Community-Based Marine Conservation in the Gulf of California

Community-Based Marine Conservation in the Gulf of California

This is an experiential education course designed to allow students to learn first-hand about “community” and “conservation” and how both come together in the context of the marine environment thus “community-based marine conservation.” The class creates the conditions so students can interact directly with individuals engaging with community-based marine conservation from a diversity of perspectives. We choose the Gulf of California in Mexico as an illustration because of its prominence as a region of high conservation interest and its history with community-based conservation. Students must read about its culture and natural history before traveling to the region. Once there we visit with fishers, conservation practitioners, tourism operators, marine protected area managers, indigenous people, and others to understand how they view, practice, and govern conservation. We also visit the places that are the object of conservation, so students can experience first hand the rich cultural and natural history and develop their own understandings of community-based marine conservation.

The class will provide students with an appreciation of the role that different cultural perspectives play in the practice of community-based conservation. Students have the opportunity to confront their own worldview with that of the coastal communities we visit and consider how different viewpoints challenge the practice of community-based conservation. Students have the opportunity to talk to fishermen when they are fishing offshore or bringing in their catch. In the past, we have participated as observers in meetings organized by local conservation organizations, visited with local entrepreneurs engaged in sustainable aquaculture, and talked to government officials in charge of managing marine protected areas and fishing activities.

We read key papers in the literature on community-based conservation and discuss them among our group. Readings allow students to relate global and local perspectives, confront their own understandings with those of academics or practitioners, and find out which of the processes that we are witnessing might not be unique to the particular places and people we interact with. Overall, daily experiences provide students with the opportunity to contextualize the readings in ways that create long lasting colorful impressions. Often, our richest discussions take place in the most informal settings, like around the campfire after dinner or while watching shooting stars and satellites on Tiburon Island.  

The class is also designed to expose students to the importance of understanding cultural and natural history of place i.e., the Gulf of California. In the past, we have been able to visit beautiful remote islands and discuss their high biological importance for the nesting of entire populations of seabirds. 

Students have witnessed the rich biological productivity created by wind-generated upwellings in the form of aggregations of thousands of dolphins and seabirds chasing many more sardines, or been surrounded by sperm whales coming to the surface after a 45-minute immersion to feed on squid. Students also have the opportunity to snorkel with sea lions in rocky reefs and discover different forms of life confined in tide-pools in rocky shores. These contexts also facilitate the discussion of what gets conserved? Why? Who gets to decide? What is the role of fishers in biological monitoring for the conservation of marine protected areas? What is the role of scientific biological knowledge compared to the local traditional knowledge of fishers and indigenous peoples that have lived in this area for many years?

These contexts also facilitate the discussion of the role of citizen science in biological monitoring for conservation, and the role of scientific biological knowledge compared to the local traditional knowledge of fishers and indigenous peoples that have lived in this area for thousands of years. To further facilitate the conversation about traditional ecological knowledge in this part of the course our expedition is always accompanied by local indigenous collaborators and, when possible their families. In consultation with them, we stay at campsites located in remote beautiful locations of little light pollution and high cultural value that are inaccessible to outsiders otherwise. We have meals together, hear ancient traditional stories relevant to place, and organize outings to ancient fishing camps nearby led by our indigenous friends.These activities create opportunities for the group to learn about each other’s lives and culture, and students often find these experiences to be a transformative moment during their Duke tenure. Students often comment that the course provides them with a very personal and unique opportunity to experience the cultural and biological richness and heritage still found in some unique places and the people that live in them. For some students, this will be the best experience they will have at Duke. In 2018, the course was recognized for earning high marks from its students.

The fine print:

Physical challenge: We spend long hours outdoors, often in sunny, desert (hot during the day, cold at night), dusty, and primitive conditions. Pre-course fitness exercise is recommended for all students planning to attend this course.

Health: One of every two students gets 24-48 hrs. of acute stomach-related illnesses every year. Staying hydrated is of key importance to quickly bouncing back. Come prepared.

Swimming skills and boating: Students need to know how to swim and be comfortable traveling by outboard motor boat for hours at a time to get to remote locations. Boats are very safe for group travel and are handled by very experienced local guides.

Field station life: Shared sleeping accommodations and bathrooms offer little privacy.

Internet: Limited to no internet in more than half of the course. When available, internet is very slow. Planning to work on other projects during the course? For ¾ of the class, you will have no time to work on anything else. Finish your MP or independent study presentation before the start of block D.

Primitive Camping: Multi-night backcountry camping. Toilets are not available.

Language: The class will be taught in English, however, students are advised to prepare for Spanish. The more Spanish you speak the more you will get out of the class.

Cooking: To build a sense of community among members of the class, and to keep class costs reasonable, students share cooking responsibilities throughout the course. Some of the best discussions are to be had while cooking at the station and in the field!

Adaptability: As any other field course in a developing country it is difficult to predict what we will see and in what order activities will happen until we are down there. Being able to adapt to changing weather conditions is an important strategy for local coastal communities’ ability to survive. We will do the same.