Mas Piska pa Boneiru: Less talk more action

Identifying and overcoming bottlenecks in fisheries management on Bonaire.

Fishing is one of the oldest professions in the Dutch Caribbean. Many families have made a living from the fisheries sector, passing on the tradition to their children. Over the years, however, the number of professional fishermen has declined due to various reasons. It has become increasingly difficult to make a decent living from fishing: global developments such as pollution, climate change and global overfishing and by-catch have devastating effects on the health of oceans and coral reefs and consequently local fish populations.

Promoting sustainable fisheries practices is a key element in safeguarding healthy oceans and marine ecosystems, and this crucial role is highlighted in the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)’s ocean strategy. Part of WWF’s strategy is to develop economically viable and community-supported sustainable fisheries. World Wide Fund for Nature – The Netherlands (WWF-NL) has been working in the Dutch Caribbean municipalities of Bonaire, Saba and Sint Eustatius for many decades  and has an interest to develop economically viable and community-supported sustainable fisheries. Just like WWF-NL, many local fishermen feel an increasing need to take action to improve the fisheries sector. Fishermen are facing changes in the sector, notably increased legislation and restrictions, which affects their livelihood. Over time it is becoming more and more difficult for them to catch a decent amount of fish. And fishermen have traditionally received little help and support from the government.

The success of WWF-NL’s initiative is dependent on participation and support from the fisheries community itself as well as legislators and policymakers. Participatory fisheries management models have been successfully implemented in several places around the world. Close collaboration between fishermen, governments, industry and NGOs has led to effective and sustainable management, increasing fish stocks and economically strengthened fishing communities.

In the past, attempts to introduce participatory fisheries management within Dutch Caribbean have not been very successful. Meetings organized to discuss regulatory changes or to find joint solutions for unsustainable fishing practices have led to heated discussions and resistance from the fishing community. There has been quite some research in recent years which has focused on gathering data on the fisheries sector (e.g. De Graaf, 2016; Johnson & Jackson, 2015; Johnson & Saunders, 2014). Whilst this work helps to increase knowledge about fish catch as well as fishermen views and attitudes, none have so far led to successful co-management of the sector. Attempts by the National government (Rijksdienst Caribisch Nederland), local government and the park management organization, STINAPA Bonaire, have so far failed to adequately engage the fishing community and have sometimes even intensified reluctance among both fishermen as well as (local) institutions to work towards a participative fisheries management model. The need to achieve strong and effective co-management of the fisheries sector has become even more pressing in light of recent changes in fisheries legislation and evidence of declining fish stocks.

To understand how support can be leveraged among the stakeholders in the field to support sustainable fisheries within the Caribbean Netherlands, WWF-NL has initiated several fisheries related projects including a social mapping study of the fisheries sector on each island. I collaborated with the WWF-NL for the first mapping study, which took place on Bonaire and lasted three months. Working closely with local fishermen, as well as other stakeholders responsible for (sustainable) management of the fisheries sector, I identified, analyzed and sought solutions for the bottlenecks inhibiting co-management of the sector by means of a test case: setting up and supporting a fisheries cooperation on Bonaire.

Institutional framework: where are the fishermen?

On Bonaire, effectively implementing sustainable initiatives within the fisheries sector has been challenging. Fisheries legislation is outdated and deficient and, more importantly, there is much debate over whether the fishing community has been sufficiently involved in the development of local legislation. Despite attempts to manage and improve the fisheries sector, several basic elements for effective management are lacking.

The lack of participation of fishermen in the decision-making process is a significant issue as their involvement is a pre-requisite to the efficient management of the fisheries sector. In the first phase of the project, I created several organograms of the organizational structures currently responsible for the management of Bonaire’s fisheries sector. These organograms revealed the absence of fishermen in the decision-making process.  

During the interview phase of the project, different stakeholders from Bonaire’s fisheries sector gave different reasons and solutions for this lack of fishermen participation. This was based on Smith, Sainsbury and Stevens (1999) who stated that: “Fisheries management is characterized by multiple and conflicting objectives, multiple stakeholders with divergent interests and high levels of uncertainty about the dynamics of the resources being managed” (p. 965). This management complexity is visible on all levels on Bonaire.

Not only is it practically complex to manage a fisheries sector, one must also deal with psychological and behavioral factors such as a perceived sense of fairness, emotional and cultural values, social norms and resistance towards breaking old habits. The consequences of a proposed solution affect each stakeholder in a different manner. Because of their non-participation, the fishermen on Bonaire have often been the direct ‘victims’ and have become increasingly hesitant to support initiatives aimed towards sustainability.

Based on both a literature review and insights derived from interviews with different fisheries stakeholders on Bonaire, it was clear that to truly understand the organizational and social struggles present in the field of fisheries management, and more importantly, to come up with practical, effective solutions, the average research approach (e.g. conducting a series of interviews, distributing a questionnaire, carry out a series of observations) was neither sufficient nor desirable.  A new question and goal arose: who are the fishermen of Bonaire, (how) do they want to be included, and if so, what do they need to be included in debates and projects concerning fisheries management on Bonaire?

Launching PISKABON: a functioning fisheries cooperation.

