Last year my friend Anjelika called me to let me know that she was going to spend a few weeks in Alexandria, Egypt with her family and she was looking for a little project to run, something different from our usual work. Since 2011 we have been working in Egypt conducting in-water surveys of marine turtles of the Red Sea, running a citizen science project called TurtleWatch Egypt I collaboration with a local NGO, HEPCA, and conducting yearly educational events of marine life, conservation and the environment (again in collaboration with local NGOs, SEAS).
So we needed something different and possibly on the Mediterranean coast (or as close as possible to Alexandria)! We started to talk and think and we came up with a question: what do fishermen think when we talk about endangered species? What do they see as ‘Endangered’?
When you are a marine biologist or a conservationist, you quickly learn that species are ‘Endangered’ when they are under threat of disappearing if we don’t do something to prevent it (and let’s face it, most of the time the threat comes from us and our irresponsible behavior: e.g. overfishing, destruction of habitats, pollution, etc). But the question remained: what do fishermen think when we talk about endangered species? Do they see them the same way we see them? And it seemed a pertinent question, because when you want to do conservation you need to work in synergy with all beneficiaries. Talking about marine conservation and excluding fishermen is a recipe for failure. Fishermen spend most of their lives at the sea, their knowledge about marine life is invaluable. However, talking and listening to them require understanding of the fishermen language and their culture and this is what we wanted to do. We wanted to understand how they perceive our ‘conservationists’ issue and accordingly improve our own communication with the fishermen.
We had our project, now we needed a team!
Mohamed Ismail is an Assistant Lecturer at the Port Said University, he is also a master student working on marine mammals in the Southern Red Sea, he is also many other things (researcher, educator, explorer, diver, etc). He got immediately on board. He then found some students to help Anjelika in the field work: Magdy and Mohamed. The team was found!
We decided to use a simple methodology: social surveys with a few open ended questions and a lot of ‘agreement to statements’ type of questions. This basically means that we had a statement (for example: Marine turtles are endangered) and respondents were supposed to say if they agreed or disagreed with the statement.
Led by Anjelika, the team went on to interview fishermen in Alexandria and Port Said, 62 fishermen in total, about 10 days in the field, hours and hours of conversations with the fishermen at their landing sites. Sometimes the questionnaire was only the beginning of a much broader discussion on a variety of topics (including invasive species, fish size, etc).
So what did we find?
Some results are still being analyzed, however we found that:
- Fishermen are very aware of the change: they notice that things are not as they used to be, species abundance and distribution or seasonality has been changing, the weather has been changing. New species are replacing older ones. This perception of change is more obvious in older fishermen, especially when we mentioned marine turtles. This indicates that the decline in number of turtles possibly started a long time ago.
- Fishermen are concerned about the status of the sea: they feel it is their duty to protect marine resources that are the base of their livelihoods. They also are aware of bad practices, and they know when they are catching fish that is too small or reproducing and to a certain extent, they agreed with more stringent policies.
- Fishermen know about protected species: they know that turtles are protected and catching or killing them is illegal in Egypt. Consumption is however still frequent. We also found out that not all fishermen agreed with the fact that marine turtles are endangered: so turtles are protected by law, but it is not clear way. Furthermore, while it is clear what role sharks have in controlling populations of smaller fish, the importance of marine turtles within their ecosystem is largely unknown.
So where to go from here? While we just started investigating this aspect of conservation and therefore we can’t reach a stringent conclusion, we can already say that:
- We should start explaining why species are protected, not simply saying that they ARE protected. We need to put species within their ecosystem, explain what role they have and why it is important to reduce (or eliminate consumption). We need to give the bigger picture, where marine turtles in Egypt are strictly related to marine turtles in Greece or Turkey or other parts of the Mediterranean Sea.
- We need to focus more on the people and less on the species itself. We need to get a better perspective of the social-economical background of most fishermen in the North coast. We need to understand whether or not consuming turtle meat is a necessity or a tradition.
- Briefly, we need to listen more! And we need to share more information!
This project, that was initially born as a pilot project, provided some interesting results and was accepted for presentation at the 36th International Sea Turtle Symposium, the annual most important conference on marine turtles where every year more than 700 specialists gather to discuss about new research methods, share success stories but also failures, get new insights on the status of the sea turtles in the world. In February 2016, Anjelika and I traveled to Lima, Peru to attend the symposium and share our work. The presentation was followed by more questions and we received a lot of input and are now planning phase II, with Mohamed Ismail and potentially new friends and collaborators that could help us improve our work in Egypt.
I would like to thank the International Sea Turtle Society and all the sponsors for awarding me a travel grant to attend the symposium. A special thank you to all the fishermen that agreed to answer to our questions and all the people that helped with the logistics. Last but not least, I am very grateful to Anjelika, Ismail, Magdy and Mohamed for their dedication and hard work in the field. Without them this project would have never existed!