Adaptability 1–Detailed Itinerary 0

There are 24 fishermen in the town of Santa Cruz La Laguna. I was pleased that five of these men took time out of their busy lives to share their thoughts about the state of the Atitlan fishery. (Photo by Sarah Calhoun)


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.

Just like I’ve needed to switch quickly from sweaters and jeans to shorts and flip-flops with the erratic changes in weather here, I’ve needed to be nimble with my research techniques as well.  My time spent in Guatemala has reminded me that many people do not adhere to the kind of strict schedule I have accustomed myself to in the US.  Contrary to my original, neatly outlined, itinerary, I volunteer my time when asked (sometimes with only an hour’s notice), conduct my interviews when and how the fishermen see fit (at times staying in another village a few days longer than originally planned), and scuba dive when the conditions are just right.  I am trying hard to utilize both quantitative and qualitative methods in my surveys, but time in the field has shown the “structured” interviews to function more like conversation starters.

At times frustrating, I find this uncustomary approach to research to be rather exhilarating and part of the reason I have chosen to explore the route of social science: it is messy, informal at times, loaded with new insights, incredibly intriguing, and absolutely necessary to integrate with the natural sciences.

A sign posted at the Santa Cruz La Laguna dock reminds people to take care of their environment, reading “the lake needs you.” (Photo by Sarah Calhoun)

The villages contrast each other more than I had imagined.  Each town has its own association, fishing territory, language, and management ideas.  To provide you with a few examples: the fishermen in Panajachel, primarily harpoon fishermen, believe the greatest issue to the lake’s fishery lack of clarity due to continued sewage inputs.  The fish escape in the muck before the men have a chance to capture them.  After diving to conduct fish surveys with the local divemasters at Ati Divers, I can see their point; at times I was only able to see one meter ahead of me.  This town believes the only way to save the lake is to install bio-digesters in every home.

The Santa Cruz fishermen on the other hand, primarily gill-net fishermen, believe the largest problem is lack of fish and would like to create a stocking program, but lack the resources to do so.  The fishermen of San Pedro also state the biggest problem is lack of fish, but are confident this problem could be solved by prohibiting all fishing efforts during the months of greatest reproduction, May-July.  However, they also lack the resources to be able to survive without fishing for that amount of time.

The fishing association in Panajachel organizes a clean-up event twice a month to remove trash from the lake.  Although many people gather around the shoreline to witness the event no one volunteers to lend a hand. (Photo by Sarah Calhoun)

As I’ve traveled around the lake, talked with various organizations and listened to what the fishermen have to say, I’ve had a series of ups and downs.  At times I feel optimistic and energized at the possibility of community-based management or even co-management depending on the level of feasible government participation.  Other times I feel overwhelmed at the work that needs to be done and cynical about the lack of unity around the lake.

Pablo, the eldest of the Panajachel fishermen, retrieves the trash from other fishermen snorkeling and diving beneath the surface (photo by Sarah Calhoun)
Pablo, the eldest of the Panajachel fishermen, retrieves the trash from other fishermen snorkeling and diving beneath the surface. (Photo by Sarah Calhoun)

During these bouts of pessimism I turn my head to the books and research similar case-studies (a great start on my literature review!), successful sustainable fisheries, and other projects taking place around the lake.  Even the fishermen are taking time out of their busy lives to dive for trash and try to show someone they care about their lake, their livelihood.

Fishermen have the greatest incentives to manage the fishery in a sustainable way and should be included in resource management discussions and recognized for their organization.  Change takes time, but with a little more participation from the local communities, better communication strategies,  and institutional support, the integration of social and ecological sustainability can be achieved.

NEXT: Read More Posts From Atitlan 2013




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.