Fishing for the future
Created and managed by artisan fishers, a Marine Protected Area near Cannes embodies a new vision of sustainability for the Mediterranean
“This isn’t a job, it’s a vocation. It’s my passion, I couldn’t do anything else.”
Franck Dubbiosi, 43, is unloading his night’s catch from the Jessy Chloe – two fat groupers and a silvery dentex that’s all the colours of the rainbow at once. Another small boat cuts an arc through the harbour and Frank’s son Jessy pulls up alongside us. Jessy unloads sea bream, John Dory, an octopus and a crayfish.
It’s an idyllic scene, and I could almost forget where we are – almost – except for the gigantic superyachts, designer boutiques, helicopters and the throngs of tourists that I see when I look beyond the little jetty where the artisan fishers work.
We’re in Cannes on the French Riviera, and if ever you wanted an illustration of the pressures facing small-scale fishing in the Mediterranean today, this is a perfect one.
The Mediterranean is many things to many people. It’s the summer getaway for well over 300 million tourists every year, and a store of crucial resources, from seafood and minerals to oil and natural gas. It’s a network of diverse economies that provides jobs for a huge number of workers.
First and foremost, though, it’s a living ecosystem that’s under unsustainable attack from all sides. The Mediterranean is in deep trouble, and we need to save it.
I’ve come to the Cote d’Azur with the FishMPABlue2 project because something special is happening here. Not far from Cannes, at Cap Roux, the local fishers of Saint Raphaël have taken the brave and visionary step of imposing their own Marine Protected Area (MPA). Since 2004, an area of 445 hectares (about 4.5km2) has been off-limits to fishing of any kind. And it’s one of the richest coastal spots in the region.
The theory behind MPAs is simple: if you protect an area of an ocean, the abundance and diversity of marine life it contains will increase. Left undisturbed, species, habitats and ecosystems regenerate.
This is what’s happening at Cap Roux – and the fishers in the region are benefitting too: the bigger, more abundant fish swim out of the MPA, and some of them end up in the nets along the coast and further out at sea.
Franck has seen film that divers have taken in the MPA, “and it looks great down there – the fish are recovering. It’s such a beneficial thing for us, and for the marine environment.” In fact, he wants to build on the success of Cap Roux and do something similar in his own waters. “We need more little sanctuaries to bring back life,” he says, pointing out towards some small islands where he thinks another MPA would work well.
Importantly, though, MPAs need to be built from the bottom up by local fishers, not imposed via a remote bureaucracy. “Fishers are on the water every day – they know it, and their future depends on it,” says Franck.
This is where we need to take a step back and look at things on a bigger scale. I spoke to a lot of artisan fishers around Cap Roux – in Cannes, Fréjus, St Raphaël and elsewhere. They’re a fantastic bunch of people, but every one of them is deeply concerned about the future. These men and women – small-scale fishers – make up about 90% of the French fishing fleet.
The Mediterranean in 2018 is nothing like the sea their grandparents knew, and it’s the same for fishers like them in each of the 21 countries that border this unique and precious body of water.
Name most of the main threats to the planet today – overdevelopment, habitat destruction, climate change, pollution, plastic waste, resource overexploitation and more – and you’ll also have mentioned something that’s directly harming the Mediterranean. The sea is suffering more than ever before, and there are signs everywhere that tipping points are approaching: if we don’t do more to protect the region, there’s a genuine danger that we’ll lose its many and varied riches forever.
And I haven’t even said the word ‘overfishing’ yet. According to the (limited) data, some 88% of Mediterranean fisheries assessed are overfished. Wildlife and ecosystems are already taking a battering from the environmental threats mentioned above: coupled with decades of relentless overexploitation, fish stocks are becoming more and more precarious. If serious steps aren’t taken to preserve what’s left, there may not be another generation of fishers.
The good news, though, is that there’s still a chance we can fix the problems. Experience all over the world demonstrates that if fish stocks are carefully managed and laws to protect them are enforced, the stocks remain healthy and we can still catch fish. But sustainability needs to be at the heart of everything: greed and short-term thinking are fatal for the future.
