EDF - In Conversation with Ana Suarez

It might seem odd at first to do a trip for the ocean by bicycle. The bicycle is strictly a landlocked vehicle-- it is no sea kayak nor sailboat or even stand-up paddle board. I have come to think however, that a landlocked view of the ocean is fitting for this trip. As people with legs that need air to breath, we mill about on land and only know the ocean in the context of the land; we know the ocean of the Puget Sound, the ocean of Coos Bay, the ocean by Point Reyes, the ocean of Bahía Magdalena. For most of us, we know the ocean from the shore only, and similarly, we know the fish by how it looks on the plate, or perhaps fileted on ice. The deep ocean beyond the shelf, below the swells, all of this is familiar to us only through nature shows or aquariums. To do a fundraising campaign via submarine through the deep ocean would be missing the point: ocean issues are as much about people as they are about the ocean.

This thought is far clearer to me after speaking with Ana Suarez, Senior Specialist of Communications and Outreach for Environmental Defence Fund oceans program in Mexico. She described herself as "a people person" and I believe her: she had a bright face, welcomed me into the EDF office in La Paz, where everyone called her Anita. Why would a 'people person' like this end up devoting themselves to fish?

"I thought fisheries was just taking fish out of the ocean and having them on a plate, but never about the people behind that." As a Masters student in Environmental Management in Sydney, Australia, she described hearing a TED talk by American marine biologist Sylvia Earle, and realized that the ocean was to the Earth's living system as the heart and the blood is to us, and that working with fisheries "would be a good way of helping both oceans and people."

EDF's Ocean's program is devoted to protecting the resources of our ocean, but also the people that are working in the fishing sector. This, Ana said, is her favorite part of her work; "being able to work with fishermen, to hear their stories and help them share those stories so more people can be aware of why it is important to agknowledge thier jobs, to have sustainable management, and to listen a little more to the struggles they are facing-- which are complex."

Storeytellers like Ana hold a unique position. They tell vignettes of success and failures as a way of telling a larger story, a story without a knowable end. Perhaps it's the biggest of any story like this: that of the future of the ocean.

We spoke of the ocean as a global bond, for each of our journeys and for all people; how it has accompanied me the whole way down the West Coast, and for her, linking her to her homecountry of Mexico while she was studying in Australia. "The ocean is life itself. Being close to the ocean reminds me we are part of a whole... we are connected." While this connection is beautiful, it also means that all ocean problems are also connected.

When I asked her what the most serious issue facing the ocean was, she answered clearly: "fisheries, but it goes hand in hand with climate change." We shared same pessimism that humankind will be able to make the necessary changes to avoid overwarming, and that, Ana said, "will change a lot of things in the ocean-- transform everything. It's concerning because there's very little we can do for that." But beyond this daunting fact, climate change will impact fisheries in how fish stocks are moving. Ana explained that EDF has reasearch that finds that as the ocean warms, most fish populations will be moving from the equator to the poles. This causes several problems: the nations on the equator zone that are often developing countries and rely a lot on fisheries (such as thos is Southeast Asia for example) will have far less access to those fish. That's a big problem for food security. It's also a concern for foreign relations: "we are not ready to deal with the international cooperation. For example: a fish stock her in Mexico moves to US. What's going to happen? Will mexican fishermen be able to go to US? Probably not because that's another economic zone. So what will we do with those people? What of our resources between two nations-- what can we do to make sure they both fish responsibly without affecting the other?"

This concern for the welbeing of fishermen hit home for Ana in La Paz. For them, it's not as simple as simply the abundance of fish:  "Fishing is one if the three most important economic activities here in La Paz. A lot of people in these coastal communities depend on fishing. The thing is, that person, they may have covered that part of nutrition-- at least they have access to fish-- but not to other types of food, because of the environment. Veggies for instance, or fruit." I experienced this personally while travelling through Baja; in most towns where there may be only a few stores, most food was packaged and processed, and while there may have been a vendor of fresh fish on the street in the morning, fresh produce was rare, and if it was available, it was notably more expensive-- the orange soda was half the cost of the orange.

This situation reveals another aspect of food insecurity: nutritional value of available food. Baja California del Sur in fact has the second highest rate of obesity in all of Mexico. "Our diet is basically, the delicious flour tortilla..."

