When comunity and science meet, wonders occur

Leo Berninsone is a part-time volunteer with Sea Search and Sousa Project. We asked him to share his testimony on how local communities can help science.

 “You cannot defend what you do not love and you can not love what is not known” 

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I remember reading that quote on the back of a t-shirt when I was fifteen years old. The link between those 3 powerful words (Defend-Love-Know) shocked me at first sight. Somehow, that saying lingered in my thoughts through the years and still remains being one of the cornerstones of my work on conservation of marine mammals. It changed my whole perspective about what conservation was; I used to think that working with endangered species would prevent them from becoming extinct, but I was wrong. Working with  people would do so.

Assembling a team

For more than 12 years I have been working on different projects focused on conservation of the Franciscana dolphin (Pontoria blainvillei), a small, shy and conspicuous dolphin of South America that is endangered due to the incidental bycatch on gillnets of artisanal fishermen. Little was known about this species so we had to work on many programs related to their ecological aspects such as movement patterns, behavior, habitat use, abundance and mortality rates.

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All of these projects would never have been done without the help and participation of the main stakeholders involved with the conservation issue: The artisanal fisherman. AquaMarina (a local NGO from Argentina, which I am proudly part of) led many of these projects in Argentina and Brazil. The Sarasota Dolphin Research Institute helped with capacity building for researchers and fishermen. An integrative approach was held over these years, finding different ways of sustainable fishing that would help the dolphins and the fishermen. Not easy (at all).

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A number of projects involving the use of alternative fishing gear (such as reflective nets and hand-lines) were done along with economists and sociologists, constituting a multidisciplinary research team. However, the best outcome was obtained from the use of acoustic deterrent devices (a.k.a. Pingers) that keep the dolphins away from the gillnets, reducing the bycatch of the species.
After all of these years we got the fishermen to share their experiences with us and to let us help them with their traditional activity. We got to know more about the environment and got committed to defend the resources and biodiversity. The next step was forthcoming: the implementation of a possible solution. We needed a third party, maybe the most important one. We needed the participation of governance sector.
At the moment we are working on the implementation of these pingers in order to evaluate the effects after the long term use of the devices. This project is carried out between fishermen and scientists with support from the national governments. The circle is complete, and great outcomes are expected.

Integration as a goal

Following our own questions we ended up working in a multidisciplinary team that evolved in an interdisciplinary team (it is no longer a simple addition of the parts but a new level of integration). The best was yet to come.

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We were asked to participate on an EU project about community based management of resources. The challenge was to be part of a transdisciplinary team where research efforts were conducted by investigators from different disciplines working jointly to create new concepts, frameworks and management plans that integrate and move beyond discipline-specific approaches to address a common problem (according to the Harvard definition).
There was no way we could refuse this proposal, so from 2012 to 2015 we took part of the COMET-LA project (www.comet-la.eu) where we worked on and learnt about water management in Colombia, forest preservation in Mexico and coastal management in Argentina. This project created a new learning arena were governance, stakeholders and researchers interacted co-designing management plans.

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The local fishermen from Monte Hermoso and Pehuen-Có (an area that is different from the one we used to work) were really keen on caring about their resources and have the support from the government on the creation of a fishing terminal for artisanal fisheries. After our previous experience, we are creating a local team constituted by researchers, NGOs, fishermen associations and local government in order to implement the use of pingers and create the first sustainable artisanal fishing plant of the country. There is still a long way to go but so far there is at least one thing we have learnt from our experience:

You never know the range of your work, where it might take and how useful can it be for other people with similar problems in other parts of the world.

Today I am very glad to find myself helping out in Sea Search Africa on the E3C (Effect on Climate Change on Cetaceans) project of citizen science.

Together we stand

Research, outreach, education, community based management and co-designed projects. Nowadays, if you can get all of those aspects together you can turn a simple project into a groundbreaking project of conservation. The idea of bringing science and community together is not only an approach but also a need for the sake of our health, our planet and our economy.

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In the end I realized that the key factor was to invert the order of the three powerful words: when you get people to know about their environment, they get to love it and then defend it. There is a gap between science and community that needs to be filled in. On the one hand, local communities have a big source of traditional knowledge that is useful for scientists in order to provide solutions to the community problems. On the other hand, scientists have scientific knowledge that might help the community to solve their problems. Either way, by filling in this gap, community wins… which basically means: we all win.

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About seasearchafrica

The Sea Search group is a collective of scientists and students with a strong academic background in the area of marine mammal science. Our primary focus is the production of peer-reviewed scientific research and student training. We also provide specialist consultancy services and work with industry and government to promote conservation through effective management.

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