Focusing on Conservation One Step at a Time

November 16, 2007

James Leape sticks out among the fishermen of the Fourth Annual World Fishers’ Forum. He is lanky, pale and soft-spoken; the fishermen, by contrast, squat, dark and boisterous.

But he and the fishermen have more in common than not, he says, as both are committed to the long-term goal of sustainable ocean fisheries.

Leape serves as director general of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) International, one of the world’s largest environmental groups, active in more than 100 countries, with an annual income of more than $700 million. A Harvard University-educated lawyer, Leape has for decades been an outspoken advocate for environmental causes worldwide.

This week, Leape and the WWF helped to host the Fourth Annual World Fishers’ Forum with the stated purpose of encouraging sustainable fishing methods to reduce the wasteful bycatch of turtles, marine birds and other animals in longline fisheries (see separate story).

He sat down with The Tico Times this week at the Hotel Fiesta in the central Pacific port city of Puntarenas, just a few hundred meters from working fishing boats on the Gulf of Nicoya, to discuss environmental issues facing the world today.

TT: WWF is among the largest conservation organizations in the world. What’s your secret?

JL: I think several things, but most importantly, WWF is an organization that’s serious about solving problems. We don’t just take stands and make a fuss. We actually find solutions.We work with people, governments and companies. We are seen and trusted as an organization that’s solution oriented, and that’s something that people are looking for today.

How does an organization as large as the WWF work at a grassroots level effectively?

We are local in the places where we work. Our staff are from the countries we work in, they understand the problems of each of the different regions, and are passionate about conservation.We are truly local in that way, and respected and trusted in a way that’s different than an organization that’s based solely in Washington or London or someplace. At the same time, we are truly global, so we can be part of change on a scale that truly matters, too. It’s a combination that works.

Can you cite an example in Costa Rica?

Sure. We are working with fishermen here, on individual boats, testing technologies, like the bycatch-reducing circle hook, and helping them find solutions. At the same time, we’re involved with the government, the bodies that regulate fisheries, and the regional Central American fisheries organizations. We’re also involved with companies like Wal-Mart and others, who are trying to change the market in support of those fishermen.

To me, we are unique in that we can put all those pieces together. We succeed when we have partnerships in all directions, from local fishermen’s cooperatives to the Wal-Marts of the world.

How did you get involved with large corporations like Wal-Mart? And why?

When you get powerhouse retailers like Wal-Mart to speak out on environmental problems and encourage sustainability, you open up doors. It’s companies like Wal-Mart and others we work with that will help change the world. The retail sector is most promising. They have an incredible amount of leverage, a lot of influence in the market and of course, a direct engagement with the public. They send a very powerful signal into the market that sustainability matters, and it has really changed the tenor of the debate.

When you consider the world’s rapidly booming population and consumption levels, do you sometimes wonder if there will be room for fish and wildlife in 50 years?

There has to be. Somehow we have to find a path that accounts for wildlife and fish, and not just because they’re cute. In the end, the more we learn about how the world works, and the ecosystems we are a part of, the more we understand that our prosperity is very much intertwined with that of the earth. It’s not just about aesthetics, it’s about survival.

And what are the biggest challenges you, as environmentalists, face in convincing people of this fact?

For decades, some people have seen environmentalists as alarmists. And yet, we find ourselves in a situation now that is objectively alarming. So everywhere I go, I have to ask, ‘how do I convey the urgency of this situation without being seen as alarmist?’ If you look at the growing evidence of climate change and the effects that it’s having, it’s pretty scary. And it won’t get easier as the population grows, and as development progresses.

So yes, the challenge is greater than ever. But we haven’t any choice.

How do you convince someone who lives in extreme poverty in China of the importance of saving the panda?

China and India and other developing countries need to find a path for sustainable development, and we collectively have an obligation to support that effort. We must find them a path that is more sustainable than that taken by the Western world, one that is both good for the environment and better for the people. It’s easier said than done. As one Chinese official once said to me, the only proven model for development is the Western one. I think it will happen because the industrialized countries have a self-interest and an obligation to help develop that path, and help support countries in the process of development.

This morning,we heard some fishermen express skepticism of working with environmental groups, and accusations that some look to create problems, not solve them. How do you deal with that kind of skepticism?

Clearly the best way to make progress is to build trust first. The work we’re doing with fishermen here with circle hooks, on the water, is very much about building trust. We’ve worked to show them that these hooks reduce bycatch of such species as turtles and marine birds, but don’t affect their catch of target species. The investment over the past four years has been focused on that, which is what has gotten us to this point.What we’re trying to avoid are situations like what we’re seeing with bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean, where the fishery is at the point of collapse, and will have to be closed if it is to survive at all. That’s not a happy choice for anybody. With the circle hooks, we’re trying to find opportunity to get ahead of the curve, to not reach that point.

