Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Fishermen in a small boat casting a fishing net in Baja California Sur, Mexico
Some nonprofits use an economic tool known as a debt-for-nature swap to encourage conservation efforts. Photo by KirkHewlett/Alamy Stock Photo

A New Idea to Save Endangered Fish: Pay Fishermen to Retire

Can paying off Mexican fishers’ social security give them the peace of mind they need to work more sustainably?

Authored by

by Jackie Snow

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There are approximately 88,000 artisanal fishers working in the Gulf of California’s productive fisheries, who together catch a third of Mexico’s seafood. Many of these fishers, and the 2,400 communities they help feed, are aware of the stresses this puts on the environment. Like many coastal ecosystems, the gulf is overfished—only seven percent of fish species have populations at sustainable levels. Many of these same fishers would rather retire or fish more sustainably, but don’t feel like they have a choice.

In Mexico, a person’s employer pays a portion of their social security payments, which cover things such as healthcare and pensions. But for self-employed people, contributions are optional. Almost 80 percent of local fishers work in the informal economy and many are unable to pay into the country’s social security services. Even if they are part of a cooperative, which can make payments for its members, few are profitable enough to cover the costs. Unable to rely on old-age pensions or medical coverage, many fishers are forced to catch more fish and stick at the job longer, amplifying the pressure on the ecosystem.

The Mexico branch of the Nature Conservancy (TNC), a charitable organization, is working on an ingenious way to address these challenges. The group is exploring using a financial tool called a debt-for-nature swap (DNS) that would pay off fishers’ social security debts if older fishers agree to retire, and younger fishers agree to fish more sustainably.

“[Fishers] are always telling NGOs that they really want to engage in conservation … But they have a lot of other priorities,” says Meredith de la Garza Treviño, the oceans program director for TNC’s Mexico and northern Central America program and the lead organizer for the Gulf of California project.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) first developed DNSs in the 1980s, when countries in Latin America were dealing with huge debts they could not repay. The WWF cut them a deal: the organization bought up the countries’ debts and forgave them when they completed conservation work. Since then, DNSs have been primarily used for land-based projects, mostly involving protecting forests. The financial tool is now being repurposed for marine conservation.

In 2018, TNC launched the Seychelles sovereign blue bond, which paid off US $22-million of the island nation’s debt in exchange for protecting a third of its marine area—nearly 650,000 square kilometers. This year, the United States reauthorized the Tropical Forest Conservation Act and included a DNS program that, despite the act’s name, makes coral reefs eligible for the first time.

TNC’s Gulf of California program, called the Social Wellbeing and Sustainable Fisheries Fund, is unique in that it works with communities instead of governments. DNSs have been critiqued in the past for neglecting the impacts on local populations, which are often Indigenous and poor. By involving communities directly, the project’s organizers are aiming to help people and the environment at the same time.

But intersectional projects can be hard to fund. NGOs and other donors worry about trying to move too many needles at once, according to Heather Tallis, the global managing director and lead scientist for strategy innovation at TNC.

To change that, she helped start the Bridge Collaborative, a nonprofit designed to support projects that help people and the environment with research and activism and also provide small loans, such as the one granted to de la Garza Treviño. “The solutions are unlikely to come from one sector or one viewpoint if we want to make major progress,” Tallis says.

More projects like the Gulf of California DNS are coming. Over the past five or six years, as land-based conservation opportunities for DNSs have begun to dry up, there has been growing interest in translating the model to marine ecosystems, according to Michael Beck, a marine conservation researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“It became clear to a lot of people that there was both a need and an opportunity in the marine environment,” Beck says.

De la Garza Treviño says the next steps in the Gulf of California project include focusing on a few case studies to understand the feasibility of the program, assessing how willing the fishers are to participate, investigating whether the government would be open to eventually contributing resources, and studying the expected sustainability outcomes. She and her colleagues are carefully collecting data that they plan to share with others interested in similar projects.

“If this works,” she says, “it’s going to be replicable.”