The most obvious approach to empower fishermen to structurally provide input into management decisions taken within the sector is by means of a fisheries cooperative (called PISKABON, which stands for Fish (piska) Bonaire). Previous unsuccessful attempts to establish a fisheries cooperative left the fishermen feeling demotivated and skeptical about why fisheries management is needed or even desirable. Fishermen felt that there were hidden agendas, that the previous cooperative wouldn’t help all fishermen equally and that organizing themselves and collaborating with nature organizations and/or the government would simply lead to more restrictions, rules and regulations. This would consequently mean that the fishermen would lose their freedom, which is one of the main reasons why these men (and women) choose to become fishermen in the first place.

Attempts to improve the monitoring of fish catches, for example, created concern amongst fishermen that this would result in them having to pay taxes – something they’ve never had to deal with.   Aware of this sentiment and based on my initial conversations and observations, I decided to apply a more hands-on approach: less talk, more action.

Unexpected achievements

Within a couple weeks after my arrival on Bonaire, a board of directors was elected by the first newly registered members of the cooperation. In the following two weeks, the cooperation secured its first funding from the Dutch Government. In the second and third month, the beginnings of a strategic plan and communication plan were put in writing, amendments were made to the by-laws and introductory meetings with the most important stakeholders were arranged.

Why it worked: Action, trust, patience, and interdependence.

By working closely with the board of the directors and consequently with other fisheries stakeholders on Bonaire and in the Netherlands, I was able to observe and experience the struggles in fisheries management up close and personal. This approach also allowed me to try out solutions on the spot. Four key elements led to successful interactions with the fishermen and the realization of the fisheries cooperation: action, trust, patience, and dependence.

Action: Support and mediation

While the previous attempts to launch a fisheries cooperation were unsuccessful, they did provide crucial knowledge of do’s and don’ts throughout the process. Specifically, neither the initiative nor the board members should be politically associated. Also, being a “true fishermen” was not an important criterion for board members, compared to more useful assets such as being available, willingness and commitment, a generally positive or neutral social status, and knowledge of the different types fishermen and fisheries practices on Bonaire.

In addition, the new board members received full time, practical support, which was not the case in the past. Currently, the fisheries cooperation is still made up out of volunteers with limited time and in some cases limited knowledge about the procedures needed to follow to succeed. Lack of action among fishermen is not due to unwillingness, but due to lack of time and resources. Removing these obstacles by adding someone to support them full time allowed board members to share their input, experience successes and motivate them to increasingly prioritize their efforts for the cooperation. The support provided should be done by someone who is driven, proactive, patient, a fast learner and able to mediate between different stakeholders with different needs and interests.

Trust and confidence

Throughout the process, I remained neutral and transparent. I provided all necessary information to the various stakeholders while remaining honest and open about my role. I made sure I shared information in a clear manner, whilst gradually guiding new information in such a manner that fear or distrust remained minimal. Simultaneously, I encouraged criticism (towards my own role and others) and made sure people felt heard and supported.

Putting in the time and effort by doing what had to be done did not only help to build trust among the fishermen, but also helped other stakeholders gain confidence in the possible success of a fisheries cooperation. To gain trust, tireless communication and transparency is key. Keeping all parties, particularly the board members, informed about the latest developments proved to be a crucial ingredient to ensure a sense of fairness and understanding.

Patience: step by step

One of the main insights gained during the process is that board members must be given the opportunity to gain knowledge and understanding, formulate their opinions and come up with workable solutions. I stressed this factor amongst stakeholders such as the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, STINAPA Bonaire, WWF-NL and other individuals eager to collaborate with the cooperative. Simultaneously I remained focused on supporting, informing and pushing the board members to act. Leaving too much room for discussion and discovery might lead to non-action, which in turn can lead to missed chances and opportunities.


The more experienced individuals in fisheries management often feel that their views or knowledge should carry more weight. While their experience is important, it is also crucial for these experts consider the ideas and insights of fishermen. Fishermen must also understand and accept the protocols and procedures that must be followed to achieve certain goals, and that these require persistence, communication and a lot of action. Fortunately, I noticed throughout the project that board members as well as many fishermen have a strong desire to collaborate. Successful participatory fisheries management requires that all stakeholders be aware of their interdependence to each other.

The future of PISKABON

Although much has been achieved during the past months with PISKABON, the road ahead remains long and at times difficult. The current board members possess several strong and important qualities that will help build trust among fishermen. However, several important steps must be taken to ensure the long-term success of the cooperation. For example, board members must receive support and coaching so that they can excel in their role. Gaining more trust from the fisheries community should also help ensure that PISKABON truly represents the fishermen of Bonaire. This can be achieved with the successful execution of tangible (small) projects that favor the fishermen.

Lastly, all stakeholders must be made aware the inclusion of fishermen in participatory fisheries management practices is not PISKABON’s sole purpose. PISKABON is a fisheries cooperative, which aims to address the fishermen’s needs. In addition, PISKABON can inform, educate and represent the fishermen about and during (sustainable) management initiatives. If approached in a transparent manner and with rigorous communication, PISKABON can also facilitate the collaboration of fishermen in monitoring research and the implementation of new sustainable fishing practices or techniques, provided that the different stakeholders’ common values are fostered.

PISKABON’s future looks bright, but its ultimate success will depend on the cooperation between stakeholders and the realization that they are very much interdependent. Like one of the board members repeatedly says: if all parties make the effort, PISKABON can do great things for the fishermen, the entire community and perhaps even become an inspiration for the region. If successful, PISKABON could be the missing link in the co-management of the fisheries sector. This could result in more sustainable fishing practices where everybody wins, a goal WWF-NL full heartedly supports.

This news-item was published by DCNA in BioNews 11-2018.

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