Sea Tenure and Conservation of Coral Reef Resources in Brazil

The people who depend on marine resources have been overlooked and the exploitative versatility of commercial interests has been underestimated.

The creation of the Parque Nacional Marinho dos Abrolhos (National Marine Park of the Abrolhos) in 1983 was a praiseworthy advance toward the protection of the largest concentration of coral reefs along the coast of Brazil. Threatened by dredging, blasting, overfishing, oil pollution and the extraction of coral, two areas have been delimited in which hunting, fishing, or other interference with the natural ecosystem are prohibited. Despite the good intentions of the Brazilian authorities, the plan is based on some fundamental misconceptions about the relationship between people and their environment. The geographical limits of the Abrolhos Park do not coincide with the natural boundaries of its ecosystem; the people whose existence depends on its marine resources have been overlooked; and the exploitative versatility of commercial interests has been underestimated.

The Abrolhos

Portuguese colonial navigators feared the jagged coral reefs at the coast of southern Bahia and aptly called them the Abrolhos, a contraction of the warning abre os olhos (open your eyes). Although the whole reef area is generally known by this name, it properly applies only to a group of five small islands (Santa Barbara, Redonda, Siriba, Sueste and Guarita) - the Abrolhos Archipelago, located at lat. 17°51'S, long. 38°41'W, 55 km. offshore. Reefs have grown around the islands, but the first main concentration of coral reefs lies at 3 km. east of the Archipelago. The Parcel dos Abrolhos is a group of elongated reefs that occupies an area of 20x5 km. The second formation is located at a distance of 10-15 km. along a 100 km. stretch of the curved shoreline. The largest continuous reef. Parcel das Paredes, is 25 km. long and 15 km. wide. Other patch reefs, such as the Recites das Timbebas, Pedra Liza, Recites Sebastiao Gomes, Coroa Vermelha, and Recifes de Viçosa, have diameters of 3-9 km. The shallow area surrounding the barely submerged reefs has a depth of less than 20 meters and is excellent for scuba diving, and recreational and professional fishing. The National Marine Park encompasses the Archipelago, the Parcel dos Abrolhos, and the Recifes das Timbebas. The exclusion of most of the second formation of coral reefs and the related habitats betrays a misunderstanding of the area's ecology that could have been avoided if knowledgeable fishermen had been consulted.

The Marine Environment

The fishermen of the extreme south of Bahia identify six ecological zones in what they see as one ecosystem. The zones are characterized by distinct geomorphic features, sediments, vegetation, depth and marine species. The six areas are: 1) the river; 2) the mangroves; 3) the tidal zone; 4) mudbanks; 5) coral reefs; and 6) the edge of the continental shelf. The first three zones are economically of less importance than the remaining three. Pollution and overfishing have reduced fresh water stocks considerably, and the collection of crustaceans and mollusks is hard, unrewarding labor. Catches in the tidal zone have - declined so much that there are less than ten beach seines left in the entire region. Canoe fishermen fish with gill nets and handlines at the many mudbanks near the coast and along the western side of the arch of coral reefs. Rich in shrimp and prawns, the mudbanks are also exploited by 7-10 meter trawlers. Multipurpose boats fish in the waters around the offshore coral reefs with stationary gill nets, drift nets, and handlines. Finally, 11-15 meter boats that fish exclusively with baited hooks frequent the edge of the continental shelf and the reefs near the Abrolhos Archipelago.