Ana explained there is the need for a diversity of affordable, fresh and nutricious food for a healthy diet that fish alone cannot provide. But they can be part of the solution. For isolated fishing communities, they may be the only solution: "I think sustainable fisheries management would help food security because it would avoid fish depletion. But the other part is, it would help with livelihood. For instance, you cannot live only from fish, you need to eat banana for potassium, or something like this... The way I see it, there is no point in having healrhy stocks if that's not generating an economic benefit for people"

In fishing communities like these, many of which I passed through, fishing may be the only thing they have. But at the same time, it is everything. It is not just economic livelihood, "it's about the culture and what fishing means to those communities. And if you ask those fishermen, at least in my experience, 98% of the time they tell me, in another life, or if I were born again, I would be a fisherman again."

Unlike anyone else I've spoken to, Ana saw a healthy coast as a trinity, and seeing her compassion for the fishermen in the communities where she works, it made perfect sense: "Sustainable fishery management has to do with protecting people's social and cultural identities, but also providing a better income while taking care of the ocean. It's the three of them." Her belief in thier humanity was  deep: "I don't think people are mean [greedy], just going in the water and saying 'I have to catch as many as I can so other people can't come and take it!' No, sometimes it may be not being aware... I understand that, if you throw a net into the ocean and it comes back with a lot of fish, it seems diffitcult to think 'there's not many in there.'"

Even the most experienced fisherman's perspective of the ocean is seen through the lens of the water's surface, and thus, is supercial. As researchers and advocates, Ana saw it as a duty to educate communities about the ocean they live on and from. "We need to share the infornation that the ocean is not forever full, no?" The bridge between researcher and community was one that she felt was still gaping. But, being the good storyteller she was, she had several examples of how it could be crossed.

She told me about the fishing community of El Manglito, in the La Paz Bay, not 10 minutes from where we were speaking. It's a village that fishes mostly scallops and clams and when it became apparent that the stocks were suffering badly, they formed a cooperative called OPRE, and partnered with the Baja non-profit group NOS (Noroeste Sustentable) to address the issue. After working with some of the scientists from institurions in La Paz, they voluntarilly decided to stop fishing for 5 years and wait for the scallops to recover. And the scallops did recover. "It was a very impressive thing." At first communication was difficult: "The scientists came and used scientific name of the clam. Fisherman say, no this is the White Clam. Scientists say, what about this other clam? But they were taking about the same clam!" But eventually, the alliance flourished and the fishermen of Manglito have become monitors themselves, doing transects and tracking the population. Now after six years, they have also established TURFs (territorial user rights for fisheries), a management system in which the cooperatibe has exclusive access to that coastal lagoon. Besides this, they also are implementing total allowable catch for scallop, as well as fishing seasons, so there is time for the sea to recover.

I was immensly impressed with this story and the ability to the community to cease fishing entirely for 5 years. Obviously, it wouldn't have been possible without the economic support of NOS. But even then, it must have been a leap of faith: "That was a struggle. At first, not many agreed with the decision, because they would say 'But see, there are still scallops, let's go catch them!' But now they are seeing the results."

It's examples like these that give me hope, and that's exactly why Ana told me. There are so many different oceans, as many as there are eyes to see it, we forget that they are in fact one. To the cyclist, it's a cool breeze. To the the captain, it's a highway. To the surfer, it's a playground. The fisherman, his paycheck. But to all of us, it's home, in one way or another. Even if we can see it as one, which I am only now being able to grasp, can we see the reflection of all those other people?

They call water the universal solvent. The solution to pollution is... well, you know. Obviously there is a tremendous weight to be lifted by all of us to grow and uphold a way of life that is more sustainable than the one we have now, and it requires a faith in the ability of humankind to make those changes-- they surely won't happen if we succumb to ecological apathy, pessimistic paralysis. But something Ana said reminded me, we have the ocean to lean on. We can't make it without it, and we have to have faith in it in order to invest in it: "When life is rough, I think about the ocean. I am a very anxious person, and when I am feeling anxious, I feel I am swimming in the ocean and getting caugh by a wave, and there is another coming and coming... but eventually the ocean will spill me out. I think that is the same with life. Even if it gets hard, if you stop struggling, it will get you to the shore."