Building New Marine Protected Areas with Fishermen and Underwater Drones

Incredible things can happen when technology and community come together to protect the ocean. Comunidad y Biodiversidad (COBI), a non-profit that works with local fishing communities to promote the sustainable use of marine resources, is leading the way for participant-driven ocean conservation in Mexico. And one of the many tools in their toolbox is the OpenROV.

A team from COBI deploys an OpenROV near Nassau Grouper spawning aggregations. Photo courtesy of Stu Fulton.

Two years ago, COBI received an OpenROV 2.6 through a small-grant from the Moore Foundation and OpenExplorer. Their proposal: to use the underwater robot to locate and film Nassau grouper spawning aggregations in the Mexican Caribbean’s Sian Ka´an Biosphere Reserve and to document grouper recovery following the establishment of a no-take reserve.

“Building new marine protected areas in Mexico is a complicated process that requires community buy-in and participatory conservation.”

Nassau Grouper are one of the most important commercial grouper fisheries in the Caribbean and West Indies. These thick bodied fish can grow up to a meter long and weigh up to 25 kilograms. Usually solitary, Nassau Groupers spawn in December and January, on the full moon. During these spawning events, hundreds of groupers come together, always at the same location, to broadcast the next generation into the currents.

Nassau Grouper spawning aggregation. Photo courtesy of Alfredo Barroso.

These spawning aggregations are tempting for fishermen, which can be catastrophic for Nassau Grouper populations. “If you fish during these days,” say Stu Fulton or COBI, “you catch all the breeding individuals.” Following years of intensive fishing, the Nassau Grouper was listed as Endangered by the IUCN.

Building new marine protected areas in Mexico is a complicated process that requires community buy-in and participatory conservation. Fishermen and other local stakeholders, rather than NGOs, are the driving force behind the creation of new protected areas, petitioning the government to protect their local fisheries. This participatory approach ensures that the local community values their marine protected areas and provides voluntary enforcement. But the reserves are temporary and must be renewed periodically or allowed to expire.

COBI team prepares to deploy an OpenROV. Photo courtesy Stu Fulton.

COBI doesn’t directly campaign to create marine protected areas. Rather, they work with local communities to identify valuable spawning grounds that would benefit from increased protection, provide education and training to fishermen, and provide logistical support for the creation and delivery of petitions to the Mexican government. The reserves they create are small in size, but vital to the survival of the species and the fishery.

Part of COBI’s process: Taking fishermen out the the spawning aggregations, teaching them how to SCUBA dive, and helping them understand the importance of protecting the spawning aggregations for the long term success of their fishery. Armed with a new OpenROV, COBI can introduce even more stakeholders to the Nassau Grouper’s natural rhythms. This intensive, participatory process ensures community buy-in. In the last decade COBI has helped create 16 marine reserves through 6 different fishing cooperatives. The reserves are so successful that, as the 2012 reserves are set to expire, the communities are already petitioning for their renewal.

“The fishermen understand that they work.” say Fulton.

Creation of these reserves are not without challenges. Advertising the location of a major Nassau Grouper spawning aggregation risks attracting fishers from afar, who haven’t bought into the protection plan. Voluntary enforcement is the only enforcement, so secrecy is a significant component of protection. Because of this, the location of the reserves are kept confidential Only stakeholders who work and fish in the area know exactly where it is.

Organizations like COBI don’t need massive multi-million dollar budgets to be effective. Small contributions combined with community engagement and a participatory approach to conservation can yield important benefits for marine ecosystems and the communities that rely upon them. Something as simple as a single small underwater robot can help contribute meaningfully to the effectiveness of their campaigns. And now, thanks to the efforts of Comunidad y Biodiversidad, the Nassau Grouper has two more protected areas where they can spawn the next generation safely.

Nassau Grouper spawning aggregation. Photo courtesy Alfredo Barroso.