Landing a Lifeline
Popular Science|Winter 2020
For those whose livelihood depends on the ocean, a covid-spurred interruption in the seafood market might speed progress toward a more sustainable future—for them and for fish.
By Virginia Gewin

Workdays can begin hours before dawn in Guaymas, Mexico, where a small cohort of locals launch modest fiberglass-and-wood boats from the rocky shore into waters that will gleam azure at sunrise. From their pangas, crafts about 20 feet long with little more than three bench seats and an outboard motor, the 38 members of the Sociedad Cooperativa de Producción Pesquera 29 de Agosto SCL cast baited hooks on longlines and pull in yellowtail, grouper, or snapper by hand. On most outings, each boat can catch as much as 220 pounds before it returns to dock in the afternoon.

Some 75 years ago, co-op president Andrés Grajeda Coronado’s great-grandfather, Celso Grajeda, handled his catch the same way. “He used the same as we do: a line and a hook,” says Coronado. A statue of Celso, one of Guaymas’ first fishermen, overlooks the town. Today, the city is the most productive seafood-producing community of the dozens that dot the Gulf of California, the strip of water separating the Baja peninsula from mainland Mexico, where thousands of laborers deliver fish from the ocean to cities.

In Celso’s day, he was one of only a few men selling catches directly to consumers on the docks, but today, a generation of artisanal workers often find themselves tangled at the bottom of a vast global supply chain. Ninety percent of the world’s 35 million fishermen operate on a small scale—with millions in remote, rural areas—yet they produce more than half of the global catch and a similar share of what hits their countries’ export markets. Many live hand to mouth, dependent on a string of middlemen to keep 91 million tons of perishable wild-caught fish cold, processed, and distributed to restaurants, hotels, and supermarkets.

On many remote docks, a single buyer sets the price, or a few collude to keep fishermen from demanding higher rates. And all the shuffling between parties from there onward provides ample opportunity for misconduct. Catches that are illegal, unreported, or unregulated (known in the trade as IUU) account for one of every five fish reeled in, injecting $23.5 billion worth of effectively stolen seafood into the market, according to Global Fishing Watch, an international nonprofit that uses satellites, infrared, and radar imagery to detect IUU. Such losses jeopardize food security for over 3 billion people and the livelihoods of small-scale fishermen.

To maintain incomes, they do whatever they can to catch more. In Guaymas, a majority use gill nets, which trap swimmers by the gills in webbing—to devastating consequence. A 2016 assessment of 121 Gulf of California fisheries stocks by researchers at several entities, including the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, estimates that 69 percent have collapsed and another 11 percent are overexploited. Such indiscriminate methods also lead to losses of other species, notably the critically endangered vaquita, the world’s smallest porpoise. There may be no more than 10 of them left.

That’s in normal times. When COVID-19 shut down most of the world in March 2020, it unleashed an economic tsunami on the $150 billion global seafood market. The shuttering of restaurants, where nearly 70 percent of catches ended up before the pandemic, dried up demand for high-end chef favorites such as lobster, abalone, and squid—as well as everyday fare like Guaymas’ yellowtail and grouper.

The global movement of fresh fish—the most traded food commodity in the world—has been sputtering ever since. The coronavirus is an “unparalleled” disruption, says Paul Doremus, deputy assistant administrator for operations at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, the US agency tasked with monitoring marine resources. “It is so comprehensive in scale and scope and so long in duration that it is going to have profound effects on seafood supply chains globally, in ways we don’t entirely understand yet.” The interruption has undoubtedly complicated efforts to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal to end overfishing, illegal catches, and destructive practices by the end of 2020.

Amid the chaos, though, many see an opportunity to reshape seafood sales in ways that bolster adoption of more sustainable methods and create a more equitable future for fishermen like those in Coronado’s co-op. That starts with helping the little guys benefit from supplying the best of their goods to a growing market of home cooks and eco-conscious retailers. The secret weapon is transparency: the ability for the end consumer, and industry monitors, to verify the how, where, and by whom of each snapper, salmon, or shrimp.

Over the past few years, nonprofits, government agencies, and industry collectives have begun steady development of projects to rebuild depleted fish stocks, often by enlisting locals in managing catches. In addition, efforts are underway to test and adopt traceability technologies such as RFID chips, QR tags, and blockchain coding to carry information about a specific fish from hook to cook.

The fact that Coronado’s cooperative had always caught by ethical means attracted SmartFish, a La Paz, Mexico, company focused on championing sustainable fishing in the region. The organization’s nonprofit arm helps workers transition to eco-friendly practices, while its for-profit business sells their goods directly to high-end restaurants and the public.

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