A First Look at the Daily Life of an Atitlan Fisherman

National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee Sarah Calhoun is learning about the lives of local fishermen, hoping to develop a system to monitor the fishery of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala and help improve detection of potential toxins produced by cyanobacterial blooms. She hopes to help restore the lake to its former health and preserve traditional ecological knowledge through community engagement and partnership with students at la Universidad del Valle.


After weaving through the bustling streets of Guatemala City and arriving in the highlands of Lake Atitlan, I have finally landed in the majestic town of Panajachel. At first glance, it appears the same as any Central American city: cars and motorcycles racing past pedestrians with no intention to stop, beggars looking for change, children in the streets helping their family sell fabrics or cheap trinkets on the street, and of course the tourists with their large backpacks and sun-kissed cheeks. But taking a closer look, you can hear the laughter and lively clamor of a community that is strung together by the mosaic lifestyle of a lakeside village. Feeling the unforgiving wind blow in from the north, I attempt to let the reality of my arrival sink in as I watch a young boy earnestly catching blue gill using only string and hook, his father proud that his son will bring home fish for dinner.

Lake Atitlan holds economic, social, sentimental, and even spiritual importance for many Guatemalans, especially the major Mayan ethnic groups inhabiting lakeside villages. These rural communities rely on the lake for drinking water, bathing, recreation, textiles and fisheries. In 2008, 2009, and 2011, thick green cyanobacterial blooms coated 40% of the lake’s 137 km2surface area, visible from NASA satellites. Understandably, following these visually stunning blooms, the local communities panicked, fearing the lake was sick. In April 2010, a group of international and local scientists and organizations came together to conduct a snapshot assessment of the lake’s status and to capacity build an integrated framework for ongoing monitoring. Although the 350 meter deep lake remains healthy, the eutrophication process has accelerated in the last few years; measures must be taken to reduce the nutrient loading, otherwise the lake may become irreversibly altered.

Fishermen stay near one of Atitlan’s inflows due to its highly productive runoff and hotspot for warm water fish. (Photo by Sarah Calhoun)

I am here to tell the story of the fishermen of Lake Atitlan. Within this story lie the foundations for monitoring of the Lake Atitlan fishery and to improve the ability to monitor potential toxins produced in the cyanobacterial blooms. Local fishermen hold the most knowledge about fish, fish community composition and food web changes over time; their day-to-day work keeps them embedded in the lake’s ecology. I intend survey development to be a dynamic process in which to engage local fishing communities and extend an avenue for their voices in local conservation efforts.

My first day in Panajachel was spent on a small boat, with Guatemalan student, Hugo Villavicencio, and two local harpoon fishermen, Felipe and Pablo. Without time to unpack or get to know my homestay family, I began exploring the daily life of an Atitlan fisherman. An overwhelming tactic at best, but it allowed me to achieve an idea of what the next three months entailed. Having spent the last three years learning Spanish in Costa Rica and the United States I thought I would be ready to conduct these interviews. I was sorely mistaken. Although they were excited to show me their techniques and spend the day fishing with an American visitor, my goals are much more comprehensive than merely taking photos of these men. It is my intention that this project help create a voice for the fishermen of Atitlan, but if their words are lost in translation, I cannot achieve these goals. First stop, El Jardin de America Spanish school for a two-week intensive study of biological and fisheries related vocabulary! During this time I will continue to integrate myself into the Maya community and gain trust among the locals to create a truthful portrayal of the Atitlan fishing communities.

Felipe, the president of the harpoon fishermen in Panajachel, attempts to search for more fish after catching his first fish of the day, a female large-mouth bass, which he was sad to kill hoping the females will lay thier eggs in the coming months and provide more fish for the struggling fishery. (Photo by Sarah Calhoun)

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
After living in the wilderness of Wisconsin during the summer of 2009, I discovered my passion for fieldwork and aquatic ecosystems. I followed this passion to the tropical areas of Costa Rica and to the dry, rural communities of Nicaragua. After immersing myself in the diverse culture of Central America, I decided to build on my environmental science background by integrating social science into my research. As a National Geographic Young Explorer I plan to continue researching the relationship between science and society while exploring the awe-inspiring Lake Atitlan and working with the Maya fishing community that relies on this changing lake.