Conservation International helping communities rebuild mangroves

Published on
May 24, 2018

Conservation International (CI) has been doing important work in marine and fisheries habitat conservation in the Caribbean and Latin America for several years, and has become well known for its science-based approach to conservation issues, including the developing of specialized tools for scientific analysis of the marine environment's health. SeafoodSource had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Marco Antonio Quesada Alpízar, director of CI's Costa Rica program. He holds a PhD in marine and fisheries policy and specializes in marine conservation, marine policy and fisheries policy and management.  

SeafoodSource: Please briefly describe your role at Conservation International (CI).

Quesada: I am the director of CI’s Costa Rica program and have been with CI for over 13 years. I started as the lead of the then-new marine program, which focused on MPA support and eventually evolved into a program that supports science, policy and work in conservation of multiple ecosystems like coral reefs and mangroves. Over the past seven to eight years we extended our work to fisheries, which has since then greatly expanded.

SeafoodSource: Please briefly describe CI's work in the Caribbean and Latin America and state which countries in the region it has done or is doing marine conservation projects in?

Quesada: CI currently has offices in ten countries in the Americas: Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Perú, Bolivia, Brazil, Guyana and Suriname. We have a broad portfolio of projects in and across the region, including the Amazonia (e.g., work on protected areas, indigenous communities, agriculture), on marine topics (marine protected areas, fisheries, mangroves, etc.), and on subjects such as water and cities, climate change, and payment for ecosystem services.

SeafoodSource: What would you say are the most pressing concerns with regard to marine conservation and sustainable fisheries in the region as a whole?

Quesada: I think marine ecosystems, like terrestrial ones, are affected by the full range of potential threats including habitat degradation and destruction (e.g., mangrove deforestation, coral reef degradation), invasive species (e.g., lion fish in the Caribbean), pollution (e.g., plastics, noise, nutrients), unsustainable use (e.g., overharvesting), climate change and the rising demand for goods and services from the oceans. We see examples of all of these threats across the region and all of them have a direct or indirect effect on fisheries.

SeafoodSource: I noticed on CI's website that a lot of work is going into mangrove conservation. Please in one sentence explain why that is so important to the region's fisheries.

Quesada: That’s correct! Mangroves are breeding areas, nurseries and essential fish habitat for most of the main coastal fisheries in the tropics. They also have direct a link with factors such as water quality and the cultures of human coastal populations.

SeafoodSource: Please tell us what has been the rate of loss annually of mangroves in the region and what percentage of mangrove has been lost over the past 15 years or so. Could you please also share with us some of the causes of mangrove loss in the region and the impact this has had or is likely to have in the future on fisheries?

Quesada: I do not have that number at hand. However, rates of mangrove loss in coastal regions are generally higher than observed global tropical deforestation (0.7 percent; Spalding et al. 2010), and estimates for the eastern tropical Pacific region are at one to two percent. In the case of Costa Rica, for the Gulf of Nicoya for example, we saw deforestation from the 1950s to the 1980s of about 15 percent. However, after legislation was passed protecting mangroves, net deforestation decreased and reversed. However, mangrove degradation continues. The rates at which other countries have lost mangrove area vary a lot. Brazil, Guyana and Suriname, for example, still have huge extensions of very well-conserved mangrove areas. Brazil alone has the second largest total mangrove area in the world.

SeafoodSource: I know aquaculture production may contribute to mangrove degradation. How much of a contributing factor has fish farming been to mangrove degradation in the region?

Quesada: This is true all over the tropics. Unregulated aquaculture can have great impacts on the health of mangrove areas. Countries like Ecuador lost important mangrove areas to aquaculture (mainly shrimp) a few decades ago. Now they are also leading innovative mangrove conservation schemes in the region. One of the most important impacts of mangrove degradation is that coastal ecosystems, like mangroves, can store significant amounts of carbon in their sediments. When we degrade or destroy these areas, significant carbon emissions that contribute to climate change are going to follow. In Costa Rica, we have estimated that aquaculture ponds, located where mangrove used to exist, have lost on average 90 percent of the carbon that we can see in the sediments of nearby mangrove areas.

SeafoodSource: What practical solutions has CI been working on to help preserve and restore mangrove forests regionally and can you quantify the impact this has had on the region's fisheries thus far?

