“Are you scared?” asks Vito Giovanni (Gianni) De Biasi as we bounce through gentle chop in his small fishing boat. I am getting a bit damp from the spray over the bow, but I am not scared. I shake my head, and Gianni smiles. He is clearly as content as can be – master and commander plying the coastal waters of the Adriatic on a sunny May morning.
“If I don’t go to sea every day, I go crazy,” says this lifelong fisherman. In the evenings, he makes pizzas in his hometown of Carovigno. “But at four in the morning, I want to be on my boat at sea,” he says.
This passion drove Gianni to be one of a handful of fisherman who worked with authorities to establish the rules of the game for fishing in Torre Guaceto Marine Protected Area & Nature Reserve. The 2,227 hectare protected area was established in 1991, and closed entirely for fishing until 2001 to let stocks recover. Those early days were contentious.
“When it started, there was a war between the fishermen and the MPA,” says Felice Caccietta, referring to the marine protected area. “We are fishermen. We want to fish.”
Francesco De Franco, head of the environmental and technical unit at Torre Guaceto also remembers those early days. “The ‘war’ during the establishment of a protected area is common. It’s actually documented in the scientific literature. It’s understandable – new rules and regulations are seen as a threat to livelihoods, to ‘the way things are.’”
But he explains why WWF and other groups believed things had to change if there was to be any future for fishermen on this small stretch of Italy’s coast. As a young WWF volunteer, he was part of the “guerrilla conservation” effort that wrested Torre Guaceto from pirates. “Before 1991, illegal fishers were using dynamite up and down the coast and smugglers occupied the 16th century tower itself. The lagoon was full of unlicensed boats. It was lawless and dangerous for people, for wildlife, for the cultural artifacts and for the environment.”
Today, it doesn’t get more unruly than school groups touring the historic tower and the visitors’ center, exploring the wetlands and snapping selfies at the marine turtle rescue center. The key to this success was winning the trust and participation of a small but influential constituency: the fishermen.
“After stocks recovered in the MPA, we had to approach the fishermen and explain that we weren’t trying to say no to their activities. We were trying to make them last,” says Francesco. “When we got them into the monitoring activities, they started to see the results for themselves.
“Then they saw their decisions about things like allowable gear and number of days allotted for fishing put into law, and they really believed it could work. They had always seen the laws as against them, and now it was their own law. That’s when they really trusted we would do what we said. But this is a daily job to maintain the trust and participation,” he says. Judging from the activity of Francesco’s mobile phone, he takes that daily maintenance very seriously.
Because of the gear used – nets designed to allow juveniles to pass through – and the limit on days allowed for fishing, the catch inside the MPA is four times greater than outside. One good day in the MPA can net a catch worth 400-500 euros, while a good day outside the protected area tops out at about 100 euros.
“All the value is in the size,” say Gianni. “The little fish are only good for soup. They don’t earn anything.”
“Co-management” is the term WWF uses for involving fishermen in setting the rules that govern use of the resource. “It’s common sense,” says Francesco. “But it’s not very common.”
The experience in Torre Guaceto has been successful for over a decade now, but the MPA is small in size and there are only and handful of licensed fishermen to consult with.
“If you focus on how many fishermen were involved in the Torre Guaceto process, you miss the point. It’s that any fishermen were involved,” says Giuseppe Di Carlo, director of WWF’s Mediterranean Marine Programme.
Around the Mediterranean, we see MPAs with no management plans or fishermen disregarding rules that they feel are arbitrarily imposed. And with only about 5 per cent of the Mediterranean under protection, the vast majority of the sea and its resources are governed by policies crafted far from coasts and communities. Conservationists and academics try to influence change, but are often seen as the enemy of economic development. Politicians are caught between conflicting interests; they need evidence of what works to make smart decisions.
“Torre Guaceto is small scale, but it’s proof of concept. It’s proof that all these groups can come together to set informed policy. It’s proof that small-scale fisheries can be sustainable and support livelihoods. This is the future of fishing in the Mediterranean. We have seen the alternative, and it doesn’t work,” says Giuseppe.
Some 700 kilometres east on the northern Aegean Sea, WWF is testing the concept at a larger scale with the purse seine fishers of Kavala, Greece. This area doesn’t enjoy MPA status, so the rules of the game here are part EU policy, part national policy and part hard-won consensus among the fishermen who depend on the sea for their livelihoods.
Compared to Gianni’s one-man operation in Torre Guaceto, Captain Giannis Manios’ sonar-equipped vessel and crew of 15 does indeed operate on a different level. But it still doesn’t qualify as “industrial fishing,” and that’s just the way Giannis likes it. As president of the Kavala Purse Seiners Association, he’s trying to use his influence to ensure the long-term sustainability of the sardine and anchovy fishery.
“I have invested a lot in this boat, and my future depends on having fish here,” Giannis says.
“This time every year, bigger boats arrive from the south. They want to fish every day and land two hauls a night. But that just floods the market. We can fish less, have a better product and earn more, but we have to be more rational and organized.”
Among the fishing fleet of Kavala, this argument has taken hold. Working with WWF, the national Fisheries Research Institute, the ministries that oversee fishing activities and Greek supermarket AB, fishermen have agreed on practices that should maintain healthy stocks and enable them to secure certification from the Marine Stewardship Council. This approach was inspired by the Torre Guaceto experience.
“Torre Guaceto was the first example of co-management in the Mediterranean,” says Giorgos Paximadis, Marine Programme Officer for WWF-Greece. “Of course the context is different here, but the idea is what’s important. We’re testing it at this scale, and eventually I’d like to see Greece and Italy take the same approach in the Adriatic and Ionian seas. You can call it co-management or whatever you like, just as long as it keeps bureaucrats from making uninformed decisions that land on our heads.
“You know, with all the misery of the Greek crisis, you need some examples that provide hope. Even if it’s little things. Think of small Greek islands with five or ten fishing boats left. Torre Guaceto can be an inspiration for what’s possible. It’s not all doom and gloom.”
As the crew works on the deck below, Giannis fields calls from the bridge. The scuttlebutt on the VHF is that fishermen from outside Kavala don’t want to abide by the voluntary Saturday fishing moratorium.
“We managed to get the price from 7 euros a box to 20 euros and they want to destroy it!” he shouts in exasperation. “Those guys who still like to talk about big catches have worthless fish. It’s a macho thing.”
This is why Giannis and his crew work methodically to find adult fish and take pains to ensure they reach the landing dock in good condition. This is what the retailer wants, and it ensures juveniles reach reproductive age. “My crew works on commission. They know it’s value that matters, not quantity.”
But the disagreement with other fishermen does reinforce Giorgos’ point about broadening co-management to shared, international fisheries.
“Co-management is a new approach,” says Dr. Argyris Kallianiotis, Director of the Greek Fisheries Research Institute. “It could be more challenging in fisheries with different types of gear, different target species and varying degrees of stock health. We don’t yet have the experience to apply co-management in these places, so it’s our task to learn how to approach it.”
Those challenges lie ahead, but the experience of learning from one small pilot in Torre Guaceto demonstrates that the common sense behind co-management does translate in a variety of circumstances.
“From WWF’s perspective, the goal is to reconcile the restoration of the health of the marine environment with better livelihoods for fishers,” says Giuseppe. “A co-management approach allows us to find common ground, and it’s proving to be more sustainable and more profitable. We see tremendous opportunity in working with fishermen to protect the region’s livelihoods, culture and environment.”