Birth of the artificial reefs

In the mid-2000s, government officials and NGOs began organizing community meetings to discuss the harm of blast fishing. But for years, the meetings remained mostly empty. Not only were fishermen unwilling to listen to alternative strategies, but they suspected officials of luring them into a legal trap.

Ultimately, officials resorted to offering each fisherman a pre-made explosive in exchange for their attendance. And even then, most of them were unconvinced by lectures from law enforcement or warnings from environmentalists.

During an otherwise unproductive meeting in 2008, a fisherman named Eleuterio Lara proposed building some kind of structure underwater — something that would help fish populations recover but also make them easier to catch. Similar to the mangroves, such a structure could in theory concentrate marine life in one location. Nobody in the meeting was particularly excited about the idea, Lara recalled. But he set out to try it anyway, collecting dead mangrove branches and bicycle parts, and dropping them into the bay.

Like Soriano and Gonzalez, Lara had experienced the destructive power of blast fishing firsthand. While preparing an explosive before a fishing trip, it ignited and burned down his house. Lara was also one of the few fishermen to recognize that the declining fish populations were just as much an environmental problem as an economic one.

“We started to change our work because we started to feel that fishing wasn’t yielding much,” Lara said. “And we were all losing our arms, killing ourselves, and the product just wasn’t the same.”

His makeshift reef worked. As it attracted marine life, Lara began to haul in fish at a higher rate than regular pole-and-line and net fishing. However, it still brought in less fish than an explosive would. Many communities took several years to come around to the idea, but NGOs like the Mangrove Association, EcoViva and Vista Hermosa began to invest in artificial reefs at the start of 2009.

They wanted to improve on Lara’s tree branches and bicycle parts, but designing a better artificial reef would require significant trial and error. At first, they dropped a collection of 1-meter (3-foot) concrete cylinders into 100-to-300-meter (325-to-1,000-foot) circles. But over time, the cylinders gathered sediment that threatened to change the landscape of the seafloor in a way that could harm sea life. Later, they opted for a cube shape with a more open design.

Diagrams show the cubical structure of some of the artificial reefs in Jiquilisco Bay. Images courtesy of the Mangrove Association.

Officials also worried whether the structures would truly behave as reefs or just as glorified fish traps, with the potential to further harm marine populations. A 2019 report by NGOs working in the area revealed that the reefs were in fact functioning as intended, not only serving as new habitat to 28 species of fish — 14 of them commercially valuable — but also to coral species rarely seen in the bay.

Through the late 2000s, a fervor for artificial reefs took hold, with approximately 40 being installed in Jiquilisco Bay, some made of the concrete cylinders, others of branches and bicycle parts. The reefs were paid for by local NGOs but installed and overseen by the fishing cooperatives. However, the number of reefs being actively fished would slowly halve, as many fishermen discovered they lacked the experience to take advantage of the reefs, and subsequently abandoned them. After years of bombing or netting, they didn’t know what bait the fish preferred, their feeding times, or what type of fishing line suited them best. Some fishermen believed that a thicker line would catch bigger fish, when in reality it was too visible, and scared most fish away.

With ongoing reef projects and educational seminars, NGOs were able to instill an anti-blast fishing culture into Jiquilisco Bay communities by around 2010, creating a 90 percent drop-off in its use, according to a 2017 report from the Initiative for the Americas Fund. Even fishermen who abandoned the reefs and their cooperatives mostly opted for nets rather than blast fishing.

“Without the reefs, we wouldn’t be fishing right now, because there would be no fish,” said Matilde Salazar, vice president of Remansón, a fishing cooperative near the community of Santa Rosa.

Matilde Salazar, vice president of the Remansón fishing cooperative, fishes on an artificial reef in Jiquilisco Bay. Image by Max Radwin for Mongabay.

Refining reef fishing

As for the handful of fishermen in just about every community who still use explosives, it’s unclear what might convince them to stop. In some cases, the community has rallied around them in personal visits to their homes, laying out the arguments for and against blasting fishing. Officials have even subsidized living costs in order to facilitate a transition to artificial reefs. But occasional blast fishing continues.

One way to protect the bay, Salazar said, is to organize community patrols. His fishing cooperative has 21 members that pair off to monitor their reef in 24-hour shifts. Local NGOs like the Cincahuite Association and the Mangrove Association have helped fund the construction of small shelters that sit on the water, where the fishermen can rest, eat or wait out the rain while on monitor duty.

Fishermen still choosing to use explosives have to be more careful than ever. Normally, they venture out into the bay between January and May, and only after it rains, or when the water is especially clear so they can spot aggregations of fish.

Fishers rest in a lookout shelter during a 24-hour shift watching over the Remansón artificial reef. Image by Max Radwin for Mongabay.

The National Civil Police, park rangers and the Directorate General for the Development of Fisheries and Agriculture, among other government bodies, also carry out routine patrols, as well as special trips when fishermen report suspicious activity, such as torn-out mangrove trees. However, independent reports from NGOs in the area have noted that law enforcement is limited around the bay. It often lacks basic resources like computers and gasoline, which has made effective monitoring difficult.

Officials said it’s also important to monitor whether members of the fishing cooperatives themselves are using the reefs correctly. Immature fish are supposed to be thrown back. And nets are prohibited because they give fishermen an unfair advantage near the reefs. But a consistent, systematic way of monitoring all fishing practices — as well as the nuanced impacts on the life around the reefs — has not yet been developed.

“One of the things that we need to do in terms of monitoring is increase the competence of fishermen,” said Douglas Chica, policy and program manager for EcoViva, a California-based environmental NGO working in Central America. “We need to help improve competency at a community and scientific level, so that they can have the knowledge to monitor the amount of fish there may be, and the amount of environmental threats that might exist.”

One way to do that, Chica said, is to continue reinforcing the idea that the environmental state of the bay has a direct impact on the communities’ economic well-being. This way, fishermen have less of an incentive to return to using explosives, even on days when the reefs don’t provide enough fish to cover the cost of gas and bait.

Though the hard numbers from ongoing studies aren’t in, it’s clear to most fishermen that, even with artificial reefs, the bay has not fully recovered from years of blast fishing. Some of them have been forced to split their time between line-fishing the reefs and netting other areas.

Fish they do catch are sold through the local cooperatives to an intermediary, which resells the fish in San Salvador and other large markets. Because the intermediary can flip the price for more than double, most of the income generated from fishing Jiquilisco Bay does not end up in the fishermen’s pockets, according to the Mangrove Association.

Fishers on the Remansón fishing cooperative’s artificial reef. Image by Max Radwin for Mongabay.

NGOs in the area are currently helping communities invest in a marketing strategy for “clean fish” products, seafood caught sustainably on the reefs and never mistreated. The hope is that proper branding will allow the product coming out of Jiquilisco Bay to sell for more than the standard rate, returning additional funds to the communities.

Studies of fair prices and the possibility of building a center for the collection and commercialization of the “clean fish” are currently underway. Communities are on the verge of tapping into a regional market based in the nearby city of Usulután. A group of eight women from Jiquilisco Bay communities will be selling “clean fish” there for a higher price, approximately $2 for a Pacific red snapper instead of the standard $1.25.

“Clean fishing is the fundamental basis for the sustainability of the communities in the Jiquilisco Biosphere Reserve,” Chica said. “Commercialization of fishing is on the right track and every day there are more men and women who contribute to the activity, considering that cleaner fishing means better sustainability for the environment and for feeding families.”

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Article published by Rebecca Kessler
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