Quesada: We are working from various perspectives, from collaborating with coastal communities in mangrove restoration projects, to building conservation agreements with communities to manage and conserve mangrove areas and its resources, to improving the supply chain and value of mangrove-related products such as crabs and mangrove clams. Quantifying the impact on the fisheries is complex in tropical areas where data availability is in general deficient. However, we are also designing and implementing social, economic and biological tools that we are using to establish baselines to measure the impact of our work. For our work in this region, having an impact on the livelihood of coastal communities is as important as having an impact on the region’s fisheries.

SeafoodSource: CI focuses a lot on science-based interventions. Can you share with us a few examples of how CI has used science and technology in the region to support conservation efforts?

Quesada: To mention a concrete example, two years ago we teamed up with the Costa Rican Coastguard Service and Catapult/OceanMind to respond to two simple but critical questions. (1) Does Costa Rica have a problem with IUU fishing? And (2), if so, how much and where is it happening? OceanMind has used top-of-the line technology, data analysis capabilities and experience to give an answer to those questions and now we want to respond, as a country, to that information. We know and have data to support that the EEZ of Costa Rica is a highly transited area, used by all types of vessels, and we know that there is a potential risk of IUU fishing in the industrial purse seining fleet. We also know that many boats are trying to do things right, and that the few that don’t [usually] behave in certain ways and in areas we have mapped. It’s the power of knowledge! And of course, now we want to know more.

SeafoodSource: Can you also tell us to what extent findings from scientific research conducted by CI have been used by policymakers and decision-makers in the region when making their decisions? Please give us one or two concrete examples.

Quesada: In Costa Rica, CI is the NGO which has invested the most in marine science. We have worked in a collaborative manner with the University of Costa Rica for over a decade. The science that has been produced has been key in the creation and expansion of several marine protected areas, including the creation of the country’s largest marine protected area, the Seamounts Marine Management Area. You can find similar cases across the region. I believe we are very effective in translating science into action and policy.

SeafoodSource: We know that for conservation efforts to work, there has to be blending of science-based knowledge and local knowledge if communities are to cooperate with such efforts. Can you share with us examples of how that has happened on CI's projects, perhaps when it comes to conservation agreements?

Quesada: Our work in Peru, Colombia and Ecuador are very good examples of how we work with science, local knowledge and conservation. The latter two countries have designed successful conservation agreements to work with coastal communities in protecting mangroves and marine areas in exchange for support of their sustainable production needs and efforts. We have examples that include coastal fisheries, mangrove clams and mangrove crabs. In Costa Rica, we are also working closely with coastal communities, women and fishers in marine conservation projects. To me, having the privilege to work with coastal communities is one of the most rewarding parts of my work.

SeafoodSource: I understand CI has been promoting the establishment of marine protected areas. Can you tell us how many regionally CI has overseen the establishment of and where these are?

Quesada: Yes, we have a long history of MPA work in the eastern tropical Pacific region. Not only in the establishment of MPAs, but in supporting the management efforts of these areas once they are created. It’s a constant and always ongoing work. Creating an area is only the beginning. We work on the most important MPAs in the region: Cocos National Park and Seamounts Marine Management Area in Costa Rica; Coiba National Park in Panama; Malpelo in Colombia; and Galapagos National Park and Marine Reserve in Ecuador. Aside from these, the gems of the region, we work on multiple other MPAs in each country. We have collaborated with national governments in the establishment, expansion and/or improved management of all of these areas

SeafoodSource: Can you provide us with data on recovery rates for fish in those areas?

Quesada: I do not have available that data at this time. We have not worked in fisheries in all of the MPAs where we currently work; and data on fishery recovery rates varies significantly – when available – depending on the species/fishery. In the case of the Galapagos lobster, for example, CI has collaborated for several years with national authorities, fishers and other organizations and results are already showing positive trends in production and revenues. Other species and regions are more complex to assess.

SeafoodSource: There has been some concern that MPAs do not always deliver the results expected. Can you please tell us in general terms if CI identified any of those potential problems when designing the MPAs, what they were, and the approach CI used to guard against them?

Quesada: It is important to understand MPAs as tools. Depending on how effective we are in using, implementing these tools, results will vary. Also important is that these tools are ultimately created by governments, not by us. We are just one stakeholder trying to help. One of our first rules is to follow national policies and direction from the authorities. We believe in providing science, in facilitating broad stakeholder participation in the design and management of an area and in designing conservation tools that are equitable and provide benefits that serve the national public interest. Nature is essential for all nations and we work hard in showing the importance of conserving and using nature sustainably. We also use guidelines to map MPA effectiveness across the different geographies we work on.

Reporting from the Caribbean

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