THE FAIRER SIDE OF CONSERVATION: HOW WOMEN CAN ALLEVIATE OVERFISHING

Small-Scale Fishing in India

By Annam Raza
Contributing Writer

When nomadic humans first began to settle down, they exchanged their wandering lifestyles for more sedentary ones. This settlement did not occur in one place; these so-called cradles of civilization sprang up all across the world, from the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East to the Andes in South America. They did all have one thing in common: they tended to form near bodies of water. As a result, alongside hunting and agriculture, fishing was one of the primary ways to obtain food. As societies advanced, fishing became a specialized skill, creating a community and culture around it.

Fast forward to modern day: industrialization rapidly expanded fishing, and technological advances meant that small-scale fisheries were eclipsed. Our newfound ability to catch large amounts of fish, back when there was a relatively pristine ocean, led to overfishing, depleting the ocean of its once plentiful resources. In the 1800s, we almost hunted whales to extinction. By the 1950s, Atlantic cod and herring, as well as California sardines, suffered a similar fate. The privatization of fisheries led to unequal distributions of marine resources, but despite this, the small-scale fishermen, entwined with history and culture, continued to fish. It was all they knew, but in a fishing market saturated with competition, this created a cruel self-perpetuating cycle: impoverished fishermen would harvest too much from the sea, making overfishing worse, but they had no alternative forms of livelihood.

Today, overfishing is one of the biggest problems faced by marine conservation, alongside pollution and climate change. Commercial fishing needs to be assiduously monitored, as its methods result in large amounts of by-catch and rapid depletion of resources, but the same does not apply to small-scale fisheries. Although they do contribute to the problem of overfishing, the solution is not to shut them down; the livelihood of 12 percent of the world depends on them, and they employ 90 percent of the world’s capture fishers and fish workers. Fisheries and aquaculture are the source of 17 percent of the animal protein consumed in the world and up to 50 percent in some Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and Asian countries. Although small-scale fishers supply most of this food, their own families are often too poor to afford food. To overcome this paradox, as well as reduce the impact of small-scale fisheries on overfishing, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) collaborated with governments to develop a set of ‘Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication.’ One particular emphasis within the guidelines stands out: the role of women in fisheries.

Women are severely overlooked in fisheries, despite making up a significant percentage of the work force – almost 46 percent, according to some statistics. They are involved in pre- and post-harvesting work, as well as other forms of aquaculture such as collecting mollusks using hand nets, and managing households when men are away at sea. Despite their quiet (but clearly significant) contributions, they are rarely economically remunerated, and relegated to a lower socioeconomic status. By neglecting to include them in development and support systems, policies reduce their chances of breaking the cycle of poverty, but their importance in households is undeniable.

One of the strategies to curtail overfishing focuses on this importance: instead of urging men to find alternative forms of employment, women should be offered microcredit, providing them with resources to find food, and money, elsewhere.

What is micro-credit?

Founded in 1983 in Bangladesh, Grameen Bank decided it would extend small loans to impoverished people without collateral, a credit history or proof of steady employment. 95% of the bank’s loans are to women, although they are not necessarily gender specific. Although intended to help alleviate poverty in cities and agricultural communities, this theory could easily be adapted to suit coastal communities.

Not only would this help alleviate overfishing, it would also benefit the women. It would encourage them to develop their entrepreneurial instincts, and allow them to be more creative. More often than not, they cannot afford an education, but this would give them the liberty to exercise their intellectual muscles. This, in turn, would strengthen their presence in communities, allowing them to be acknowledged as visible strongholds. It is foolishly optimistic to think it would overcome gender inequality, but it would certainly help reduce it, and having actual capital to work with, their worth would be quantifiable. Over time, as they focus more on external avenues of income, women would be less inclined to have more children, as they would have a concrete reason to have smaller families. This could help address another problem plaguing our planet: overpopulation. The intrinsic education that would come along with learning to manage a small business would hopefully spill over into the awareness of a smaller family being a smarter idea. Over time, this could lead to better education, and eventually, the widespread adoption of contraception, which would again, reduce the population explosion prevalent in so many developing countries

Research suggests that women have better repayment skills, and focusing on helping women is favorable for societal improvement. As they also tend to have longer life expectancies than their husbands, they are usually the dominant gender in old age, replacing the men as heads of households. These schemes often allow for intelligent women that have been overlooked to shine in their own right, while still assisting their community.

