Meet the ‘forest fishers’ restoring mangroves and livelihoods in Mexico

Meet the ‘forest fishers’ restoring mangroves and livelihoods in Mexico

  • Residents of the Mexican community of Costa de San Juan have restored more than 350 hectares (865 acres) of mangrove forest in the Alvarado Lagoon System in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • After deforestation and fires, the fishers and locals learned a new respect for the mangroves surrounding them.
  • Fishers have been working to diversify their incomes as well by exploring beekeeping, small-scale forestry, the pet trade, and ecotourism.

In the village of Costa de San Juan, mangroves still dominate the landscape. Located on the shores of the Alvarado Lagoon System in Mexico, village homes sit on the edge of water channels, and residents use canoes to get around. The village’s inhabitants, numbering fewer than 100 people, learned from their grandparents how to fish and live in this vulnerable ecosystem. However, they didn’t always value the area’s natural richness.

Declared a Ramsar site in 2014, the Alvarado Lagoon System is the third-largest wetland in Mexico. However, ranching, fires, clandestine logging and pollution have taken a toll on both the mangroves and water quality. Locals cleared mangroves here in spite of a 2007 wildlife law that banned removal, refilling, transplanting or any other activity affecting the integrity of the ecosystem’s water flow.

In 1976, the region had 21,150 hectares (52,263 acres) of mangrove forest, but by 2015 more than one-third of the forest had been destroyed, a loss of 7,418 hectares (18,330 acres), according to the study “Mangroves of Mexico/Extension, distribution and monitoring” by Mexico’s National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (Conabio).

Access to the Costa de San Juan community is only via boat. Image by Óscar Martínez.

The National Forest Commission (Conafor) estimates a loss of 149 hectares (368 acres) of mangrove per year in the Alvarado Lagoon System, which hosts six municipalities and more than 200 towns.

But mangroves here provide a number of ecosystem service.

“They are a refuge for young individuals of marine species. They help capture carbon; they act as a natural system to control floods and as a barrier against hurricanes and salt intrusion,” says Fernando Mota, with the NGO Pronatura. The group has been carrying out ecological restoration in the region for more than 10 years.

As mangroves disappeared, fishers and residents of the Costa de San Juan ejido, a communal land used for agriculture, started seeing the negative impact on their daily lives. That’s why, over the past five years, they’ve been working to recover the ecosystem, including planting more than 350 hectares (865 acres) of mangroves that were destroyed by forest fires and livestock ranching.

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Hundreds of birds in the Alvarado Lagoon. Image by Óscar Martínez.

Mangrove loss brings fishing losses

In 2011, a series of fires ripped through the Alvarado Lagoon System for a month. The community of Costa de San Juan, which relies on fishing blue crabs, shrimps, clams and other marine species, saw declines in their catches immediately after the fires.

Albino Fernández, a member of the local ejido, says that before the fire, cutting mangroves was a common practice among fishers. When fishing slowed, fishers turned to logging and selling timber from mangroves as another way to make money. But indiscriminate logging and fires had made a long-term impact.

“The first thing that we lost were streams, the water channels were covered with useless mangrove because it was burned,” Fernández says. “Fishing slowed down because mangroves are nurseries for the reproduction of other species and there were no more mangroves.”

Albino Fernández, one of the Costa de San Juan residents. Image by Óscar Martínez.

The Costa de San Juan ejido is located 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the city of Alvarado. The only way into the village is by speedboat through the mangroves. In the 1970s, 57 ejido members received the 1,455 hectares (3,595 acres) that make up their community from the federal government. A third of this area, 473 hectares (1,169 acres), is for common use, much of it lagoons and rivers.

The 2011 fires damaged more than 250 hectares (618 acres) of the village’s area. Combined with the 2007 ban on cutting mangroves, it prompted the ejido members ask themselves, “What are we going to do now?”

Recovering an ecosystem

After the fires, the ejido members contacted federal authorities to get support for the restoration of mangroves. Between 2017 and 2021, Conafor’s program for environmental compensation granted the community resources to reforest 252 hectares (623 acres) of mangrove forest devastated by the fires.

It was a huge undertaking. After the fire, the lack of mangrove trees prompted the growth of invasive species such as the southern cattail (Typha dominguensis), Browne’s India rosewood (Dalbergia brownei) and the Gulf Coast spikerush (Eleocharis cellulosa), making natural regeneration more difficult. In addition, water channels had become polluted due to a lack of caretaking and runoff from ranching.

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Locals remove invasive plants in a mangrove area. Image by Óscar Martínez.

Edel Fernández, one of the ejido members who led the reforestation work, described how challenging it was to open the water channels. The water was up to their neck, at times, he said, as they cleaned the streams and built chinampas to ensure the survival of the plants.

Chinampas are small mounds of earth that are used to grow crops in Mexico’s wetlands. Here, fishers used them to start mangrove seedlings and prevent them from sinking, thus allowing for the survival of the trees.

In all, fishers reforested 252 hectares of the lagoon, sowing 244,000 seedlings of three different mangrove species: white mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa), red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) and black mangrove (Avicennia germinans).

In addition, the ejido members cleared 9 km (5.6 miles) of vegetation, opening up more than 12 km (7.5 mi) of water channels in the region. They also built a perimeter fence to prevent the invasion of water hyacinth, and erected a new building for assemblies.

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Mangrove seedlings helped the mangrove forests expand. Image by Óscar Martínez.

