In December 2014, the Brazilian government published an ordinance that unleashed a storm of controversy. Squarely in the center of the fray? The country’s marine fisheries.
After assessing the health of Brazil’s marine species, the government found nearly 100 of them to be threatened and put them on the “Red List,” which is designed to protect them from any kind of use. The fishing sector was about to be banned from catching and trading any of the species on the list.
An uproar followed. Industrial fishermen, angered by the measure, blocked two of the country’s ports, even blocking in a cruise ship full of people, and demanded that the ordinance be reversed. The problem escalated until President Dilma Rousseff told the government agencies involved — the Ministry of Fisheries and the Ministry of Environment — to find a solution. Poised to revoke the ordinance, they began working with fishing sector representatives. Oceana, which officially launched in Brazil in July 2014 with the help of a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, was the only NGO attending these meetings.
“There was a real crisis,” said Monica Peres, Oceana’s vice president for Brazil. “And Oceana was there. We began saying that a blanket provision is not going to solve the problem or completely protect those species. We need recovery plans. We need to reestablish the species, to resume all the fisheries management systems. The problem is not the Red List. The Red List is just a consequence of no management.”
While the fate of the Red List ordinance still hangs on a decision from Brazil’s court system at the time of this writing, Oceana was able to change the conversation from “revoke the Red List” to “we need recovery or management plans,” explained Oceana scientist Antonio Lezama.
Helping build a new foundation
Brazil, an economic giant and the largest country in South America, boasts the continent’s longest coastline at 4,500 miles. Yet when most people think of conservation in the country, they think about the Amazon while overlooking the nation’s significant marine resources. Brazil’s marine territories produce more than 500,000 metric tons of fish yearly, putting it in the top 30 countries in the world, but historically the management of the country’s fisheries has been inconsistent.
Components of functioning management such as catch limits, logbooks, systems to monitor landing weights and management plans were not in use. Multiple institutional changes to the government agencies overseeing the fisheries occurred in a relatively short period of time. In fact, in October 2015, a restructuring of the government’s ministries moved the Ministry of Fisheries under the Ministry of Agriculture.
These institutional challenges resulted in very little data and information about Brazil’s fisheries, further complicating the process of putting science based plans in place. For instance, the country’s lack of monitoring systems for landing weights led to a dearth of statistics about how much of any given species is caught. Furthermore, while it is estimated that 3.5 million people are involved directly or indirectly with fishing activities in Brazil, there is no accurate data to confirm that number either.
Oceana has worked to bring structure to the development of fisheries management systems and encourage research that can be used to improve the health of the fisheries. The organization has quickly become a trusted advocate and a broker between scientists, government agencies and the fishing sector, including both artisanal and industrial fishermen.
“Every time there is a crisis like the Red List crisis, we are able to use this opportunity, this energy from the conflict to really take some steps forward to improve the system,” Peres said.
In response to the Red List crisis, Oceana developed the Blue List Campaign. The campaign emphasizes that with science-based management practices, the species on the Red List can move onto the Blue List. In other words, depleted species will become abundant species again, generating jobs and income and providing food security. Oceana has encouraged more stakeholders to join the conversation in an effort to help the voices of smaller-scale fishermen be heard. With the goal of improving the system in its entirety, the Blue List Campaign points to Oceana’s overarching goal of helping Brazil build a healthier foundation for fisheries management.
A victory for the wreckfish
The team has also had early success in campaigns focused on specific species. A recent victory concerning the wreckfish was a personal one for Peres, since she wrote her Ph.D. thesis on the fish. The wreckfish, a bluish-gray fish with darker fins that can weigh up to 220 pounds and measures up to 78 inches, was once a valuable species for Brazilian fishermen. It declined due to insufficient management and serves as an unfortunately common example of the challenges facing fisheries in Brazil.
Fishermen began to put too much pressure on the wreckfish population, and within a few short years the population collapsed. When a population like the wreckfish is depleted, industrial fishermen then move on to other species, often leading to a domino-like effect of species falling into crisis one after another, also known as sequential collapses.
After the wreckfish collapse, a 10-year fishing ban was imposed in 2005. For a fish that takes 15 years to reach sexual maturity and lives for 80 to 90 years, however, 10 years does not provide enough time for true recovery, according to Peres. In October, Oceana helped convince the Brazilian government to extend the ban until the species is fully recovered, which now includes a two-year deadline for the government to gather the research necessary to create a science-based recovery plan.
The success of the wreckfish campaign indicates that Oceana is already making a big difference, Peres said. She also noted that Brazilians are the true winners when the country’s fisheries are sustainable: “Poorly managed fisheries are an economic and social loss.”
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of the Oceana Magazine.