18 December 2006

Working with artisanal fishermen to protect the Amvrakikos Gulf

I first joined the Tethys team in 1999. In 2004 Giovanni Bearzi, President of Tethys, suggested that I moved to a village on the coast of the Amvrakikos Gulf and I settled there to start a year-round study of local dolphins. My decision to move from my home town Barcelona, Spain, to the village of Vonitsa, Greece, was a difficult one. However, I soon realized that this could open the door to significant developments, which were unlikely to occur as long as we operated in Greece as “visitors”. Soon after I settled there, a friendly relationships developed with the local community, especially with artisanal fishermen.

Since the beginning, local fishermen were curious about the presence of biologists from abroad and started inquiring about our work. When we told them about our interest in dolphins, comments were ironic and sometimes slightly aggressive. Some fishermen claimed that dolphins had to be all killed because of their habits of damaging and depredating fishing gear. However, in the end even those attitudes evolved towards a genuine appreciation of our work. Fishermen started to ask questions about the methods we use, our past experiences in this field, our findings and, at a more personal level, they wanted to know the reasons and motivations that led me to choose this profession and way of life.

Establishing a good personal relationship with them and being introduced to the problems they face offered insight that would be difficult to obtain otherwise. While sitting at seaside bars drinking our “café frappé” (ice coffee, a favourite refreshing beverage in Greece), they told me about ever-decreasing landings caused by human impact, illegal fishing taking place in the area, and the actual hardships of dolphin-fisheries interactions.

Their interest in collaborating became even clearer when fishermen started to report dolphin sighting or stranding events. Fishermen who had found a dead animal offered the possibility of taking us there with their boat. They even waited patiently under heavy rain while we were measuring the animal and taking photos.

An understanding of the factors threatening the Amvrakikos Gulf is somewhat complicated as a variety of problems - including chemical pollution, eutrophication and illegal fishing - are contributing to ecosystem damage. Still, local fishermen have come to a good understanding just out of their own experience, without knowing about the conclusions of many scientific articles focusing on this area. Many fishermen, for instance, do not think twice when asked about the problems of the Gulf. And - surprise - the main problems do not include dolphins.

Fishermen maintain that the progressive reduction of the narrow channel that links the Gulf to the open sea (resulting from a project to enlarge the port of Preveza) has had a major impact on water balance and the ecosystem. Water exchange was reduced and this contributed to increasing eutrophication. Changes in freshwater input from rivers due to hydroelectric and other dams also added to the problem. Another serious problem reported by local fishermen is that of illegal trawling (a fishing method that is forbidden in the Gulf since 1975) - reportedly one of the main factors behind the steady decline of fish captures.

The local fishing community also shows signs of the phenomenon known as “shifting baselines”, described by fishery scientist Daniel Pauly in 1995. As one generation replaces another, people's perceptions of what is natural change to the extent that they no longer believe historical anecdotes of past abundance or size of species. The environment changes dramatically, but due to loss of information and memories across generations most people do not realize the extent of change. Therefore, recording fishermen’s present and past experiences represents an important opportunity to document the history of the Gulf’s ecosystem.

For instance, young fishermen admit that a few years ago their catches of sardines, red mullets and shrimps were much larger. Old fishermen tell an even more interesting story. Barba Yannis, who is 74 (the prefix “barba” is used in Greece to express respect for the elder), and Barba Mihalis, 75, have been fishing in the Amvrakikos Gulf for more than 50 years. Both of them recall a time when large tuna were frequent in the Gulf, and tell stories of amazing biodiversity and plentiful catches. Younger fishermen, on the contrary, have never seen a single tuna in the Gulf.

At dusk, while walking along the sea side of Vonitsa with the dolphins seen just a few hours earlier still on my mind, I watch the silhouette of Barba Yannis setting his nets while hand-rowing his kaїki in the magnificent sunset. Not so long ago, this was a common sight in the Mediterranean. Today, artisanal fishermen are yet another “species” struggling to survive in an ecosystem that has been depleted by commercial and illegal fishing. I again realize that Barba Yannis, Barba Mihalis and their sustainable fishing means deserve to be protected as much as the dolphins.

Joan Gonzalvo Villegas

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