By Madeleine May
For Santiago Cañedo Flores and other fishermen along the La Paz Bay in Baja California Sur, the solution to depleted fish stocks may lie in harvesting an unconventional product: seaweed.
Don Santiago and other fishermen in Baja California Sur are partnering with Olazul, a San Francisco-based organization founded in 2009, to design community-owned and operated seaweed farms.
New fishing restrictions along the Baja Peninsula help protect key species and restore exhausted fish populations, but can leave local fishermen with few financial alternatives. Fishermen like Don Santiago struggle to support their families with already dwindling fish stocks. Other fishermen sometimes break the law by fishing in restricted zones, and may end up in jail.
Olazul partners with fishing communities, local conservation groups and global businesses to create sustainable ocean livelihoods that drive fishery reform. Within their toolbox are various strategies for cultivating alternative forms of aquaculture, designed so that fishing communities can reduce their overreliance on fishing as means to support their families and relieve pressure on fish stocks.
Seaweed aquaculture is a promising alternative because the plants are rich in essential minerals, brain-boosting fatty acids and cancer-fighting antioxidants. Growing seaweed also soaks up carbon, reducing harmful ocean acidification. The global seaweed market was worth over $6 billion in 2012 according to a study by the Food and Agriculture Organization. By setting up seaweed farms in Baja California Sur, Olazul seeks to help fishing communities take advantage of an expanding demand for seaweed products.
“Huge conservation investments have gone into establishing reserves and regulations to reduce fishing pressure. These top-down approaches are an essential ingredient to protecting our oceans, but they fail when coastal poverty is left unaddressed,” said Jos Hill, Olazul’s executive director. “We are focused on designing new ocean-based livelihood opportunities that enable fishing communities to reduce their fishing pressure.”
Jos Hill joined Olazul in 2012. After a decade working on coral reef conservation projects across the Indo-Pacific, she met Olazul’s founder while getting an MBA in Sustainable Business from the Presidio Graduate School in 2009. Her experience working with fishing communities in places like the Philippines, Indonesia and Vanuatu sparked her interest to integrate conservation and economic development.
Olazul approached fishing communities in Baja California Sur about participating in the organization’s Healthy Seaweeds initiative in 2013. This program draws on a partnership between Olazul and Premium Oceanic, a seaweed distribution company interested in coastal sustainability. To design their seaweed farm model, Olazul leverages the wisdom of fishing communities with generations of experience and combines it with knowledge from experts in ocean engineering and aquaculture. Olazul seeks to secure local benefits by engaging fishermen in seaweed production, training women in seaweed processing and creating access to international markets. Remote communities also benefit from access to nutritious sea vegetables.
Seaweed farming offers ecological benefits too. Olazul aims to design farms to provide habitat for juvenile fish to mature and increase local support for fishery reform.
Don Santiago says Olazul takes a refreshing approach, by asking for fishermen’s direct participation in conservation efforts and offering alternatives. Life for fishing communities in Baja California has changed dramatically over the decades as fish stocks continue to shrink. Like other fishermen, Don Santiago can’t afford to make any more sacrifices without economic alternatives.
“Many fishermen abandoned their fishing camps to work in the city, but for someone that since childhood learned only to fish, finding a job is really difficult,” he said. “Fishing is the only way of living we know; a fisherman in the city is like a fish out of the water.”
For the fishing communities of Baja California Sur, seaweed farming provides an opportunity to maintain their coastal communities while protecting the ocean. Since Hurricane Odile smashed through the region this September, bringing high winds and devastating floods, alternative income streams are ever more important for vulnerable communities struggling to recover Don Santiago believes it is his duty to steward the remaining fish populations to ensure a sustainable future for the ocean and his family.
“I don’t want to be selfish with future generations and leave this world to them with nothing left but a few fish in the sea. What would be my legacy to them then?” he said. “Is not the ocean’s fault, and only we can do something to fix it.”
Madeleine May is a journalist with an interest in foreign reporting, financial journalism and documentary film. A recent journalism graduate of Northwestern University, Madeleine is currently a National Geographic Young Explorer, based in South Africa.