown & Sons Professor of sustainability science at the Duke Marine Lab and senior Co-Principal Investigator of this research project.

Their organization, or self-governance, turns out to be key.

“We see that, depending on how they're organized, they are better able to adapt to climate change, but it comes with tradeoffs,” Basurto said.

Using ten years of fisheries data from the Mexican government, the researchers observed a natural experiment in which the sea was unusually cool from 2006 to 2011, and then unusually warm from 2012 to 2016. They looked at four kinds of fishing organization across eight different regions surrounding the gulf.

Rather than having satellite data and sophisticated models to monitor changing conditions, the Gulf of California fishers have “a very intimate knowledge of the environment because they're interacting with it every day,” Basurto said. “They're very, very good at reading the landscape or the environment, because their success as fishers depends on that. They see changes that they haven't seen in their lives and that their elders haven't told them about.”

One of the main findings shows that large cooperative fishing organizations specialized or focused specifically on just a few key high-value species like shrimp, lobster, or abalone, were more likely to adapt their practices to minor changes in conditions and to practice conservation measures, Basurto said. However, their degree of specialization on a few harvested species constrained their ability to adapt to larger climatic fluctuations.

In contrast, the smaller cooperatives and independent fishers harvested a broader variety of species and were found to be less likely to change their practices as conditions changed. However, the smaller operators are also more likely to withstand larger climatic fluctuations because they harvest a more diverse portfolio of species.

In these remote villages along Mexico’s Gulf of California, there isn’t a lot of government oversight or policy-setting either.

“Climate variability and change in ocean ecosystems create challenges for fisheries’ sustainability, both economically and environmentally,” said Timothy Frawley, the first author on the paper and a postdoctoral researcher affiliated with the University of Maine Darling Marine Center.

“While we know quite a bit about how individual fishers and coastal fishing communities are responding to changing oceans, less is known about how the social structures through which they choose to organize themselves may influence their vulnerability to associated shocks and stressors and their capacity to adapt,” Frawley said.

This study is part of MAREA+, a long-term interdisciplinary project led by Duke University focused on the environmental and human dimensions of small-scale fisheries in the Gulf of California region.

“It is really exciting to see how fine-scale information on fishing organizations can illuminate our understanding of responses to climate impacts,” said Heather Leslie, a MAREA+ Co-principal investigator and professor of marine sciences at the University of Maine. “It would be great to be able to do this type of analysis in New England, particularly given the growing interest in innovative approaches to fisheries, aquaculture and other dimensions of the blue economy.” 

This research was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation. The team included scholars from University of California Santa Cruz, NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, the University of Maine, Stanford University, Stockholm University, University of Rhode Island, Oregon State University, Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Mexican civil society organizations Sociedad de Historia Natural Niparajá, and Comunidad y Biodiversidad (COBI).

CITATION: “Self-Governance Mediates Small-Scale Fishing Strategies, Vulnerability and Adaptive Response,” Timothy H. Frawley, Blanca González Mon, Mateja Nenadovic, Fiona Gladstone, Keiko Nomura, José Alberto Zepeda-Domínguez, Salvador Rodriguez-Van Dyck, Erica M. Ferrer, Jorge Torre, Fiorenza Micheli, Heather M. Leslie, Xavier Basurto. Global Environmental Change, Jan. 2024. DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2024.102805

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