This strategy is not merely theoretical; it has succeeded already. In Zambia, 700 women from the village of Mbete turned away from fishing the shores of Lake Tanganyika, as they simply could not turn a profit. Zambian fishermen used to be able to catch Buka Buka (Lates stapperssii) throughout the year, but by the mid-1990s, the fish were only rarely caught between April and October. Alongside this, the steep slops of the lake resulted in erosion and sedimentation loss. The importance of the maintenance of Lake Tanganyika, which provides a livelihood for 7 to 10 million people, resulted in the introduction of a revolving fund in 2009, which enabled those 700 women to receive small loans. Initially, they started by planting rice, but the success of their efforts has supported expanded efforts in poultry farming, vegetable gardening and fishpond farming. They even plant cena and pinecones to alleviate the effects of erosion. An initial investment of $60 has resulted in a yearly return of $279, allowing these women to feed their families and send their children to school.

And this was in Zambia. Modern microfinance has humble roots, but since starting in Bangladesh, it has slowly spread across the world. In 2006, the Microcredit Summit Campaign was founded, and members have pledged to end poverty by 2030. The 2014 summit will be held in Merida, Mexico, but there is a very similar one much closer to home; for the past eight years, a microfinance summit was hosted right here in San Diego by the San Diego Microfinance Alliance. The Alliance aims to educate people about microfinance, and contribute to alleviating global poverty. The change will not be a sudden one, but then again, the problem is not a simple one: poverty is intrinsically entwined with other dilemmas we face on our planet. Yet every step in the right direction will chip away at these issues. Although the victories described earlier do not seem like much, they have the potential to accumulate over time. With respect to overfishing, for each family that is no longer reliant on fishing to survive, there is an equivalent marine life population that manages to stay alive and reproduce. So, in this case, every drop counts.

Image by Christian Ostrosky

GRAPHIC ACTIVISM: COMIC BOOKS AND CONSERVATION EFFORTS

Cartoon Jungle

By Annam Raza
Contributing Writer

A variant cover of “Aquaman #31”, drawn by Mike Allred, is covered by pastel otherworldly creatures surrounding Aquaman in the black depths. These grotesque animals seem unreal, but although characters in comic books can easily be drawn entirely from the imagination, the medium of cartoons is far more receptive to science fiction than any other, these aliens are all actual living creatures (even if slightly altered in scale). There are eighteen in total, featuring unusual denizens of the deep such as the frilled shark and the fangtooth. The cover did not go unnoticed: popular marine science blog Southern Fried Science deconstructed and analyzed each animal in a six-part blog series. The original comic cover for this issue has Aquaman, the eponymous hero, pitted against Swamp Thing as his enemy, a character he has more in common with than he realizes: alongside other DC icons such as Poison Ivy, they are all environmentalists, and as fictional characters, have managed to quietly make contributions to conservation. Poison Ivy, with her iconic red hair and green vines, may be a villain but her cause is not quite a bad one: she wants to save plants, she just happens to go about it the wrong way. Swamp Thing was originally botanist Alec Holland, who created a formula to grow plants in deserts, instantly turning them into forests. His rivals, in an attempt to steal his invention, bomb him to try and kill him, but the burning chemicals react with the swamp he falls into, turning him into a humanoid mass of vegetable matter. Yet, he still fights to protect his swamp home, and the environment on a larger scale, and once he is inducted into Justice League Dark, humanity itself from supernatural or terrorist threats.

But they’re fictional characters, created for kids (and nerds)! What difference could they make to conservation efforts? That may be the response you have initially, but comics create more impact than most people realize. On a commercial front, comic books, and especially their movie adaptations, comprise a multi-billion dollar industry, but they are even more than that. Marvel’s recent decision to make Thor a woman made waves across the internet, with some deriding it as foolish while others saw it as a great step forward in a male-dominated genre. These characters are iconic, and people follow their storylines avidly. They are simultaneously art and literature, and the people that buy and read them are devoting their precious free time to them. Much like the video games mentioned in my most recent article, comics are a form of voluntary learning, albeit one that is far less pervasive. To reiterate Professor Resnick’s quote, “many of [sic] people’s best learning experiences come when they are engaged in activities that they enjoy and care about… [one is] likely to learn the most, and enjoy the most, if [one is] engaged as an active participant, not a passive recipient.”

