This World Oceans Day (June 8), discussions will draw attention to an important theme: lives and livelihoods. Billions of people are inextricably linked to the ocean, such as the artisanal fishers with generational knowledge of how to manage fisheries without depleting them; the seafood processers and vendors (many of whom are women) who help feed the world and their families; or the tourism workers in small island nations who depend on vibrant, abundant oceans to keep visitors coming back.
Unfortunately, unsustainable and destructive practices extract more than our oceans can support, damage fragile ecosystems, and risk the livelihoods of others.
“With 90% of big fish populations depleted, and 50% of coral reefs destroyed, we are taking more from the ocean than can be replenished,” said the United Nations, which has observed World Oceans Day since 2008. “To protect and preserve the ocean and all it sustains, we must create a new balance, rooted in true understanding of the ocean and how humanity relates to it.”
The five fishers profiled below are proof that harmony can exist between people and the oceans. Here’s what they had to say about fishing sustainably, combating illegal and destructive activities, and dedicating their lives to the sea.
Lowell ‘Japs’ Godfrey
Belizean seaweed farmer and 2020 Ocean Hero honoree Lowell ‘Japs’ Godfrey died of cancer last month. Oceana sends its deepest condolences to his loved ones and would like to take this time to celebrate his life and commitment to ocean conservation.
Formerly a commercial fisherman, Godfrey gave up gillnetting when he realized they were catching and killing large numbers of non-targeted marine life. He voluntarily turned to seaweed farming and never looked back, taking special care to learn about the marine environments he tended. He became a leader and a trainer in seaweed mariculture, teaching others how to earn a living from the ocean sustainably. When Oceana named him an Ocean Hero last year, he reflected on the award and offered a poignant message:
“An Ocean Hero to me is someone that is out there in the marine environment, takes care of it, educates people about it, goes about physically trying to make a difference in how you approach or address problems facing the ocean. I think the biggest thing is to physically participate because you can speak from a point of knowledge.”
Like Godfrey, Belizean fisher Loretta Anderson used to fish with gillnets, but voluntarily gave them up when she discovered the destruction they caused. Several years ago, she participated in an Oceana PSA and urged the government to ban gillnets, sharing her own personal experience in an effort to change hearts and minds.
“I used gillnets back in the day, in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s,” she said. “You get turtles, you get dolphins, you get manatees. You don’t have a use for it, so then they become trash. So I put it aside and [started to] line fish because I can select my fish that way. Handline fishing works – I'm living proof.”
She led by example, and ultimately got her wish for more sustainable Belizean fisheries. Last year, the government banned gillnets and signed an agreement with Oceana and the Coalition for Sustainable Fisheries to help licensed gillnet fishers transition to other jobs.
Filipino fisher and activist Norlan Pagal has long been an outspoken opponent of illegal fishing in the Tañon Strait, a long, narrow stretch of sea that Oceana has been campaigning to protect. He first noticed a drastic drop in his catches in 2002, following an influx of illegal fishing in Cebu, where he lives. Despite laws that permit only small-scale and subsistence fishing in the Strait, larger commercial fishers had also been plundering its waters.
Pagal took matters into his own hands and joined a team of volunteer rangers who patrol local waters in search of violators. He served as the patrol’s leader for more than 10 years and, because it was so effective, he was attacked on multiple occasions. After giving a speech on fisheries protection in 2015, he was shot by local criminals. The bullet, meant to kill, left Pagal paralyzed from the waist down. Undeterred, he is now president of a fisherfolk organization and continues to combat illegal fishing, most recently calling on Congress to scrap House Bill 7853, which would allow commercial fishing in municipal waters.
"I know that the people will rely on the sea to sustain their family’s basic needs,” he told Oceana recently. “This is why we need to be vigilant and protect our ocean because this is the primary source of support for the poor. We need to make sure that the municipal water is protected from commercial fishing and from any destructive and abusive blast fishing activity.”
José Luis Ramírez Zuñiga
José Luis Ramírez Zuñiga is an artisanal fisher in Sonora, a state in northwest Mexico that borders the Gulf of California. For him, the sea has always been a way of life. He has been fishing since the age of five, primarily catching snapper, yellowtail, spotted sand bass, perch, and groundfish. He uses only sustainable fishing gear and urges his fellow fishers to take similar precautions.
“I tell some of my workmates, ‘We have to be careful not to kill off the species,’” he told Oceana, explaining that he uses rope fishing because it’s a highly selective gear, which minimizes bycatch. “Each species has its own kind of bait, and so you don’t damage other species. It is rare when you pull out a type of fish that you are not fishing for.”
He said he catches plenty of fish to support him and his two crewmates and can’t imagine working anywhere other than the sea. “It is such beautiful art – fishing,” he said.
Artisanal fishers in Chile’s Juan Fernández archipelago are rock lobster experts. They have been sustainably catching this endemic species for over a century, using wooden traps and measuring tools to ensure each spiny crustacean is large enough to sell. Teodoro Rivadeneira is one of the lobster fishers featured in Oceana’s documentary about Juan Fernández. He demonstrated some of the techniques fishers use to prevent lobsters from heading to market before they’re ready, which helps perpetuate the population.
“This one’s for export, for China. Its shell measures 11.5 cm,” he said after measuring the carapace – the part of a lobster’s body that extends from the back of its eyes to the start of its tail. Others didn’t make the cut. Before throwing an undersized lobster back into the ocean, Rivadeneira held it aloft and said, “In other areas they’ll eat them like this, but not here. We take care of them here.”
Artisanal fishers like Rivadeneira played an instrumental role in helping Oceana create the Juan Fernández Archipelago Marine Park, which was achieved in 2018. This area preserves historical fishing grounds while also protecting ocean ecosystems – a delicate balance that allows people to keep working in harmony with the sea.