Behind the Buyout

Having returned from Mexicali, my attention turned to a different chapter in the vaquita story. Over the previous five weeks, I had focused my efforts on searching for the vaquita at sea. In a few brief moments last month we filmed and photographed the mythical desert porpoise no one thought we would find.

Now it was time to explore how people in local communities are affected by the management plan ("fisheries buyout plan") put in place by the Mexican government in an attempt to reverse the decline of the desert porpoise. Through all of the talk of conservation and politics about vaquita presented at the NACAP meeting, the questions I most want answered is how were people really going to be affected in the grand scheme of this ambitious fisheries buyout, and can it work?

So for the next few days, I joined Catalina Lopez Sagástegui of Noroeste Sustentable (NOS), a non-governmental organization (NGO) that deals with conflict resolution in conservation. Their mission is to "construct and implement a long term vision for the region’s sustainable development through a political and social agreement”. She is also the co-coordinator of Alto Golfo Sustentable (AGS), an NGO that brings together all groups involved in vaquita conservation in the northern Gulf of California; often also referred to as the "upper gulf". The group includes local fishermen, Ocean Garden (a Mexican distributor of locally caught shrimp to the United States) as well as a number of international and local NGOs.

So far, in all of my interviews with various people who work with conservation groups in Mexico, Catalina is one of the few people who really talks and listens to local fishermen. NOS are giving financial compensation to fishermen who participate in trials of alternative gear. However, according to Catalina, so far there has been no “magic bullet” to replace inexpensive, high yielding gillnets. Gillnets target blue shrimp in the upper gulf, the same nets scientists have identified as the primary source of vaquita mortality.

It is well documented around the world that porpoises and gillnets do not mix. In many ways, the model being implemented by the Mexican Government is being used as a test case for how governments may deal with this issue in the future, and in other parts of the world.

Last month, in an effort to look ‘outside of the box’, Catalina brought four local fishermen to Seattle, Washington to set up an exchange in knowledge and experience with fishermen from Seattle and Morrow Bay as part of an examination into alternative gear. Most importantly, it was a way for fishermen to share information with their peers in a manner that could not be filtered through government or non-governmental groups. Sometimes people need to do things the old fashioned way, sit down, talk, ask questions and share experiences.

Catalina arrived in San Felipe, and we sat down to film an interview. She spoke of her experiences working on vaquita conservation over the last couple of years, and the pulse of local community.

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Early the next day, we visited with Alonso Garcia. He manages a local shrimp distributor in San Felipe. I asked the questions in English, and Catalina translated them into Spanish, and vica versa. Alonso has strong feelings about the buyout, and raised an important point about its implementation. “Many people are part of the shrimp industry here besides the fishermen”. In his plant, he employs people to clean and pack the shrimp, and drivers to export frozen shrimp to the US. Not to mention, most of the restaurants in the upper gulf region specialize in shrimp. Shrimp is the fuel that drives the local economy, employing many people beyond the fishermen deploying the nets in the sea.

After the interview, we filled up on fuel and jumped in the car for the 4-hour drive through the desert, via the fertile grounds adjacent to the Colorado River in Sonora. Our destination was El Golfo de Santa Clara.

The long drive culminated in the usual military checkpoint 15 miles outside of the town. “El Golfo” feels like a town on the edge of nowhere. It is the most remote of the three communities in the upper gulf, and the most reliant on the shrimp fishery. As we drove in, there was one paved road, the rest were sandy streets dominated by many of the fishermen’s 450 pangas pulled up in front of houses.

Catalina and I spent the day interviewing various people in the fishing community of El Golfo, and even gave a presentation in the local school sharing images and video of vaquita. At the moment, I am getting these interviews transcribed, so I will be in a better position to share the thoughts and experience of locals very soon.

El Golfo de Santa Clara. Photo - Chris Johnson

Although we only spent a couple of days there, I was able to get a better sense of the ‘buy-out’ plan, how it is structured and what it means to the local people.

We are currently in year one of a two-year ‘save the vaquita’ conservation plan. But as scientist Lorenzo Rojas Bracho pointed out in recent papers and in my interview with him, “in order to take care of the vaquita, we have to take care of the fishermen”. Local fishermen are permitted to fish one of three species, shrimp, finfish or shark and ray, but all use the same type of gillnets.

The buyout as most people refer to it- the buying back of gillnets, engines and boats, is a bit more complicated than it first appears. There are actually three components, a buyout, a rent-out, and a switch out. All of which are entirely voluntary.

In 2007, the buyout consisted of two programs.

  1. Alternative livelihoods (Buy-out)
  2. Alternative gear (Rent-out)

The alternative livelihoods program (also known as the ‘buyout’), meant fishermen were required to turn in only their fishing permits if they wanted to set up a new business. This means that although permits were taken, the boats and their gear were still in the fishermen’s possession, meaning that there was a high probability of fishermen now using those same boats and gear to fish illegally.

Another characteristic of this first program was that alternative livelihoods were restricted to tourism related activities and other fishing related activities (working in refrigerated rooms, aquaculture, etc). Fishers had to apply to the government to participate in the buy-out program.

