Expert Q&A: Joanna Alfaro
Life is not easy for sea turtles foraging along Peru’s 1,865 mile coastline. Though food sources are abundant, so too are opportunities to be taken as bycatch by the thousands of artisanal fishers that dot these coastal waters. Dr. Joanna Alfaro has made it her life’s mission to protect these sea turtles, along with other marine species for which bycatch is a primary threat. As president of the non-profit organization Pro Delphinus, Joanna directs projects related to the research and conservation of sea turtles and other threatened and endangered marine species. Much of Pro Delphinus’ work revolves around empowering local fishing communities–with knowledge and tools—to engage in conservation by preventing and properly releasing bycatch. Pro Delphinus’ staff of 18, which includes local fishing boat captains, works both at sea, on boats with fisherman, and on land, within fishing communities.
Joanna has been fully committed to conservation since early years working as a field researcher at fishing ports along the Peruvian coast. Spending time with small fishing villages taught her the importance of the collaboration between community, researchers, and government at dealing with conservation matters. In 2012, Joanna won a Whitley Award for her conservation work with small-scale fisheries. She is a member of the IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group and a sectorial representative to the Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles. She also teaches at the Faculty of Marine Biology at Universidad Científica del Sur in Lima.
Sea turtles worldwide face a number of human-induced threats. Is bycatch the greatest threat to sea turtles in your region?
Yes. Five of the world’s seven sea turtle species can be found in Peruvian waters: leatherback, hawskbills, loggerheads, olive ridleys, and green. These turtles are here because they are foraging in our waters. The upwelling in the Humboldt Current provides a great abundance of food for them. Of these five species, two are [listed on the IUCN Red List as] critically endangered, which means that they are pretty close to extinction: the leatherback and the hawskbill. Of those two, the leatherback is the species that worries us the most. There are only a couple hundred in the Eastern Pacific. We see them every now and then, but the way we see them is when they are part of incidental bycatch.
In the waters of Peru, how does the impact of bycatch that occurs with industrial fleets compare to the impact of bycatch by artisanal fleets.
In Peru, we have both industrial and small-scale fisheries. The industrial fleets have fewer boats, and they are fishing mostly with purse seines for anchovies. They have events of bycatch, but it is not happening every single trip. With small-scale fisheries, almost every single trip will have an occurrence of turtle bycatch. If you compare the number of boats–1000 vessels for industrial fisheries, and over 9000 vessels for-small scale fisheries–you can get an idea of the impact that comes from small-scale guys.
Working with local fishing communities anywhere to address the threat of bycatch must be challenging, and you are doing so in one of the world’s largest fisheries, where artisanal fishing is deeply connected to the economy and culture, and where there may be a history of unstainable fishing practices. What have you found to be the most effective way to work with artisanal fishermen to reduce sea turtle bycatch?
A key point is to work closely with the communities. Once they let us in, we do everything to not leave. With some conservation programs, you are there for the time funds last—a year or six months. What we try to do is remain connected to the community. We want to know what they’re doing; we want them to know what we’re doing; and we want to grow with them. We have been working in some communities for 10 years. Those are the relationships that help us keep going.
What is the key to “getting in” to these local fishing communities without being perceived as an outside enforcer?
Sometimes there is suspicion of outsiders. It has helped us to first try to get to know the people in the community at a different level—through the school, or a group of fishermen’s wives. It is also important that we state what our goals are, that we want to work with them, that what we are doing is for scientific purposes, and that we are not the government—we are not legislators or enforcers. All kinds of things cross their minds when they see a foreigner or outsider, and I understand that. Understanding their feelings and being clear about why we are there has helped. It’s also important to be there when they want information, and to help these communities in different ways: from schools to fishermen to local authorities.
I understand wanting to do everything not leave these communities when funding runs out, but sometimes funding does run out. How do you maintain the connection with the community?
In some communities, we don’t need to be there anymore because they are doing their own thing. They now know how to collect the data and what techniques to use for injured sea turtles. They now have the skills to run their own programs. But we still try to stay connected to the people. Funding might run low, but the connection remains. The work we do is about innovation, and every now and then we come out with an innovative way to stay connected with the community.
Why did you decide to include fishermen on the staff at Pro Delphinus?
Many of the boat captains here are naturally smart people. They may not have a degree, and they may not have gone to university, but they are natural thinkers and leaders in their communities. The results of working with these captains are very good, because we have a local person who has received training, who can provide feedback, and can continue with the program if we are not there.
Are these retired captains, or are they working as captains while they are also employed by Pro Delphinus?
In some cases they continue to be captains, in some cases they just work for Pro Delphinus, and in some cases, they may work as captains during high fishing season but work for Pro Delphinus during the other times of the year. So in that way, we become a resource for them because they have different options for work and for developing their skills.
