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Small Fisheries, Big Dataset
Doctoral candidate Lina Maria Saavedra-Díaz returns from Colombia with rich information on small-scale, traditional fishing practices
A YEAR AND A HALF AGO, as Lina Maria Saavedra-Díaz was poised to depart for a handful of fishing villages in Colombia, she and her Ph.D. advisor, Andy Rosenberg, had occasion to worry about her safety. After all, Saavedra-Díaz was a young woman who would be working alone in remote, sometimes roadless regions in an effort to study traditional or “artisanal” fishing communities. Many of these small villages are struggling to survive, and all of them will soon be in a similar fix unless serious thought is given to managing their fishing resources – the subject of Saavedra-Díaz’ dissertation work.


Fishermen extending a Chinchorro
or beach seine net in the
community of Ahuyama.

Photo by Lina Maria Saavedra-Diaz
Happily, it turned out that the only fearful aspect of her journey came when she was hunkered down in the bottom of a small wooden boat that sloshed through an angry sea while Saavedra-Díaz did her level best to keep all her work from becoming sunken, or at least sodden treasure.

“It took an hour moving from the main port to one of the villages, the waves were huge and the boat was full of water. I had my laptop with all my data and paper copies of the hundreds of interviews I’d conducted. I spent the whole time praying,” Saavedra-Díaz says.

Not only did she survive the boat ride but she successfully finished her field work last August and arrived back at the Ocean Process Analysis Laboratory with all her data intact. She’s now plowing through the nearly 300 interviews and the data collected from 27 community hearings – nine on fisheries problems, nine on fisheries management, and nine on historical analysis – conducted in each of the nine fishing communities on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

“From the beginning, my Ph.D. committee and I knew there would be too much information from the way I conducted my field research,” Saavedra-Díaz says. “The committee wanted me to study just one coast but I explained that to really understand what’s going on with the fisheries I’d have to do both coasts, which are different and have different problems, and my results show that.”

These are hard times for the artisanal fishermen and their families whose very lives and way of life depend on what they’re able to catch from the sea using traditional, low-tech methods – from small, wooden boats to seine nets cast from shore. For her study, Saavedra-Díaz integrated the environmental, social, and economic aspects of these subsistence communities in an effort to, eventually, help them help themselves.

“In the end we want to propose the baseline for a small-scale fisheries management plan and, in order to do that, we need to understand how the fisheries have changed in these communities over time,” Saavedra-Díaz says. “And since we don’t have the scientific knowledge about that I’ve had to glean this information through their local knowledge.”

Her study, entitled “Towards Colombian Small Scale (Artisanal) Marine Fisheries Management,” identified a host of problems affecting artisanal fishing in each of the nine communities - ranging from overfishing, pollution, deforestation, and climate factors to the lack of government oversight and involvement in a workable fisheries management plan.

“There is no regulation, no fisheries management plan, everyone just does what they want and there are too many fishermen,” Saavedra-Díaz says. “It’s total disorder and the government isn’t involved. They ‘manage’ fisheries from an office in the capital of Bogotá and they don’t know what’s going on.”
This fisherman uses his bare feet on
the seabed to search for and harvest
snails in the artisanal fishing
community of San Antero.

Photo by Lina Maria Saavedra-Diaz

But the government is aware of her work and Saavedra-Díaz has been keeping them in the loop. After she completes the analysis of her data, she plans on returning to Colombia late in 2010 to hold an “expert hearing” with a local leader and fisherman from each village and some 20 national fisheries experts. It is her hope that officials from the Colombian government will also participate.

“I hope to validate the study through the expert hearing because this is based on local/traditional knowledge and sometimes there are misunderstandings, so I need to make sure what we present for the document is accurate,” she explains. Potential misunderstandings were compounded by the fact that the villagers spoke their native Indian languages and so Saavedra-Díaz had to work through a translator. Saavedra-Díaz, who grew up near Bogotá, speaks Spanish and English.

Her research was funded by a grant through Conservation International (a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that Andy Rosenberg recently joined as a senior scientist) and supplemented by the UNESCO-L’OREAL Women in Science Fellowship Saavedra-Díaz was awarded in 2008 (see Spring 2008 Spheres story). With Conservation International and fellowship money, Saavedra-Díaz was able to hire four undergraduate research assistants – two from the University of Magdalena, with which she is affiliated, and two from other Colombian universities. The students, Yina Villamil (Externado University), Christian Llanos (Valle University), and Jorge Sanchez and Alejandro Suarez (both of Magdalena) have helped her gather secondary historical information produced over decades through government and academic research projects – reports, manuscripts, books – related with marine artisanal fisheries in Colombia. “So far the students have found 700 documents,” Saavedra-Díaz reports. She adds, "Through the analysis of these references we will be able to detect 'weak points' on which to focus new research in order to support fisheries management in the future."

“We have information from as far back as 1950 so I think we’ll be able to tell a good story, based on the local knowledge, about what has happened to the fisheries and the fishermen.” She adds, “I have to find the minimal requirements that each of the communities must have to start implementing fisheries management, which must involve the government otherwise it won’t work.”

That her project worked came as something of a pleasant surprise to Díaz, whose biggest fear was that the people of the artisanal fishing villages would be reluctant to cooperate with an outsider/scientist.

She says, “The most difficult aspect was to convince them that the project was for them. I mean, here I was just another foreigner they knew would eventually leave. I had to tell them that the analysis would take awhile to complete but that I would come back. They’d say things like, ‘Oh, when you come back we’ll be dead’ because some of the communities are struggling that much with their fisheries.”

But not only did the villagers open their arms to Saavedra-Díaz they opened wide a window into their lives and livelihoods. “I think they felt they had to be listened to and be heard. After spending time in their houses with their families, going fishing with them and seeing how they work, I understand what their reality is.” She adds, “The good thing is that not only did they point out their problems but they analyzed them as well – the causes, effects, and some possible solutions.”
A group of fishermen from the community of Tumaco are pictured with Lina Maria Saavedra-Díaz after she conducted a hearing on fisheries problems and solutions.
Photo by Lina Maria Saavedra-Diaz

Indeed, in two communities where Saavedra-Díaz worked fishermen have already begun establishing some basic rules to improve the fisheries. “In one community they can now only fish with a specific size of mesh, and if they find someone using a different size they burn the net. So they’re already doing fisheries management, even though they don’t call it that.”

And she found other reasons to be hopeful. For example, on the Pacific coast while one community near the equator is overpopulated and the surrounding sea is overfished and polluted, just north up the coast is a community that has instituted their own fisheries association, has a conversation going with officials of the government, and fishes for tuna in an environmentally friendly, sustainable manner. “In this community they are in conversation with the industrial tuna fishing vessels in order to establish separate zones – those for only small-scale fishing and others for the larger-scale, industrial fishing.” -DS

by David Sims, Science Writer, Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space. Published in Winter 2010 issue of EOS Spheres.