Fishers say the seedlings in the first reforestation campaign had a survival rate of 70%. For the second round, they achieved a survival rate of up to 95%.

“We decided to use our own techniques. For example, we put mangrove organic waste on the chinampas … so that they would retain moisture. Then [we added the] seeds, so that even if they dried up, there would be possibility of growth,” Edel Fernández says.

Reforestation also created jobs for fishers in different lagoon communities. Héctor Mota Velazco, a local Conafor leader, says the new jobs prevented the migration of fishers looking for work and “gave them learning and awareness about the care and sustainable management of natural resources.”

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Edel, Albino and Venancio, residents of Costa de San Juan. Image by Óscar Martínez.

Valuing the mangrove

For the Costa de San Juan ejido members, restoring the mangroves was the first step toward building a new relationship with their surroundings. Apart from the reforestation, the community discovered that there was a way to sustainably use mangroves. To do this, they created an environmental management unit (UMA by its Spanish acronym) of 73 hectares (180 acres) in 2016.

It was a time of “much learning about how to live with the mangrove, how to have forest management,” says Venancio Fernández, the community commissioner. “It was [a time of] understanding it could [be a way to make a living] and conserving [the mangrove] at the same time.”

Now, the ejido has 40 locations for the sustainable use of mangroves. The ejido members grow white mangrove for its wood, sold to make fences and poles, with the earnings divided equally among ejido members.

Every six months, as part of the environmental management work, ejido members also monitor their mangroves: they count, measure and classify the trees in the territory. Conafor has granted them support for the development of community agroforestry with carpentry courses.

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Mangrove seedlings ready for reforestation. Image by Óscar Martínez.

Transforming paddocks into mangroves

In 2022, fishers got ready for a third reforestation planting that was even more ambitious: they set out to restore 102 hectares (252 acres) of ranching areas back into mangrove forest.

On a trip to the recently opened river channels, there are large areas that used to be ranching paddocks.

“This is the work we did. We opened the channels to be able to move about and do reforestation,” Albino Fernández says. “These areas will be donated as part of environmental conservation. People know that in five years they could be regenerated and they would obtain resources with conservation.”

Mota Velazco, the Conafor official, says this ejido’s successes are an example to follow. In spite of the damage caused by land-use change, fires, and invasive species, the mangroves are recovering due to conservation activities, the restoration of water flows, the elevation of ground level (with the chinampas), and induced reforestation.

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A view of a deforested area. Image by Óscar Martínez.

“We’ve achieved positive impacts with reforestation, for example, an increase in fishing production, the recovery of wildlife habitat, an expansion of the forest with the possibility of using it with forest management, increased retention of moisture in the soil, and ideal water functioning,” Velazco says.

Reforestation in the region has displaced up to 85% of secondary vegetation like southern cattail, the main competitor to mangroves, according to Conafor’s monitoring.

Fernando Mota from Pronatura says his NGO will work with 10 communities in the Alvarado Lagoon System on mangrove conservation and restoration this year. The challenge, he says, is to achieve balance between mangrove conservation and alternative economic activities for the community.

“The point is to influence people who are putting pressure on the mangroves, so that they see that mangrove recovery generates revenues and benefits their quality of life. They start being more aware of conservation,” he says.

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A great egret flying through the Costa de San Juan mangrove. Image by Óscar Martínez.

The future: A new management unit and ecotourism

The biggest restoration challenge is making sure the newly opened channels don’t get clogged again, according to locals. There are two benefits to keeping the channels open: it helps conserve mangroves and it allows access for potential tourism.

Fishers have been trying to diversify their income for a few years now. For example, they’re renting some of the common land for beekeepers to produce “mangrove honey.”

“Every year the ejido gets revenue by renting these spaces. We also installed an oven to make mangrove charcoal and sell it. It’s a project we are thinking of setting in motion,” says Venancio Fernández, who is also the president of the management unit.

Fishers are also evaluating proposals to generate carbon credits from their 73-hectare environmental management unit.

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The Costa de San Juan residents have installed a viewing platform. Image by Óscar Martínez.

“We are also considering the option of creating an environmental management unit for the painted turtle [Chrysemys picta]. There are four or five species of freshwater turtle,” Albino Fernández says. “Our intention is to conserve [the turtle] but also to trade them [for the pet market]. We have also thought about a project with the Morelet’s crocodile [Crocodylus moreletii] because there are a lot in this area.”

According to Fernández, these activities may bring additional economic options for fishers, especially during the season when shrimping is closed or in the rainy season, when fish catches decline.

Venancio Fernández, a resident of Costa de San Juan and president of the management unit. Image by Óscar Martínez.

Venancio Fernández says their perception of the mangrove forest has changed since they became aware that the ecosystem is vital for their economic activity.

“The mangrove is our life. If there wasn’t a mangrove, we wouldn’t have a life, we wouldn’t have all this,” he says. “The mangrove won’t end, if little by little we stop ranching activities and we use [the mangrove] while conserving it, that will benefit everyone.”

Albino Fernández, the ejido’s secretary, defines himself as a “forest fisher,” a term that the fishers in this community invented to explain the connection between the mangrove ecosystem and fishing in the lagoon.

“We are the children of the mangrove. We were born here; this is our life. What we do has a double benefit: it improves fisheries, it gives us jobs, but we also give air to the world, we are restoring the Earth’s lungs.”

Banner image: Costa de San Juan in the Alvarado Lagoon System. Image by Óscar Martínez.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on June 14, 2022.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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