But are circle hooks, and reducing bycatch, enough to save our fisheries from disaster?

It’s a place to start. Moving from where we are in many fisheries, to true sustainability, is going to be stepwise. It’s not going to happen all at once, or overnight. Addressing bycatch is a significant part of reducing fisheries’ impact on ecosystems, and we know we can make a big difference, now. There is a lot of debate about the methods, between the stepwise approach, or a more confrontational, close-it-down approach. You have to make those judgments in each context. But we believe that you really need to find a way to work with the fishermen to drive the kind of change that we’re after.

What are your impressions of Costa Rica, and the approach it’s taken to land and sea conservation over the years?

Clearly what Costa Rica did well and early is set aside important habitats in protected areas, and they did it on a large scale.

That is crucial to success. But one has to be concerned about conversion of land outside those protected areas, as well. On the marine side, it’s the subject of this conference.We’re headed in the wrong direction. Fisheries are in decline, and while not yet on the verge of collapse like we’ve seen with bluefin tuna or cod, they’re not headed in the right direction.

One of our challenges with fisheries is that they’re out of sight. For so long we assumed that the ocean was just indestructible.

But science shows otherwise. This is why we must take action here, and now.

What can the consumer do to affect ocean resource declines?

Be conscious about the fish that you buy. The more consumers express a preference for fish that come from sustainable fisheries, the better for the resource. If just a few consumers begin to take notice, the market, and retailers, begin to take notice. And the effect will be enormous. Second, if you care about oceans, you must care about climate change.

It will wreak havoc on ocean ecosystems. As with eating fish, fighting climate change comes back to the choices you make.

 

James Leape sticks out among the fishermen of the Fourth Annual World Fishers’ Forum. He is lanky, pale and soft-spoken; the fishermen, by contrast, squat, dark and boisterous.

But he and the fishermen have more in common than not, he says, as both are committed to the long-term goal of sustainable ocean fisheries.

Leape serves as director general of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) International, one of the world’s largest environmental groups, active in more than 100 countries, with an annual income of more than $700 million. A Harvard University-educated lawyer, Leape has for decades been an outspoken advocate for environmental causes worldwide.

This week, Leape and the WWF helped to host the Fourth Annual World Fishers’ Forum with the stated purpose of encouraging sustainable fishing methods to reduce the wasteful bycatch of turtles, marine birds and other animals in longline fisheries (see separate story).

He sat down with The Tico Times this week at the Hotel Fiesta in the central Pacific port city of Puntarenas, just a few hundred meters from working fishing boats on the Gulf of Nicoya, to discuss environmental issues facing the world today.

TT: WWF is among the largest conservation organizations in the world. What’s your secret?

JL: I think several things, but most importantly, WWF is an organization that’s serious about solving problems. We don’t just take stands and make a fuss. We actually find solutions.We work with people, governments and companies. We are seen and trusted as an organization that’s solution oriented, and that’s something that people are looking for today.

How does an organization as large as the WWF work at a grassroots level effectively?

We are local in the places where we work. Our staff are from the countries we work in, they understand the problems of each of the different regions, and are passionate about conservation.We are truly local in that way, and respected and trusted in a way that’s different than an organization that’s based solely in Washington or London or someplace. At the same time, we are truly global, so we can be part of change on a scale that truly matters, too. It’s a combination that works.

Can you cite an example in Costa Rica?

Sure. We are working with fishermen here, on individual boats, testing technologies, like the bycatch-reducing circle hook, and helping them find solutions. At the same time, we’re involved with the government, the bodies that regulate fisheries, and the regional Central American fisheries organizations. We’re also involved with companies like Wal-Mart and others, who are trying to change the market in support of those fishermen.

To me, we are unique in that we can put all those pieces together. We succeed when we have partnerships in all directions, from local fishermen’s cooperatives to the Wal-Marts of the world.

How did you get involved with large corporations like Wal-Mart? And why?

When you get powerhouse retailers like Wal-Mart to speak out on environmental problems and encourage sustainability, you open up doors. It’s companies like Wal-Mart and others we work with that will help change the world. The retail sector is most promising. They have an incredible amount of leverage, a lot of influence in the market and of course, a direct engagement with the public. They send a very powerful signal into the market that sustainability matters, and it has really changed the tenor of the debate.

When you consider the world’s rapidly booming population and consumption levels, do you sometimes wonder if there will be room for fish and wildlife in 50 years?

There has to be. Somehow we have to find a path that accounts for wildlife and fish, and not just because they’re cute. In the end, the more we learn about how the world works, and the ecosystems we are a part of, the more we understand that our prosperity is very much intertwined with that of the earth. It’s not just about aesthetics, it’s about survival.

