Sustainable fishing and saving sea turtles

In the Colombian town of Acandí, leaders like Jesus Antonio Julio Cuestas are building a better future

A leatherback turtle photographed from above makes its way across gray sands to the ocean
Portrait of Jesús Antonio Julio Cuestas in a blue shirt in front of a body of water on a sunny day

Jesús Antonio Julio Cuestas

In the northernmost edge of Colombia sits the coastal town of Acandí. Access to the town is only by water or air; there is no road that leads there. However remote, the residents of Acandí are not immune to the struggles of balancing livelihoods while protecting biodiversity. The good news is that after decades of declining fish stocks, many local fishers are now actively promoting the well-being of wildlife and changing their fishing practices to minimize harm to the environment.

Working toward change

Chosen by his fellow Acandí fishers as their representative, Jesús Antonio Julio Cuestas serves multiple roles in the region’s conservation and management of marine resources. Along with being an artisanal fisherman and member of the community council, Cuestas is a technician for Colombia's National Natural Parks, the government agency responsible for overseeing the country's protected areas.

In the past, traditional community fishing methods, passed down by the elders, focused on subsistence fishing and the sustainable management of resources. However, the introduction of large-scale trawling vessels—known as "viking" boats—led to extensive trawling along the coast for nearly four decades. This indiscriminate fishing approach gradually depleted the area’s fishing resources. As a result, many fishers transitioned from hand lines to nets, some of which can be highly destructive to marine life, including sea turtles.

Cuestas emphasizes the negative impact of these developments and the urgent need for more sustainable and responsible fishing techniques. With his involvement, the fishers worked to minimize their impact on the marine ecosystem. By modifying fishing methods and adopting new practices, they aim for a more sustainable and balanced approach to fishing. These efforts led by Cuestas and his colleagues to actively support sea turtle conservation in the region. Change does not always come overnight, of course; Even as Cuestas discusses these changes, some fishers can be seen continuing their harmful fishing activities in the background.

Economic and social benefits

The collaboration between the fishers, Colombia's National Natural Parks, WWF, and other partners offers a balance that benefits fishers economically and socially, while also furthering environmental conservation. Recognizing the importance of maintaining their livelihoods as fishers, efforts support the community with the necessary tools and resources. This includes new engines for boats and the establishment of a restaurant where they can offer their daily catch. By fostering a circular economy within the community, the benefits generated by fishing activities remain within the local area.

As the restaurant contributes to the economic sustainability of the community, it also promotes food safety. With the catch of the day, the fishers can provide fresh and locally sourced seafood, ensuring the quality and safety of the food consumed.

It’s a collaborative and holistic approach to sustainable livelihoods and conservation, with ongoing collaboration and support, that seems to be working.

A future for fishers and turtles

"Fishing and conservation are compatible as long as we have good management practices and sustainable use of our fishing resources," says Cuestas. He, along with other park officials, actively monitors fishing activities in Acandí. Each morning, they visit the fish markets to gather data on fishery resources—including prices and sizes—to assess the state of the local fishing industry.

Awareness-raising efforts by the community, government, and other stakeholders help protect the region’s sea turtle population.

"This year the fishermen from the municipality of Acandí have not used the most lethal net that was causing the death of the leatherback sea turtle," explains Cuestas proudly. Changes include the coordination of anchoring boats to protect the seagrass that serves as feeding grounds for marine life; and an end to fishers throwing nets where turtles lay their eggs.

This marine sanctuary in Acandí, Cuestas believes, is their greatest asset. He emphasizes continued strengthening and coordination with the community and its partners to improve the quality of life while conserving the marine ecosystem. By doing so, he envisions a future where individuals from the fishing community can pursue various professions, such as engineers or lawyers, proudly stating that they are the products of the fishing tradition in Acandí.

About Herencia Colombia

Colombia ranks second in the world—behind only Brazil—for biodiversity. The goal of the Herencia Colombia (Heritage Colombia or HECO) program is to ensure the conservation and long-term financing of more than 79 million acres. The project works in protected areas and the s the landscapes and seascapes that surround them, supporting communities who depend on natural resources for their livelihoods. With support for sustainable management or alternative livelihoods, communities increase resilience to climate change and support conservation.