Photo Credit: DRDH

Reality bites with game theory in West African Sawfish conservation


“Outreach and sensitization has to be tuned to local sensibilities”, explains Cécile Brigaudeau, project coordinator with AfricaSaw, from Cacine, a town five hours’ drive from the capital of Guinea-Bissau – three of them on dirt track.

Using Game Theory, local fishers built their own solution to preserving their marine resources including sawfish. "And now the role-play model is ready for roll-out in other communities across the region". In one hand Cécile is holding a loop of blue string - the fishery border in the game - while in the other are two cards - one illustrating a sawfish and the other a red fish.

Regarding her simple tools, she adds “experiential learning is a powerful tool”.

According to Ceuna Quade, an economics student who helped Cécile implement the initial workshop, “when working in remote regions, it is important the project is not perceived to be telling local people what to do”. Instead this game-based scenario was designed to let fishers find their own solutions in order to preserve their resource - fish - given constraints such as time, conservation priorities for sawfish, the resource renewable rate and the demand from external markets.

“During this game, they share their experience and knowledge while also listening to the others without any aggression or conflict”.

In Cacine there are two groups of fishers – those fishing one-day at a time in small pirogues (a long narrow sea-going canoe): they are Bissau Guinean. The others are a mix of Senegalese and Bissau-Gineans who work for a Korean company currently fishing in the area. These fishers travel for at least a week in bigger pirogues.

Thus, while Cacine could be described as a town lost among the mangroves which are characteristic of estuarine region, it is also smack bang in the middle of a global conundrum: sustainable fisheries management and the international trade in fish. And the two groups may have different points of view - hence the value of convening a game to stimulate constructive discussion.

The organisers invited people from both groups and was designed to sensitize participants on the effects of overfishing on marine resource - including sawfish - while introducing relevant aspects of sawfish biology, all the while focused on the fishers' priority: fishing for a living.

Knowing many of the local fishers well, Ceuna was an ideal facilitator, Cécile says. "With enthusiasm, he conducted the games with 20 fishers including 3 women". For the next 2 hours over coffee, having learned the rules of the game, the group began discussing and arguing amongst each other while trying to agree solutions that would optimize their resource use as well as protecting sawfish populations.

Sawfishes have been severely depleted in Western Africa due to more intensive human activities in Western Africa: fishing pressure, by-catches and illegal trade in body parts such as rostra, fins, and teeth. Sawfishes need ample, healthy coastal, estuarine, and freshwater habitats, particularly mangroves, which have been disappearing rapidly since 1980.

Ultimately, the project team expects to mitigate the threats to sawfish in Western Africa and to bring knowledge and tools to the fishermen involved in sawfish conservation. To help achieve this, the project is determining and evaluating key areas for sawfish populations while also performing various public outreach and awareness raising activities including radio broadcasting as reported in late 2015, here.

In the most critical places, a trained “Sawfish Alert Network” will regularly collect and provide data on sawfish by-catch either sighted or sold in these areas. Fisher awareness will help to reduce direct or indirect mortality of sawfish, minimizing human interactions and improving general conservation knowledge.

"Their support and contribution to the project is fundamental" states Cécile about the fishers. Using role-play is an effective means to involving local stakeholders in resolving issues that are at once local and global.

As the saying goes " we do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience". And so, it is what the fishers and AfricaSaw do next which will have critical influence on the achievement of the project's aims.

Meanwhile, AfriSaw will continue implementing the role-play workshops inviting other fisher communities to take part in the game of balancing sawfish and livelihood needs.

This is just one of many community oriented projects supported by IUCN’s SOS initiative. With your continued support we can continue to support frontline conservation tackling a number of high-priority issues. Please donate now and help SOS save more species.

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