How has Pro Delphinus helped build local capacity to carry out sea turtle conservation in Peru?
We have done workshops at different levels for different topics. For instance, ProDelphinus has a program on environmental education, where we train teachers so they can run their own programs based on the skills, materials, and knowledge that we can provide. Another way has been training fishermen on specific topics, such as teaching them how to release a turtle when they catch one in the boat, and how to put it an angle so it can expel water and not drown. All of those skills can be easily replicated when they are at sea. In our workshops, we are not trying to impose something that is very hard to implement. We are going with small changes in their behavior and in the way they fish so it can help their fisheries, but also the animals that are incidentally caught while they are working.
Are you also recording data that they share with you?
Yes, some of them have a self-reporting scheme, and they will call us or call the radio to report that they caught a sea turtle, or if they found a tagged animal to share that information.
Most of our readers likely have no idea what it is like to go out on a small fishing boat off the coast of South America and be with someone who makes their living fishing who encounters a sea turtle. Can you share a story from any of your trips at sea with small-scale fishermen that might help illustrate how Pro Delphinus made a difference in the life of a sea turtle and a fisherman?
There are so many stories. We were once talking to a fisherman about how turtles nest in other countries and come to Peru to forage, and he told us a story about a time in the past when he caught a sea turtle [and chose to keep it for meat]. When he cut it open, he saw that it had eggs inside. [He didn’t know until he opened up that turtle] that this animal was about to reproduce. He said he felt so bad, so helpless, and so sorry for getting in the way of nature doing its thing. His eyes welled up as he told us that he wanted to stitch back up the turtle. He said, “I didn’t know what to do. I wish I had known you before.”
In 2013 Pro Delphinus began a project to promote conservation of the Pacific leatherback, an animal that has become critically endangered in just the last 30 years, primarily because of bycatch—something Pro Delphinus addresses—but also because of harvesting of eggs. Egg harvesting does not occur in Peru because leatherbacks don’t nest there. Do you collaborate with organizations in the countries where they nest?
The 36th Annual Sea Turtle Symposium was just held in Lima this March. This was very exciting for us, because this meeting had never been held in South America. If you are working on sea turtles, this is a very good meeting to attend because you can visit with peers, see friends, and establish new collaborations. This year it was also a great opportunity to get together with others working in leatherback conservation. There was a special meeting for leatherbacks in which we brainstormed ways to make our collaboration more official and how to build and exchange the data we have and use it for something useful, like determining the number of leatherbacks we have to save every year to have the population [stabilize] or [increase]. There are also ways to get together remotely. Not everyone has a good Internet connection all of the time, but technology is improving.
Let’s talk about technology. In the 15 years since Pro Delphinus began working with sea turtles, there have been a lot of advances in technology. Has technology enhanced your sea turtle conservation efforts?
It all depends on the question [you want technology to answer]. You can find a tool that answers your question, and the technology can be either very inexpensive and basic, or very sophisticated and expensive. We try one of each every time. If we want to extrapolate that tool to small-scale fisheries, we need it to be reliable—it must answer the question—but also low-cost. The communities we work with do not have the economic resources to pay for expensive technologies. Over the last few years, we have tried LED lights on nets, a technology exported from NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, and that has reduced the bycatch of turtles. We have tried telemetry to know where turtles go after they forage in Peru. We have tried simple things like GPS devices to send positions where turtles are. We are exploring all kinds of ways to make technology available, adaptable, and accessible for small-scale fisheries.
Is there a case where you tested a technology that proved not to be effective for your goals?
Right now we are testing vessel monitoring systems for small-scale boats. These devices are installed in vessels, and they enable you to see–in video and images–the position of the vessel, the type of catch, and any bycatch. If the image is clear enough, you can even see this information at the species level. You can get a lot of data out of it. There is fantastic engineering for this technology in for industrial vessels, but for small boats it is still in development. In that case, it is a bit of a headache, but it is something that we needed to try. For the small guys, there are not many solutions out there, so we have to give it a shot.
Pro Delphinus works on the conservation of several other marine animals, like whales, sea birds, sharks, etc. Are there programs that address sea turtles along with other marine species?
When we work with sea turtles, it’s the same platform. We go to sea on a fishing trip, and we take notes on everything that is caught: turtles, sharks, mammals, sea birds, everything. We are basically using the same platform to study all of these animals, although the questions might be different for each of them.
In some cases, it is better to focus on one thing. For example, if we are doing a workshop for fishermen on handling and releasing turtles, we will, at the most, add seabirds. But we don’t cover all of the topics at the same time because the fishermen will be overwhelmed and it will be a long and boring talk! We want something that is short, gets to the point, and is not boring.
