The Barefoot Ecologist

Izael da Cunha Pantoja sits watching and waiting alongside Dr. Leandro Castello on a rickety wooden bench on the shore of the Amazon River in the State of Pará, Brazil. Suddenly Izael points to undulating water and the rise of a pirarucu, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish. The fish must surface every 15 minutes or so to gulp oxygen through an organ called a cellular swimming bladder.


Pirarucu, Credit: Dr. David McGrath

Gulp! A swathe of crimson and silver breaches the water. The fish needs just a fraction of a second to breathe, but that is all Izael needs to perform the work of a “barefoot ecologist” – to judge the fish’s size, weight and age – perhaps even its sex. Izael is part of a team of about 40 aquatic census-takers who are being trained by WHRC Postdoctoral Fellow Castello. The data they collect will be used by the local fishers’ association to monitor local fish stocks and perhaps even determine a catch quota. Elsewhere, fishing for the endangered pirarucu is banned, although most government officials acknowledge that the ban is ineffective and fishers merely move their catches to the black market.

Management of fisheries has shifted over the last few decades from a government-centered approach, whereby scientists and managers assess resource status and define and implement regulations, to a decentralized approach with varying degrees of fisher involvement. The shift toward decentralized management has taken different forms and occurred in different degrees throughout the world. In general, however, there has been little progress in developing systems to monitor small-scale fisheries and to generate data analyses that are passed on to fisher groups. This can be a problem in tropical, small-scale fisheries because they are highly diverse, incomparable, and influenced by distinct local combinations of natural, social, and economic processes.

One approach to the problems caused by the diversity of small-scale fisheries is the ‘‘barefoot ecologist’’ concept. Barefoot ecologists have been defined as community managers who have some basic knowledge of fisheries data collection and analysis and who work with other community members to design and implement management regulations. The ‘‘barefoot ecologist’’ concept is important because it offers a means to rapidly and cost-effectively promote the development and implementation of management regimes specifically designed to address the distinctive characteristics of local, small-scale fisheries.

In a study conducted by Castello, analyses of fishery landing interview data have revealed that each community must be considered a distinct management unit. Amazon fishing communities can vary dramatically with respect to gear, habitat, species composition, and total catch and fishing effort. Data analysis has also revealed that many such fisheries’ characteristics were not accounted for by government and community-based management regulations, highlighting the need for increased attention to cross-community fisheries heterogeneity.

para-brazilThe use of regionally aggregated catch data masks the geographical heterogeneity of small-scale fisheries, tending to produce one-size-fits-all regional management regulations that may be inadequate at the community level. The use of regional landing data deprives community fisheries managers of the information they need to assess the status of the fishery and implement measures to address any problems they identify. Fishers often have a deep understanding of local natural history, the characteristics of the local fishery, and their own fishing activities. However, they often do not have a detailed grasp of the aggregate characteristics of their community fishery and the changes it is undergoing. This can be especially problematic when it comes to identifying long-term trends while there is still time to make adjustments. This lack of quantitative information on the local fishery not only makes it difficult to design management regulations to address problematic trends, but also makes it difficult for managers to convince reluctant fishers to agree to changes in fishing practices.

Through partnerships between community fisheries organizations, NGOs, and local universities, it may be possible to finally conclude the transition from a government centered management approach to a decentralized management approach. Like Izael, other barefoot ecologists will play a key role in this process. Such partnerships could integrate key elements of existing government and co-management approaches, the scientific rigor of quantitative analyses, and the knowledge and understanding of local fishing activities that fishers possess.

More information: Accounting for heterogeneity in small-scale fisheries management: The Amazon case