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Photographer Ocean Voices: Reflections From Conservationist Mike Markovina

Following the Trail of Good Uses of Marine Resources

 

Mike Markovina

No part of the ocean today is safe from potential overexploitation of its resources. Current data suggests that approximately 100 million tons of fish are known to be removed from the ocean annually. At this level of exploitation, sustainability of particular fish populations is questionable. Although much work has been done examining the state of fisheries through various disciplines, the public perception of the state of the world's marine resources is often limited, and only recently have people started to realize the potential catastrophic nature of marine resource exploitation.

This was the impetus for the Marine Resource Expedition. The project was conceptualized in the jungles of Gabon in June 2007, while I was working for Wildlife Conservation Society. My work included skippering the compliance vessel for the Mayumba National Park, approaching and apprehending illegal, underreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing vessels on behalf of the Gabonese Parks Authority and Ministry of Fisheries. The work was challenging and often depressing, with particular respect to the repercussions of IUU fishing. During the long, humid, candlelit evenings photographer Linda Schonknecht and I contemplated an ambitious project to drive around the world and document in photographs and on film the positive side of marine resource use.

Girl in Benin market

Women play critical roles in markets in Benin in West Africa, an important element in understanding the importance and role of fishing in the coastal community. Marine Resource Expedition

The Marine Resource Expedition would focus on marine protected areas, their successes or failures and their impacts on society. We would also call upon information from all stakeholders—from fishermen, government, conservation organizations and industry—to understand holistically the state of a resource and to document positive conservation initiatives associated with that resource. We also are gauging biodiversity by observing different habitats in and outside marine protected areas. Finally, we are looking at aquaculture and its associated impacts on economies and society.

This decision to make such a documentary was based on the inspiring local eco-guards we worked with who despite the odds, both environmentally and politically, work tirelessly to try to conserve their marine heritage. We wanted to tell their story on a global scale, ultimately inspiring others to get involved in positive marine resource use initiatives.

It took one year to find support and gather the necessary equipment needed for such a venture, but finally on August 25, 2008, the Marine Resource Expedition (officially powered by Fujifilm) drove out of our driveway in Betty's Bay in Cape Town, South Africa, on a two-year quest to drive through Africa, Europe and Asia. To date, we have covered various projects and initiatives in Namibia, Congo, Gabon, Benin, Senegal, Morocco, Spain, Norway, Russia, Siberia, Japan and China. Along the way, we have been continuously humbled and impressed by the great people we met doing incredible work, despite often overwhelming odds.

Child carrying turtle shell
Josea Dossou-Bodjrenou, from the organization Nature Tropicale, worked with local leaders of Benin to inspire turtle conservation on their shores. During a festival for the turtles, some children can be seen carrying turtle shells. Marine Resource Expedition

In Benin, the government is unable to enforce control with respect to fisheries. But the people of Benin respect and adhere to the laws of Voodoo. We joined Josea Dossou-Bodjrenou, an inspiring man from the organization Nature Tropicalé, who has gathered interest among the Voodoo leaders to establish Benin's first marine protected area. We gained further understanding of the importance of fish to the community and the fishermen who travel from nearby Togo, Ghana and Senegal to follow moving fish populations.

In Senegal, locals have turned to the ocean to make a living, as the peanut crops have failed and the land has become more and more infertile. This has led to an artisanal fishing sector exploding within the last five years, and is currently operating at an industrial level. Nobody knows how much fish is being caught, or how many pirogues are actively fishing. Estimates range from the 30,000 pirogues the Senegal government suggests to two million according to residents, but who is correct? Then how do we observe the fish caught and generate reliable data on which fisheries managers can base their decisions? Currently the government does not have data regarding the fishery after 2006. We discussed this problem with the Haider El Ali, from the organization Oceanium. This is one incredible man: during his more than 50 years of dedicating his life to conservation in Senegal, he has replanted trees in southern Senegal's mangrove forest, created upward of 11,000 jobs and conducted shark education programs in villages where most people are too scared to go. His answer to problems was simple: "If people are the problem, then people are the solution."

Children pick up fish
On the border of Senegal and Mauritania, children pick up what falls off the boats, as every fish is valuable. Marine Resource Expedition

Some progress on artisanal monitoring may have come out of NOAA's International Fisheries Observer and Monitoring Conference this past July, to which we were invited to relay some of our expedition. Because of a discussion we had had with the director of fisheries in Morocco, we managed for a Moroccan delegation also to be invited to the conference for the first time, and they were able to highlight fisheries observer programs in Morocco. We also motioned for the next conference to feature a workshop on how to monitor and observe artisanal fisheries in developing countries, as artisanal fisheries influence world fishery catches and landings.

During our time in Norway, we learned about some excellent laws and management plans, which if implemented in Africa, may be influential in solving some common issues. Some of the solutions include fishermen setting the price of fish and dynamic marine areas, where levels of protection are based on catch composition. For example, areas would be closed to fishing vessels when the catch proportion within the net is greater than 15 percent juvenile fish and all discards would be banned. Lastly, Norway has placed financial value on all fish, including those not caught. The result of these efforts is reflected in the abundant fish populations.

The key to the success of the expedition thus far has to be the use of imagery: People think in pictures, not sentences, and pictures cross all language barriers and evoke emotions and feelings. We look forward to continuing our journey as we head into Vietnam, India, Oman, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and ultimately back home to South Africa. Please feel free to contact us regarding fisheries initiatives along our route, or comment on what we have done and observed thus far.


Mike Markovina co-leads the Marine Resources Expedition with fellow photographer Linda Schonknecht. Markovina has a masters degree in ichthyology and fisheries science from Rhodes University South Africa. After working on leatherback turtle conservation and fisheries management projects for the Mayumba Marine Park in southern Gabon, he and Schnoknecht have begun a two-year expedition using photography and film to illuminate the positive uses of marine resources they can find across Africa, Asia and Europe. Follow their journey at www.marine-expedition.co.za. Markovina also can be contacted at mike@marine-expedition.co.za.