Lesson Learned the Hard Way #4: Learning from the Lobsters that Changed Women’s Lives

We never would have guessed that lobsters could change women’s lives. Conservation International Ecuador has been focused on the sustainable management of marine resources for the past 10 years, working with local partners to safeguard Ecuador’s amazing biodiversity. Throughout this time, we have seen the close connection between people and nature.  However, this story about lobsters and a community that depended on them for their livelihoods has had a profound impact on how CI Ecuador views what is needed to truly make sustainable change for both people and nature.

We have worked in the Galera-San Francisco Marine Reserve since 2010. It is a truly special place that is thought to have more species of fish, corals, jellyfish and mollusks than Ecuador’s world-famous Galápagos Islands. Unfortunately — like in many other places around the world — overfishing and destructive fishing practices threatened the health of the ecosystem and local livelihoods. CI started working in this reserve, supported by the government and local communities, to reverse that trend.

Conservation International. Galera-San Francisco Marine Reserve in Ecuador.

Although the reserve is rich in natural resources, poverty rates are high. It is located in Esmeraldas, one of Ecuador’s poorest provinces. Many families support themselves by fishing, some almost exclusively lobster. When CI arrived, overfishing had depleted lobster populations, and 98 percent of the lobsters caught were below the legal size. Because of the small numbers and high fishing rates, juvenile lobsters did not have enough time to develop and there was little chance for the species to rebound.

CI worked with local organizations and lobster fishermen to change fishing practices through the establishment of conservation agreements between Artelangosta (the fishermen’s organization), Nazca (a local partner) and CI. Conservation agreements are voluntary, negotiated agreements between individuals or communities and third parties to participate in conservation actions in exchange for agreed-upon benefits or services. Such benefits can include compensation for lost fishing wages and capacity-building trainings, as was the case in Galera-San Francisco. Collaboration with Nazca, an organization grounded in community engagement and research to support coastal biodiversity, was critical in supporting local management, technical capacity and enforcement of weak protections.

Once the association governing the agreement was established, results came quickly. The lobster populations grew, fishermen increased their support for a lobster no-take area, and the use of destructive fishing gear, namely small mesh nets, dwindled. At first, this was a happy story.

But this “success” also brought trouble.

Fishermen not involved in the conservation agreements also noticed that lobster populations had recovered and that the fishery was now more profitable. They began to fish lobster from the protected area, which resulted in conflict — including violent altercations — between the association members and the newcomers. In some cases, the wives of the fishermen not participating in the conservation agreements were so furious that they hit the men who sought to protect the lobster fisheries. After some days, lobster populations plummeted.

As a result, CI had to re-evaluate the project. We had to stop the conservation agreements and think about the things we were doing wrong. We tried to expand the conservation agreements to incorporate all the fisherman in this community and realized that it was important to start working with women. Unlike in many other fisheries around the world, this fishery value chain was comprised almost entirely of men — from fishing to processing to marketing. The handful of women who were involved with the association joined because their husbands, brothers or friends invited them and they were interested in knowing more about conservation and being involved in the fishery. Along with our local partner organization, we talked with men and women throughout the community. Our conversations highlighted that women:

  • played a vital role in the dynamics of the community, often encouraging their husbands to go fishing and distributing food among households when needed.
  • had little voice in decision-making processes in general. Their work was also undervalued in the community — by families, leaders and even women themselves. Because women’s contributions to the family, such as domestic work and food provision, are largely unpaid, they are virtually “invisible.”
  • felt an underlying presence of violence that permeated community structures. There was violence reported among fishermen, between fishermen and their wives, and from mothers to children.
  • wanted to have a role in the fishing value chain; however, those women involved in the lobster fishing association had difficulty paying the fees and lacked support from their husbands.

It was apparent that developing an approach that integrated the distinct roles and responsibilities of both men and women in the community and in the association was essential. This integrated approach considered social issues more broadly and sought to account for power dynamics. We also felt it was important to seek advice from local organizations with experience addressing domestic violence so people could get the help they needed.

CI also worked with women in the community, providing training on cooking and selling crafts and creating a small fund to finance their activities. Through this work, women have been able to generate additional income and promote their important role in the association.

Another important component was maintaining consistent dialogue with the lobster fishery association about how important it is to have both men and women as members to encourage good governance. Based on this experience, we realized that incorporating women into these activities was important for success because it ensures a better understanding of what is happening in the community. If you don’t recognize the role that women have in the community, the story is not complete.

A family residing near Ecuador’s Galera-San Francisco Marine Reserve. Diego is a member of Artelangosta; Anabel is also actively participating to strengthen the role of women in the association. Juan Carlos Medina, Nazca. Conservation International.

CI Ecuador recognizes that shifting this culture is a long process. However, there is a new sense of awareness, respect and engagement from men and women to make their community more resilient. This impacts how they use their marine resources, how decisions are made and how they treat one another. When this project began it was about lobsters, but it has turned out to be so much more. By using a more holistic view to expand the activities beyond traditional “conservation” actions, there will be a happy ending to this story in Galera-San Francisco, for people and nature.