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Investigaciones marinas

versión On-line ISSN 0717-7178

Investig. mar. v.30 n.1 supl.Symp Valparaíso ago. 2002 

Assessing Vulnerability to Climate
Risk: The Case of Small-Scale Fishing
in the Gulf of California, Mexico

Marcela Vasquez-Leon

Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology,
Institute for the Study of Planet Earth,
The University of Arizona, 715 N.
Park, 2nd Floor, Tucson, Az 85721,

Introduction & Objectives

Fishing cultures all over the world have been shaped by a high risk, unpredictable and uncertain environment. Not only are fish highly mobile creatures, but the productivity of marine environments is difficult to predict and degradation problems are hard to diagnose. In addition, it is complicated to define and enforce regulations and rights to marine resources, and markets usually do not coincide with species productivity. Climatic variability is an additional source of uncertainty that can sharply alter the abundance, distribution, and availability of fish populations. From all points of view, questions of equitable and efficient resource management are not easily resolved. In fact, some of the most modern and conscientiously managed fisheries have had catastrophic collapses as a result of a combination of excess fishing effort and environmental changes including climatic variability. These collapses are a strong indication of how inadequate traditional management models have been.

In this paper, I draw a comparison of perceptions of climate variability and of the impact of these perceptions on the sustainability of fishing economies between fishery managers and traditional small-scale fishers in the Gulf of California, Mexico. I argue that different perceptions of the impact of climate variability on marine species lead to adaptations that have very different implications for the sustainable use of resources.


Fisheries management has followed traditional fish stock assessment models. These are single species oriented and assume that stock-recruitment rates have been relatively constant over long periods of time, and mainly fishing mortality has caused changes in stock size. Climate variability in relation to sudden changes in recruitment rates and natural mortality, although recognized as an important theoretical factor, has tended to be absent from management decisions. This perception has led to the development of highly specialized and technologically rigid industrial fleets.

Today, increasing recognition of the impact of climate, as well as resource scarcity, are leading to a change in management recommendations from open access to limiting access to the fishery. The question becomes, who is being constrained, how, and who suffers the economic and social impacts of such decisions. This is of course, a political matter, but it is of relevance since among those targeted to exit the fishery are the small-scale fishers that, as I will explain later, have successfully adapted to climatic variability and who could contribute the most in terms of management.

Discussion of Diversified Small-Scale Fishers

Although small-scale fishers pursue a variety of fishing strategies, here I focus on highly diversified multiple species multiple gear traditional fishers. This group of fishers perceives climate variability as a key factor that may have a direct impact on the abundance or decline of resources. Although for them there is no interest in measuring or quantifying climate variability, it is at the core of their adaptation strategies. They are characterized by having a long family tradition in fishing which, in many cases, goes as far back as four generations. Their collective knowledge allows them to shrift fishing strategies during times of crisis. This flexibility requires a great deal of information, which involves a deep understanding of the ecosystem; the biology and behavior of a variety of species, the different fishing grounds throughout the Gulf; a full appreciation of the irregularity in weather conditions, tides, currents, and bottom conditions; as well as having a variety of gear and the ability to use it appropriately. In terms of long term sustainability, the ability to shift from one species to another makes diversified fishers more capable of dealing with declines in the productivity of one species in a way that will prevent stock depletion as a result of excessive fishing effort.

A Comparison

While scientists consult historical data to determine trends, and collect data on a regular basis to determine stock size, optimum age of capturing, and mortality rates, and set up regulations accordingly for the whole of the Pacific coast, traditional fishers are more interested in looking at interactions within the entire ecosystem. For this group of fishers nature is non-linear and is characterized by strong variability and marked by unpredictability. From this perspective, fisheries are conceived as basically chaotic and the attempts by fishery managers to determine stock size, optimum age of capturing, and mortality rates, are not scientific endeavors, but guesswork. Fishermen also tend to argue against the management of single species.

The perception that fisheries are unpredictable means that fishers never bother to look at past seasons to predict the outcome of future seasons. They instead look at how much rain has fallen or how quickly the water cooled down. They have the mechanisms set in place to deal with unpredictability and what matters is knowledge and experience on how and when to capture a wide variety of species so that fishing can be sustainable. With such knowledge, "fishing can operate in a way that is roughly consistent with the operation of the system itself".

Social Vulnerability Implications

Specialized and diversified fishing strategies follow an almost contrary logic of exploitation. They also lead to very different degrees of vulnerability to the vagaries of climate. This issue of vulnerability is looked at from two sides. One refers to the physical vulnerability of the fisheries, on the viability of adaptations in the long-term given specific environmental and climatic conditions. In this case, access to fishing knowledge, which largely determines the ability to be a diversified fisher, is key in reducing vulnerability. The other way to look at vulnerability is from an institutional and socio-economic perspective. In this case, those more successful at adapting to the vagaries of climate and the uncertainty inherent in fisheries are not necessarily less vulnerable if they lack access to system-wide adaptations, such as credit, subsidies, insurance, and other forms of government aid. And this is the case of small-scale diversified fishers. While they are better able to adapt to the uncertainties of fisheries, they are more vulnerable as the Mexican government withdraws support from this sector in favor of the industrial sector.


Although fishermen recognize that there is a problem of excessive effort, there is a strong perception that such factors as climatic variability, pollution, and the damming of fresh water for agricultural use have dramatically affected fisheries. These observations raise questions that have very practical implications. It is going to take a lot to change management: first, management structure is bureaucratic, corrupt, and acts on behalf of particular interest groups. And second, global markets do not take into account natural variations in resource availability.

What I find most disturbing is that despite the economic crisis, managers continue to ignore local knowledge of resources. And it is precisely here where anthropology, with its emphasis on fieldwork, has the greatest contribution to make. Local knowledge of resources is critical for a management strategy that looks at climate variability as a driving force of environmental change. Fishers possess a great deal of empirical knowledge about fisheries that managers cannot continue to ignore.

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