Communities living near the Mekong River depend on fishing for food and income, but many fish species are in decline. To improve conditions FISHBIO, and its Conservation Director Harmony Patricio, have evaluated the effectiveness of existing Freshwater Protected Areas (FPAs) in the Mekong River Basin of Lao PDR by training locals in data collection.
They also established new FPAs to protect threatened species of carp. Because of the river’s central role in livelihoods, many villagers support conservation. Lao law gives communities authority to establish FPAs.
Unfortunately, many communities do not have the technical or political knowledge to assess existing FPAs. Knowledge, Attitudes and Practices (KAP) surveys with communities proved very insightful at the beginning of the project: the locals demonstrated a strong knowledge of endangered carp behavior, and also reported declines in this and a number of other fish species.
These surveys are repeated several times, across a mix of ages and genders. This way, success of the project can be measured from the changes in responses, showing that people’s understanding of fish ecology, natural resource management, food sources, and the relevant legal regulations increases. Together with government and WWF staff, the locals were then trained to evaluate the effectiveness of existing FPAs.
This engaged them in conservation and co-management, while building their technical capacity and collecting data with a relatively small budget. It also empowered women, by recognizing their skills in keeping records of the fish caught by men and managing sales at markets, and giving them a formal role in fish research and management. Being involved in a research project instilled a sense of pride in them.
For the establishment of new FPAs under the project, stakeholder workshops with local communities were held during all of the planning stages, involving fisher’s unions, women’s unions, and village heads. “These consultations assured that communities will comply with the regulations that they were involved with developing.” said Harmony, who is a WCPA young professional member,
Acceptance of establishing new sites under the project exceeded all expectations: the FISHBIO team originally proposed only seasonal closures to the communities, in order to protect spawning adults of two threatened species during their breeding period. The team was surprised and delighted when the communities said they wanted the areas to be closed all year long instead. They thought this was a more effective and easy way to manage the FPAs, saying it would increase compliance and reduce the need for enforcement.
Harmony added: “By working with us to evaluate the FPAs, the local people gained a tangible sense of how their FPA works for both fish conservation and sustainable harvest. The communities that established new FPAs developed a strong sense of pride in their collective achievement. Freshwater species face a higher extinction rate than terrestrial or marine species. By conserving biodiversity in FPAs we have a positive impact on one the planet’s most threatened ecosystems.”