Pablo Pita Orduna’s Blog: Consensus & Camaraderie

Pablo is travelling to Australia for three weeks to meet with Dr Jeremy Prince, the scientist behind The Barefoot Ecology Toolbox. Pablo wants to learn how to emulate this toolbox’s success when incorporating fishermen’s knowledge into fisheries management plans. You can read all of his blog posts here.

A glorious sunshine invites one to stroll and enjoy the charming atmosphere of Port Fairy. But we are sitting inside a meeting room. I look out the window and see a group of cockatoos grazing on the manicured lawn, while a local Australian football team trains a few meters away. I have never heard about grazing cockatoos. Also, I now realize why Aussies consider rugby a sport for girls. “Seeing is believing!”, I think to myself.

The meeting has just started and there is an atmosphere of contained tension. Members of the Ministry of Fisheries, led by Bill Lussier, are reporting on the status of the abalone fisheries of Western Victoria. Sitting around a large table, 8 quota owners and several divers from the Western Abalone Divers Association (WADA) are listening intently. Also, some recognized scientists from different research institutions are attending as advisers.

Slides full of charts and graphs go by, while Harry Gorfine, biologist of the Ministry, explains about their assessments. Some of the information on the fishery comes from surveys conducted by scientists, but most comes from the divers themselves. All of WADA members voluntarily carry on their boats a device that measures the length of every abalone. Each length data is automatically associated to the boat’s position using GPS, and logged. Divers also carry devices that log the depth of their dives while fishing.

Harry finishes his presentation. The tension in the room is palpable. Now is when the game starts. Everyone must show their cards and select the most appropriate moment to make the move. Divers want to increase catches by 40% and make more flexible the current management, based on rigid quotas by reef. They propose joining together the quotas of some reefs so they can choose where to fish. They believe spreading the fishing effort this way will avoid an excessive pressure on individual reefs for which the catch level may be poorly estimated.

I am surprised at how constructively the different interventions are made. WADA’s position is homogeneous, no dissenting voices. That gives them strength, but the Ministry also can play their strengths. Time-out. Jeremy gets up. Requests a whiteboard, writes the names of the reef and then draws an arrow behind each name. The empty space after the arrow is filled in a moment of figures, tons per quota. All are involved while figures are deleted, added, divided and rewritten. Finally everyone reaches a consensus. Pending the final decision of the Ministry, there will not be an increase in the total quota for the next year, but divers can reallocate some reef quotas according to their proposal.

To circumvent the limited opening hours of the Australians bars, some establishments chose to call themselves hotels to enjoy a wider opening hours. The law governing their opening hours has relaxed over time, but many kept their names. The tension has relaxed as the discussion progressed on quota distribution. When they reached the final agreement, we completely dissipate it in the Stump Hotel, one of the oldest in Australia. The atmosphere is full of camaraderie.

I contemplate biologists, fishermen and politicians together enjoying their beers and glasses of wine, chatting animatedly, and I think it has been a great day.

After a sumptuous dinner, the liveliest of us move out to the terrace of the motel we are staying in, accompanied by a few bottles of Australian wine. Harry Peters, WADA’s Executive Officer, asks my opinion on the process. “Guys, I’m proud of you” I say. We toast.

The size logger device in use:

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