Comic books fit this bill perfectly, and it was exactly this idea that resulted in the creation of a conservation comic book in Madagascar. Created by Malagasy artist Ramafa and distributed by Madagascar Wildlife Conservation, the comic is named AROVY FA HARENA, which means “protect/preserve because [of] it’s richness”. It is an eight volume series, illustrating the adventures of a village boy named Fidy and three of his friends (all between the ages of 6 and 11). They represent the villagers, and the spokespeople for the forests are his companions, the gentle lemur Malala (sweet), the kingfisher Haja (respect) and the Meller’s duck Solofo (generation). Eight classrooms were chosen to be part of an experiment. The comic was distributed to four of these classrooms, which the students read alongside their standard education, and the other four classrooms served as a control group, with traditional education. The episodes in the series included stories about hunting lemurs as pets, and the consequence of fires. The conservation focus of the comics was centered on the lemurs, as the featured gentle lemur is one of the most endangered species on the planet, and it is endemic to this area. At the end of four months, a questionnaire was given to all the students to test their retention of the knowledge provided in the comics. The comic book class scored significantly higher than the control group. Teachers reported that the children enjoyed discussing the content of the comic books with their friends, and liked the stories, confirming what scientists already suspected.

This method of conservation is incredibly specific to Madagascar. Although a similar model can be implemented locally in areas with endemic endangered species, a generalized curriculum could not possibly cover each individual animal, and it would be unfair to prioritize one over another. However, graphic novels that discuss the importance of conservation as a whole could just as easily be intergrated into schools, and in areas other than biology. Nick Hayes recently reworked a literary classic into a doomsday tale about our earth – Coleridge’s “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner.” The original was about a wizened old mariner who shoots down an albatross, bringing a terrible curse upon himself and his shipmates. Until he learns to love and respect all living creatures, the albatross’ carcass hangs about his neck while he is stranded on the ocean. Hayes’ modern adaptation is a beautifully drawn graphic novel, and his albatross was not the victim of a crossbow, but strangled by the nylon gauze of a fishing net. Instead of being stranded on a supernatural ocean, this mariner is marooned in the North Pacific Gyre: a real-world cesspool of swirling pollution and waste. This version does not end quite as optimistically as the original: the recipient of his tale, a divorced office worker, tosses him a coin and obliviously walks past a shopfront, ignoring the ‘closing down’ sign in the window of ‘Humanity’ (the name of the store). The mariner, in turn, wonders at mankind’s blithe disregard for the planet, and our unwillingness to change our habits, in a poetically haunting manner that pays fitting tribute to Coleridge’s poem. It could easily be taught alongside the original, and the modern day implications are not hard to decode.

Stories, whether in the form of traditional literature such as poems, or less academic forms such as comics, mold our minds more than we realize. And when, as an adult, someone chooses to dress up as Spiderman, it is because the stories from your childhood are filled with characters you love forever, a fact easily visibly in late July, when the streets of downtown San Diego teem with people — Batman mingles with zombies, Doctor Who rubs shoulders with companions of all shapes and sizes, and even less dedicated costumes still allude to comic books. Perhaps you will spot a Superman cape tossed over one’s shoulders, or a dress with R2-D2 printed on it. San Diego’s Comic-Con is a world famous event, as most of us, as honorary (or permanent) residents of this wonderful city can already attest. But comic books are often seen as frivolous, the indulgences of young boys who hold onto their childhood for as long as possible. People easily overlook the impact they can have on a child’s psyche, with the messages interwoven in them integrated into their mind. Anyone that can still sing the theme song from Captain Planet knows this.

Image by Bob Comics

MIND GAMES: HOW VIRTUAL REALITY CAN HELP SAVE THE OCEANS

Rendering of an Underwater Scene

By Annam Raza
Contributing Writer

How many of us have actually dived in the Great Barrier Reef? Or explored the waters off the coast of Costa Rica? I haven’t; despite growing up near the Persian Gulf, and going to university right next to the Pacific Ocean, I never got around to getting a scuba license. My interest in seeing the ocean was whetted by pictures or documentaries, a vicarious exploration of a foreign world, guided by a photographer or cameraman. A glimpse of an intriguing fish flitting away into the distance would often make me wish I could turn to follow it, but that was a privilege reserved for the actual diver, not the viewer safe in the comfort of her own home.