Sustainability is what MPAs are all about. They play an important role in the Mediterranean already, and they can play a bigger one. Cap Roux shows how protecting a relatively small part of the coast can make a big difference in the wider surrounding area – and by extension, a coherent network of MPAs across the Mediterranean would bring enormous benefits for marine life. This could only be good news for the millions whose livelihoods depend on a healthy sea.
But, of course, you can’t just snap your fingers and make it happen – and even if you could, you’d then have another enormous challenge on your hands: real-world management. Designating an area as an MPA is only the first step in a complex operation.
“The rules at Cap Roux are simple: it’s a closed zone to all fishing. But getting people to respect it? Well, that’s a lot more complicated…” Christian Decugis has been an artisan fisher since 1980. He was there at the beginning, and is still at the heart of efforts to make the project as successful as it can be.
“The local guild of fishers started it,” he explains. “We said ‘if we do this ourselves, we can make sure it’s done right’, and we did. But a lot of people use the MPA, and not everyone has shared interests. Management takes a lot of work, and we can’t do all of it along with our jobs.”
This is a really important point, and it’s one of the reasons that FishMPABlue2 is closely involved with a series of Mediterranean MPAs – of which Cap Roux is one. FishMPABlue2 has been working for years to make the most of the potential of MPAs – bringing different parties together, sharing best practice, solving problems, and spreading the word about their benefits across the wider region.
You might expect conservationists and fishers to be on opposite sides on this one, but they’re not. For FishMPABlue2, the fishers’ knowledge is the best foundation for a workable MPA network, while the fishers know that the project team will help them manage a job they can’t possibly do unassisted.
The point is that both groups want to put fish stocks and marine ecosystems on a healthy footing for the future. For the fishers, their livelihoods depend on it.
There’s no doubt about the most immediate challenge at Cap Roux – Christian repeats the views of every other fisher I spoke to when he names the biggest threat they face: “Poaching and illegal fishing is the main problem. Some professionals deliberately fish illegally in the MPA, at night or in the very early morning. And then there are the recreational fishers – there are so many of them, more all the time. Whether or not they’re doing it on purpose they’re chasing a finite resource and there are no limits on what they can catch. It can make a huge difference to coastal fisheries.”
For two years, the fishers at Cap Roux organised their own surveillance to prove to the EU that it was needed. They caught so many people breaking the rules that the EU now funds some enforcement activities in the MPA, but there’s still a long way to go. Communications need to be improved so everyone in the area knows about the MPA and the benefits it brings; and also understands how their own activities may affect it. Most of all, the enforcement regime needs to be bigger, better and more powerful.
Nothing about the solution is particularly complicated or mysterious: it’s just going to take a lot of time and a lot of hard work from everyone involved. And the issue of effective management and enforcement is going to need to be taken seriously across every other MPA in the Mediterranean.
FishMPABlue2 is calling on fishers to dedicate themselves more to the protection of the sea, and to get involved to make MPAs work. Fishers should become the guardians of marine resources, and participate in the creation of sustainable fisheries models in MPAs and beyond.
“I feel like I know the other fishers,” says Franck. “We share the same art and the same passion. We’re all lucky to have this job – it’s an inheritance we need to leave to our children. We have to respect the sea.”
I came away from the red rocks and blue waters of Cap Roux wondering what I could say about all this – the MPA is obviously a success, but where are we going from here? What does it mean for the Mediterranean? What can the rest of us do?
The answer lies in looking at what we can learn and fitting that into a wider perspective, one which starts locally but is always part of a bigger picture. The achievement of the fishers at Cap Roux in creating and managing their own MPA is there for all to see, and small-scale fishing fleets all over the Mediterranean should be shown the benefits and supported to do the same thing.
We need to get behind everyone involved in trying to make this ambitious vision into a reality. We need to put pressure on our politicians, listen to our scientists, support the organisations out in the field.
And we need to have faith in people like Franck, Jessy, Christian and thousands of other artisan fishers that you’ll meet if you visit the Mediterranean coast. Given the right resources and support, their love of the sea can transform it.
Photos: Cap Roux, France. © Cristina Mastrandrea / WWF Mediterranean / FishMPABlue