According to Catalina, the lack of control over the now “illegal” boats and the restrictions in viable alternative activities were not well received by local communities. Fishermen believed there should be many more alternative livelihood options that would guarantee them a respectable income. Also, they requested stricter measures in order to ensure the problem of illegal fishing would not grow.

The results of the 2007 buy-out were:

  • San Felipe:
    • Alternative livelihoods: 12 applications
    • Alternative fishing gear: 10 applications
    • Total permits eliminated: 21 finfish and 3 shrimp
  • Golfo de Santa Clara:
    • Alternative livelihoods: 22 applications
    • Total permits eliminated: 25 finfish
  • Puerto Peñasco:
    • Alternative livelihoods: 17 applications
    • Total permits eliminated: 19 finfish

2008 The second buy-out program was designed differently and included modifications that reflected a more realistic way of meeting the needs of fishermen and the communities. It allowed fishermen to establish any type of business they wanted to. The second buy-out program also offered a third option. The ‘rent out’ option was the result of the urgency to get gillnets out of vaquita habitat in order to guarantee zero incidental catch mortality.

This buy-out program began in June 2008 and fishermen began receiving their funds towards the end of August 2008.

There are three options in the 2008 buy-out program (Please note that conversion rate is 12 pesos to 1 US Dollar.)

  1. Alternative livelihood (Buy-out) – This means fishermen turn in one or several permits with their respective boat, engine and fishing gear and set up a new business. There are three categories in this option depending on the # of permits someone turns in:
    • 1 permit: $400,000 pesos
    • 2 permits: $500,000 pesos
    • 3 or more permits: $600,000 pesos
  2. Rent-out – (also known as “Biodiversity Conservation Activities:”) Fishermen are paid to not go into the Refuge and use gillnets. They are not required to turn in permits since they are only required to respect the refuge and other no-take areas from the biosphere reserve. It’s payout varied on where the boat is based.
    • $45,000 pesos (San Felipe, B.C.)
    • $35,000 pesos (Golfo de Santa Clara and Puerto Peñasco, Sonora)
  3. Alternative fishing gears – (switch-out) Turn in gillnets and begin using “vaquita safe” gear (pots, hook and line, long lines, etc.). This option does not require fishermen to give up their permits; however they do have to turn them in so they are modified to specifically say the type of gear they are allowed to use.
    • Anyone who chose this option received $300,000 pesos.

On October 29th 2008, José Campoy Favela, Director of the Biosphere reserve presented the results of the 2008 program at the 2008 NACAP meeting in Mexicali.

  1. Alternative livelihood (Buy-out)
    • Total invested: $107,800,000 pesos
    • Golfo de Santa Clara: $41,300,000 pesos (71 applications)
    • San Felipe: $39,000,000 pesos (50 applications)
    • Puerto Peñasco: $24,500,000 pesos (32 applications)
  2. Rent-out
    • Total invested: $20,540,000 pesos
    • Golfo de Santa Clara: $13,440,000 pesos (384 applications)
    • San Felipe: $7,065,000 pesos (157 applications)
    • Puerto Peñasco: $35,000 pesos (1 applications)
  3. Alternative fishing gears (“Switch-Out”)
    • Total invested: $27,600,000 pesos
    • Golfo de Santa Clara: $2,700,000 pesos (9 applications)
    • San Felipe: $23,100,000 pesos (38 applications)
    • Puerto Peñasco: $2,700,000 pesos (4 applications)

What struck me most about the buyout is who is actually being taken care of in this plan. In the upper gulf, there is a distinction between fishermen and boat-owners. A boat-owner may hold the permits and own multiple pangas (local fishing boats), while hiring people to do the actual fishing for them.

So when statistics for the buyout, rent-out, switch-out, and really tallied, one has to take a note of caution. Boat-owners may be taken care of to a certain degree. Fishermen who are not boat-owners may actually slip through the cracks of this program.

Within all of this, I am still left scratching my head at the New York Times article stating the 800 fishers have been bought-out. Maybe they are counting each fisher that lost their job when the owner received funds for the ‘alternative livelihood’ project?

Fishing is an extremely competitive practice. Another question raised is who would want to change from a gill net to the alternative gear (including a trap or hook and line system) that catches far less, if others are still using gillnets and catching far more.

In the 2007 buyout, very few shrimp permits were eliminated. These are the most valuable of all of the permits a fishermen (or boat-owner) has. So this volunteer buyout may be just that, an expensive exercise in volunteer conservation.

Will it work?

The fishermen I spoke with told me that early rain in the season has helped ensure this is a "good" shrimp season. Because fishermen are generally doing well, the enforcement of the vaquita refuge has gone fairly well. The next shrimp season in 2009 will dictate a lot about whether this buyout will work or the law prohibiting gillnets in the vaquita refuge will still be enforced; especially if there is not a lot of rain, and therefore, less shrimp. I do know that we will have to wait for at least another year to see if the buyout plan is actually working and if the plan needs to change once again.


Cleaning shrimp at the end of the day. Photo - Chris Johnson