Negative Consequences of the Park

Fishermen are worried about the prohibition of fishing in the designated areas. The restrictions, difficult to enforce, would deprive fishermen of marine resources whose reproduction is hardly endangered by their small-scale techniques. It is the large vessels, with 20 or more fishermen, which have been primarily responsible for the depletion of fish at the coral reefs of the Parcel dos Abrolhos. These boats come from Pörto Seguro, Ilhéus, Conceiçao da Barra, and as far as Salvador and Vitória, to fish for 3-4 weeks. Local people think of these fishermen as pirates who with superior techniques endanger future fish stocks. Regional boats, on the other hand, remain at sea for 7-10 days with 6-man crews. These local liners are most seriously affected by the Marine Park. Such boats have a limited operation range: storage holds are small; ice to preserve fish seldom lasts more than a week; fresh water and fuel supplies are limited; few boats have adequate nautical instruments; and the captains are familiar only with the traditional fishing grounds. Furthermore, the coastal communities in this region border on an exceptionally large protrusion of the continental shelf that at its most extreme point exceeds 200 km. beyond the average 40 km. of neighboring areas. The shortest distance to parts of the continental slope is 80 km. Hence, multipurpose boats that in other states would be suitable to fish at the slope are at the Abrolhos confined to the coral reefs, while larger boats can only reach a small portion and therefore need to explore the waters around the Archipelago. Enforcement of the conservation legislation will lower the productivity of the local liners, inducing financial loss with severe repercussions on hundreds of fishermen and their families. Fishermen on canoes and small boats living in Prado and Alcobaça will be strongly affected by the fishing prohibition at the Recites das Timbebas. Consequently, the current technical diversity will disappear. Trawlers and small multipurpose boats will emerge as the only viable vessels. Ecologically adaptive canoe fishing techniques in Prado and Alcobaça will become obsolete, usable marine resources will be left untouched, and canoe fishermen will shift to boats and increase the pressure on the coastal zone (the Parcel das Paredes and other coral reefs excluded from the park). Despite directions from the SUDEPE (Agency for the Development of Fishing), fishermen will be using larger nets with smaller meshes to counter the declining productivity. Furthermore, the theft of coral in unregulated areas continues, and sport divers and fishermen from all over Brazil are now coming to Alcobaça, Caravelas and Nova Viçosa to enjoy the suddenly popular "park," Abrolhos.

An Alternative Approach

A comprehensive conservation plan of the Abrolhos must both regulate the natural environment and secure the livelihood of the people in the region. The National Marine Park must encompass the entire area shown in the map. Islands, coral reefs, sedimentary banks, estuaries, mangroves, tidal flats and rivers are dynamically interrelated habitats in a biological continuum. The exclusion of a few zones will affect the environment as a whole.

Conservation must not place an embargo on all human activity but must prevent destructive exploitation, while regulating economic activities through limited entry. Limited entry implies that the licensed fishing effort does not exceed the carrying capacity of the ecosystem. The following measures must be taken to guarantee the preservation of the park. One, all vessels registered in harbors outside the region should be banned from the park. Two, all local boats and canoes must embark, disembark, anchor and be registered in the same harbor. These two measures, together with a prohibition on the dredging of rivers and estuaries, will prevent the transfer of large boats to regional harbors, because the shallow waterways do not allow the entry of vessels with a heavy draft. Three, the existing fleet may not expand or be modernized without prior permission from the proper authorities. Four, boats may only employ local fishermen. These measures serve to restrict the influx of external capital and of boat owners and fishermen from other regions. Five, there must be strict gear specifications concerning mesh size, height, length, and type of nets allowed. These regulations may prevent fishermen from depleting their own resources. In 1983, when the National Marine Park of the Abrolhos was established, liners began experiment with trawl nets as a means to diversify their fishing methods in anticipation of eviction, as they regarded it, from traditional fishing grounds. The nets were borrowed from small trawlers and were obviously inadequate, obliging interested owners to buy larger trawl nets. Gear restrictions will restrain such increased pressure on ecological zones through the adoption of technically more advanced equipment. Six, economic assistance in the form of small loans must be given to canoe fishermen to secure the technical diversity and guarantee a balanced utilization of the park's resources.

Finally and most significantly, conservation plans and marine parks will not function if the local people do not play a role in management and maintenance. The monitoring of over one thousand fishermen, a large sea space and hundreds of vessels distributed in four towns and a dozen smaller communities is not feasible in a country with limited financial means. Conservation will only be successful if it is firmly grounded in grass-roots organizations that sanction the regulations and are willing to uphold them. A policy of limited entry is consistent with traditional forms of sea tenure and would therefore be acceptable to local fishermen. Territorial claims to fishing locations in estuaries, rivers and mangroves have always existed. Competing corporate groups of canoe fishermen still defend fishing spaces along the coast of the Abrolhos Park with physical force. These divisive tendencies for an ever-diminishing fish stock may be turned to the general good by giving people legitimate rights to those resources. It is inevitable these persons will report trespassers, enforce gear restrictions, ensure the maintenance of the corporate property and reap the benefits from tourism and research. They have the moral right, as poor, lower-class citizens with few alternative employment possibilities, to wrest a living from the sea that dominates their lives. However, their actions must be circumscribed by ecological guidelines designed to prevent the ruin of the environment for short-term economic gain. National parks are singular because of the uniqueness of their flora and fauna. They must be preserved for their intrinsic value as marvels of creation, as precious strands of evolutionary diversity. However, conservation must also be responsible toward society. The interests of the poor cannot be ignored to accommodate environmental objectives defined by planners and legislators who are insensitive to the rights of fellow men living near unique natural reserves. Nature and society are interrelated, and the disregard of one betrays a feigned concern for the other.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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