What if that wasn’t the case? What if you could explore a shipwreck, searching for fish and coral at Chuuk Lagoon, the site of a pivotal World War II battle, since transformed into a glorious reef, without leaving your own home? This is exactly what players do in the initial levels of ‘Infinite Scuba’, a next generation simulation game launched in March 2013 by Seattle game designers Cascade Game Foundry, partnering with many diving industry groups, including Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), Diving Equipment and Marketing Association, Mission Blue (an ocean conservation group), various scuba equipment manufacturers such as Scubapro, Body Glove, Oceanic and BARE, among others. The game hopes to “raise public awareness about the importance of ocean health” by painstakingly recreating famous dive sites from around the world in order to spread information about important environmental issues through entertainment.

This is an incredibly unique response to Dr. Earle’s 2009 TED prize wish (which inspired the creation of Mission Blue itself, as described on their website): “to use all means at your disposal — films, expeditions, the web, new submarines — to create a campaign to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas.”

Although video games may seem like an unusual medium to employ to educate the public about conservation, research suggests that they can be used effectively for education. As Professor Resnick of MIT states, “many of [sic] people’s best learning experiences come when they are engaged in activities that they enjoy and care about…[one is] likely to learn the most, and enjoy the most, if [one is] engaged as an active participant, not a passive recipient.”

The Internet has a particularly remarkable number of active participants – you included. You are reading this blog post online, alongside (probably) several other tabs: email inboxes, Facebook, and a myriad of other websites. According to Jane McGonigal, a video game designer and inventor at Institute of the Future, more than half a billion people use a computer or play a video game for at least an hour a day- with over 183 million of those in the US. She says, “The average young person racks up 10,000 hours of gaming by the age of 21 – or 24 hours less than they spend in a classroom for all of middle and high school if they have perfect attendance. It’s a remarkable amount of time we’re investing in games. Five million gamers in the U.S., in fact, are spending more than 40 hours a week playing games – the equivalent of a full time job!”

So why not reappropriate this time to serve the purpose of marine conservation?

That is what the organization Games for Change aims to do. Their mission statement is “Catalyzing Social Impact Through Digital Games”. Founded in 2004, it consists of a group of people that create and distribute games that aim to create a social impact by engaging contemporary issues in a meaningful way. Clicking through the “play” section of their site makes it obvious they haven’t restricted themselves to merely the marine realm: categories also include poverty and economics, and they even have a “Games for Change” festival, which unites people interested in accessing the positive social aspect of games.

On an individual level, games can be used to teach children and young adults about the threats facing endangered wildlife. ‘Predator Protector’, an online game on PBS’s website that is meant to accompany the channel’s documentary ‘Ocean Adventures’ with Jean Jacques Costeau, has players “swim with sharks and experience the threats they face,” striving to stay alive and thus inadvertently learning about the vital role sharks play in the delicate balance of a marine ecosystem. It makes one reevaluate the label of ‘mindless predator’ that sharks have been burdened with by a misinformed media.

“Sea Turtles and the Quest to Nest,” launched by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Fisheries Service, is similarly structured. It is the second educational game in the WaterLife series, centering on loggerhead sea turtles, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and involving six stakeholders critical to the turtle’s protection. Players must work through a series of mini-games, which encompass activities such as beach cleanups to assist turtle nesting, improving the likelihood of the turtle’s survival. Without understanding how human actions affect turtles and how to improve the chance of survival for the species, players cannot succeed.

As players experience firsthand the harmful effects of human activities on marine animals, they are forced to think about the importance of conservation and the role we, as humans, play in the loss of biodiversity. These games require players to use their minds, combining “difficult challenges, possibilities, and use of information” in a way that can be used to establish “real pedagogical constructivism”. Constructivism is the learning theory that refers to the idea that “learners construct knowledge for themselves”, and is the most powerful argument for the use of video games in education: as players work their way through levels, they absorb information and store it away, subconsciously learning facts about conservation that may have bored them had they been presented to them in a traditional classroom environment. This can evoke powerful emotional responses in players – delight if they win, and sadness if they lose. More than knowledge, it is that awareness and emotion that is necessary. I firmly believe that although the most important part of conservation as a science is research, it is one’s passion for conservation, and his or her motivation to embrace it in all realms of their life, that can make it truly successful.

Image by Ian Burt