Pro Delphinus’ work includes community outreach in schools. What different audiences do you target with that outreach, and how do you tailor your tools appropriately?
For kids in primary school, it is best to talk about one animal at a time and use tools like coloring. If we are talking to kids in secondary school, who have a higher level of understanding, we can talk about the entire ecosystem. All kids love games, so that is another way to pass on the message that is fun and entertaining: they move their bodies rather than sit there listening to a biologist.
Before Pro Delphinus works with these communities, how much do people know or care about sea turtles? Do they know, for example, that these animals have been around for over 100 million years and have come from great distances?
Each person has his or her own perception of nature. Some are very sensitive to it, but others may not care too much. We try to target people who have a curiosity. Most of these fishermen are very curious. They see these animals, but they have no idea where they have come from or why they are there. For them, gaining that information is very cool. When they come back from their trip, they tell us, “You know the pictures you showed us in your presentation of that turtle? I saw that!” or “Some of these birds got entangled, but I released them because now I know they are coming from the Galapagos.”
It is really encouraging to work with those who are interested in the subject, and it can be a bit of a downer to work with the guys who don’t care. But those guys are important, and we need to pass on the message that they have a role in conservation. Something is going to get to the guy who doesn’t care. That’s when it is important to be there in the community and have a link of some sort for a long period of time—a long-term relationship. That is where the strength of Pro Delphinus rests. I know guys who, at the beginning, would close the door in my face if they could. But it took getting to their wives first, and then to them, and sitting with them and drinking tea or sharing a story. Now, some of them really get it. They know why [we need to protect marine animals]. But even if they don’t, they now have put a face of someone from Pro Delphinus next to the turtle, and that is very important. They may [engage in sea turtle conservation] not so much for the animal, but because they know that someone else cares for what is happening to the animal. That connection is very helpful.
Your organization began in 1995 with efforts to legally ban the take and consumption of dolphins in Peru. How did Pro Delphinus’ conservation work expand to include other marine fauna?
In 2001 [Pro Delphinus started a systematic assessment of turtle bycatch along the Peruvian coast. The study has provided valuable information on the species composition and mortality rates of sea turtles in artisanal longline fisheries.]. That is where the program really started growing. We’d do simple things like beach walks, and during the walks, we’d record not only turtles but sea birds. That was the first opportunity to gather sea bird stranding information. I work with my husband, Jeff Mangel, who is American. After he finished his Master’s degree at Duke, he got a Fulbright. That was a very important milestone because he brought all of these great ideas about how to grow the work of Pro Delphinus, and he was instrumental in preparing proposals. In the beginning, we would write everything in Spanish. When you try to translate [proposals] for a foundation, they may not make sense. We learned that simple things like technical language skills were—and are—so important to us.
Peru is one of the 15 contracting parties to the Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles, and you are a sectorial representative. In general, how effective do you think international treaties like this are in terms of protecting marine life?
What the Inter-American Convention has done, has been to get together these key parties—the governments of Peru, Chile, and others in the Americas—who now present their information every year. The Treaty is now passing resolutions, which means that they are highly recommending that the governments take specific actions. There are a couple of resolutions that the Convention has passed for leatherbacks, for example. If there is any species that the Convention is tackling in a very consistent way, it’s the leatherback. This is so much needed. [The Convention] is a good way to pass on [these recommendations] because the governments are not hearing them from researchers or from the media, but from their peers and neighbors.
Does the Sea Turtle Symposium coincide with the timing of the meetings of the Parties of the Convention?
Not usually. But at the Sea Turtle Symposium just held in Lima, where 700 people gathered to talk only about sea turtles for five days, and there was a group of people from the governments of the Americas who are part of the Inter-American Convention, including the Secretariat. They had several sub-meetings.
What is the most rewarding thing about your work at Pro Delphinus?
At the beginning, just getting a positive project was a great joy. At this point, the most satisfying thing is seeing the pieces come together more easily. In the beginning, we were young, unknown, and didn’t have the trust of some communities. Now, we are working with the communities, governments, other NGOs, international collaborators, and yet we’re able to grow.
Many of our readers may be involved in projects related to coastal resilience (designing living shorelines, restoring coastal habitat, planning upland stormwater management or natural wastewater treatment, etc.) Do you have any specific advice for them?
- Be guided by the rules of your local government, but also be aware that there are other animals inhabiting the coastline—from crabs to sea birds to sea turtles. You may not see them, but they are there. Be very careful of your standards of development.
- Stay involved with the communities you work with.
- Have a voice in your own community. Conservation has to be promoted among the young people in our families and society. I see so many young people living in a bubble. We have to make them come out of their bubble and be part of their community—not only the human community, but he community of the environment.