Changing Planet

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)
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.
  • Violeta Foregger Velasquez

    Do you need help? I can help with hooking you up with the Comite de Pescadores in Santiago Atitl√°n, and with speaking with them (my background is in social science). . .this is a topic near to my heart, and I am thrilled that someone is thinking to talk to the folks that know most about the lake and its changes. . .

  • Julie Stoughton

    Sarah – thank you for sharing your journey and your stories with us! This is a great first entry and I am looking forward to learning more about Lake Atitlan and its fishermen.

  • Liam Kyle Cahill

    Fantastic first post! I can’t wait to read more about this~

  • Ian Gonzalez

    Sarah, welcome, you have a very complex project ahead of you. The fishermen are of course key informants, and you will early on have to examine the economics of fishing for black bass versus crappies and bluegills, the former generally performed with harpoons and the latter with nets and hooks-and-lines. You will also want to interview members of AMSCLAE (Autoridad para el Manejo Sustentable de la Cuenca del Lago de Atitllan), the mayors of Panajachel and other lakeside municipalities, INFOM (Instituto de Fomento Municipal), and DEOCSA, the supplier of electricity in the area. The Panajachel water treatment plant built to treat raw sewage flowing into the lake in 2012 is stillborn. Sewage from every other community around the lake and from thousands of private homes built along its shores, continues to flow in despite tightened regulations. Phosphates from commercial detergents used by washerwomen who do their laundry by hand on a daily basis at the lakeshore also contribute to this dire problem. For recreation and historical perspective I would recommend reading Sol Tax’s classic “Penny Capitalism” as well as his letters to Robert Redfield, collected in a book whose name escapes me. I do not see beggars in Pana as you note, though people with trinkets to sell that approach asking you to buy merchandise or otherwise contribute are legion. It is a town where vehicles can rarely exceed 20 kms per hour and more pedestrian collisions occur with bicycles, mopeds, and tuktuks than with cars. Prose style and coloratura, the desire to craft sentences that encapsulate alien sights, sounds, customs, and mores in order to inform, enchant, and attract readers, and sell magazines and blogs, is a pitfall to avoid by rigorous editing the morning after, before posting final copy. Warm regards and mucha suerte!

  • Melissa Conn


    What a wonderful introduction to your project. I’m really excited to follow your progress. Keep up the good work dear friend. Enjoy those vocabulary flash cards ūüėČ Miss ya!

  • Sudeep Chandra

    Way to dive right in and start exploring what the issues are facing the fishing community. Have fun, be safe, looking forward to reading about your adventure and insights. Lake Atitlan and the Guatemalan people are beautiful.

  • Zeb Hogan

    Awesome post Sarah! Keep up the good work.

  • Aundrea Taylor-Caldwell

    sounds like you’re off to a great start!!!

  • Chris Luna

    Great intro to your work. I look forward to reading more.

  • Ana Rivas


    What an interesting project! I know how beautiful the area is and I look forward to reading more posts. Good luck!

  • Mary Jorgensen

    Great job Sarah!! I so can’t wait to read more!!! Be safe kido. Good luck!

  • dao

    to help understand your host area, you might benefit from an author who spent much time doing exactly the same thing some years ago … read Secrets of Talking Jaguar by Martin Prechtel and other books in his series …
    happy trails

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