By Georgina Aldana and Guillermo Pérez
Photographs taken by members of an artisanal fishing community in El Cuyo, Mexico
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Until 2018, El Cuyo, Mexico, was rich in sea cucumber. The lucrative fishery brought in an influx of people from surrounding towns and villages, unusual for an artisanal fishing community of 1,800 inhabitants. Residents of El Cuyo recall how large foreign vessels would park one after another, loading sea cucumbers until, one day, the sea cucumbers were gone. People left, jobs were lost, and earnings disappeared. The impact left the community aware of the dangers of overfishing and determined to protect its biodiversity, says Miguel Rivas, Habitat Campaign Director at Oceana in Mexico.
Today, spiny lobster is the main fishery in El Cuyo. But the lobster is becoming more difficult to find. Fishers must go greater distances and dive to deeper depths. Concerned the story of the sea cucumber could repeat itself, the fishers of El Cuyo set out to create a no-take zone, also known as a fisheries refugia — a highly restricted marine protected area that will protect the lobster, the species lobsters depend on, and the seagrass that serves as the lobsters’ habitat.
The fishers organized themselves and looked for allies. In 2021, they reached out to Oceana. Oceana’s experts facilitated workshops with the community about no-take zones through its habitat protection campaign and brought in scientists to conduct on-site research. El Cuyo has now formally requested that Mexico’s National Fisheries and Aquaculture Commission (CONAPESCA) establish a small no-take zone that will allow them to protect juvenile lobsters’ habitat and ensure
the future of local fishing, while also protecting the region from predatory tourist activity.
Instead of telling the story of El Cuyo from an outside perspective, Oceana’s team in Mexico asked members of the El Cuyo community, who live with the sea, to share their perspectives, explains Rivas. A photography workshop was born, with participants ranging from a woman who owns a small store in town to a 10-year-old who borrowed a cell phone to attend. “Using photography to support their cause, residents of El Cuyo showcase their unique perspectives, reflect on what the ocean means to them, and share it with the world,” Rivas says.
The photographs were displayed in an exhibition in Mexico City in January 2023, attended by media and the public, where they were sold to raise funds to support the no-take zone. Since then, the photos have traveled around the country, reaching more audiences and starting conversations about the importance of collaborations between local communities and organizations, fishers and scientists, to restore the abundance of the oceans.