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Almost a decade ago, the fishing community of Marcona discovered the ocean was washing up opportunities in the form of seaweed.  Now, in a cooperative manner, the fishers have become guardians of biodiversity and agents of change for their community.

Almost a decade ago, the fishing community of Marcona discovered that the ocean was washing up opportunities in the form of seaweed. Sargassum, a resource previously regarded as a pest, has been transformed into a source of nourishment, into a new way of working, and into a new form of progress. Now, in a cooperative manner, the fishers of Marcona have become guardians of biodiversity and agents of change for their community.

Their coast has a special attribute: it is the world’s main site of upwelling. Mass movements of rising cold water carry with them huge quantities of nutrients from the seabed to the surface. Thanks to this, biological production is very rich and varied. But it is also quite fragile.

There are two natural protected areas located in this ecological zone—the San Fernando Reserve and Punta San Juan. There is also a co-managed area, which houses a flagship demonstration pilot project (DPP) established by UNDP in the framework of the jointly-managed GEF Humboldt Project: the Aquatic Ecosystem Recovery and Sustainable Biodiversity Use project. Included among its objectives is the development of productive opportunities through organized and integrated teams of individuals. 

An organized community

Around 600 fishers live in Marcona and exploit its abundant marine life. They have formed 16 associations, which in turn consist of two federations: offshore fishers, who extract fish from their boats; inshore fishers, who live off resources closer to the coast. Together, they have formed the Marcona Artisanal Fishing Community (COPMAR).

 “The DPP is a program that we put together in 2000 following the hardship we experienced during the 1990s.  We took a model that was being applied in Chile, where a legal instrument issued to artisanal fishers enabled them to administer their own area ”. Manuel Milla, Copmar Vice President

The idea is that each respective association is allocated an area that it must care for in exchange for the benefits it receives from sustainably extracting the resources.

“It is not a license. We are talking about spaces for use. Here we have a duty. Not just to the district or to Peru. But to the planet. The duty is to take care of the resources needed for artisanal fishing”. Manuel Milla

From menace to treasure

The fishers in this part of Peru have learned to exploit a resource that was previously derided. Sargassum (or macrosystis pyrifera) is an underwater plant which, when its life cycle ends, detaches from the sea floor and floats away, drifting until it starts to accumulate along the coast.

Sargassum was regarded as a menace by the fishermen because it would rot on the shore and attract mosquitoes and vermin. That all changed with discovery of a thriving market for the seaweed. This led the fishermen to organize themselves to collect and sell it.

The product of sargassum has a myriad of applications. Some of its components become inputs in the production of processed foods, such as ice cream and baby food. It is used in the pharmaceutical industry for the treatment of obesity, and is being studied to see if some of its properties could help with the treatment of diabetes. Its high sugar content can also be used in the production of biofuels, such as ethanol.

“Because of the seaweed, we have a livelihood which has enabled me to educate my children. The oldest has just graduated in mechanical engineering and the second is studying law”. Antonia Apaza, inshore fisher from the Noah’s Ark Association.

Development and opportunities here are blind to gender. Antonia is not the only woman. There are ten others in her association. They have the same rights and responsibilities as the men. “We all work together.  There is no discrimination here”, Antonia says, with a big smile.

A virtuous circle

To the north of Marcona, the San Fernando Natural Protected Area is a huge reserve that hosts populations of sea lions, Humboldt penguins, and guano birds. This ecological sanctuary has recovered its population of mammals and birds. Thanks to the use of seaweed, the pressure on the fishers has diminished considerably. With the collection of seaweed becoming a new source of income, they no longer have to rely solely on the extraction of fish. This in turn is generating a reduction in the pressure on the resource. It also means greater well-being for other species.

"We used to go out in the boats and use ghost nets. We had to fight with the sea lions because they tore the nets to take our fish. Now we are friends with the sea lions and birds again. We don’t affect anything. All thanks to passive collection." Felipe Cahuana Sea, President of the Offshore Fishers Association, APROMAR.

Members of the fishing community now dream of building a fishing complex where they will be able to collect and process the seaweed, with a dock to repair their boats, and a plant to process the shellfish they collect from the beaches. 

The experience of Marcona is proof that, if is cared for and treated responsibly, the sea can provide people with a livelihood and development.Text: Andrés Velarde / Photo: Mónica Suárez - UNDP Peru

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Sustainable fisheries