And what are the biggest challenges you, as environmentalists, face in convincing people of this fact?

For decades, some people have seen environmentalists as alarmists. And yet, we find ourselves in a situation now that is objectively alarming. So everywhere I go, I have to ask, ‘how do I convey the urgency of this situation without being seen as alarmist?’ If you look at the growing evidence of climate change and the effects that it’s having, it’s pretty scary. And it won’t get easier as the population grows, and as development progresses.

So yes, the challenge is greater than ever. But we haven’t any choice.

How do you convince someone who lives in extreme poverty in China of the importance of saving the panda?

China and India and other developing countries need to find a path for sustainable development, and we collectively have an obligation to support that effort. We must find them a path that is more sustainable than that taken by the Western world, one that is both good for the environment and better for the people. It’s easier said than done. As one Chinese official once said to me, the only proven model for development is the Western one. I think it will happen because the industrialized countries have a self-interest and an obligation to help develop that path, and help support countries in the process of development.

This morning,we heard some fishermen express skepticism of working with environmental groups, and accusations that some look to create problems, not solve them. How do you deal with that kind of skepticism?

Clearly the best way to make progress is to build trust first. The work we’re doing with fishermen here with circle hooks, on the water, is very much about building trust. We’ve worked to show them that these hooks reduce bycatch of such species as turtles and marine birds, but don’t affect their catch of target species. The investment over the past four years has been focused on that, which is what has gotten us to this point.What we’re trying to avoid are situations like what we’re seeing with bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean, where the fishery is at the point of collapse, and will have to be closed if it is to survive at all. That’s not a happy choice for anybody. With the circle hooks, we’re trying to find opportunity to get ahead of the curve, to not reach that point.

But are circle hooks, and reducing bycatch, enough to save our fisheries from disaster?

It’s a place to start. Moving from where we are in many fisheries, to true sustainability, is going to be stepwise. It’s not going to happen all at once, or overnight. Addressing bycatch is a significant part of reducing fisheries’ impact on ecosystems, and we know we can make a big difference, now. There is a lot of debate about the methods, between the stepwise approach, or a more confrontational, close-it-down approach. You have to make those judgments in each context. But we believe that you really need to find a way to work with the fishermen to drive the kind of change that we’re after.

What are your impressions of Costa Rica, and the approach it’s taken to land and sea conservation over the years?

Clearly what Costa Rica did well and early is set aside important habitats in protected areas, and they did it on a large scale.

That is crucial to success. But one has to be concerned about conversion of land outside those protected areas, as well. On the marine side, it’s the subject of this conference.We’re headed in the wrong direction. Fisheries are in decline, and while not yet on the verge of collapse like we’ve seen with bluefin tuna or cod, they’re not headed in the right direction.

One of our challenges with fisheries is that they’re out of sight. For so long we assumed that the ocean was just indestructible.

But science shows otherwise. This is why we must take action here, and now.

What can the consumer do to affect ocean resource declines?

Be conscious about the fish that you buy. The more consumers express a preference for fish that come from sustainable fisheries, the better for the resource. If just a few consumers begin to take notice, the market, and retailers, begin to take notice. And the effect will be enormous. Second, if you care about oceans, you must care about climate change.

It will wreak havoc on ocean ecosystems. As with eating fish, fighting climate change comes back to the choices you make.

 

James Leape sticks out among the fishermen of the Fourth Annual World Fishers’ Forum. He is lanky, pale and soft-spoken; the fishermen, by contrast, squat, dark and boisterous.

But he and the fishermen have more in common than not, he says, as both are committed to the long-term goal of sustainable ocean fisheries.

Leape serves as director general of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) International, one of the world’s largest environmental groups, active in more than 100 countries, with an annual income of more than $700 million. A Harvard University-educated lawyer, Leape has for decades been an outspoken advocate for environmental causes worldwide.

This week, Leape and the WWF helped to host the Fourth Annual World Fishers’ Forum with the stated purpose of encouraging sustainable fishing methods to reduce the wasteful bycatch of turtles, marine birds and other animals in longline fisheries (see separate story).

He sat down with The Tico Times this week at the Hotel Fiesta in the central Pacific port city of Puntarenas, just a few hundred meters from working fishing boats on the Gulf of Nicoya, to discuss environmental issues facing the world today.

TT: WWF is among the largest conservation organizations in the world. What’s your secret?

JL: I think several things, but most importantly, WWF is an organization that’s serious about solving problems. We don’t just take stands and make a fuss. We actually find solutions.We work with people, governments and companies. We are seen and trusted as an organization that’s solution oriented, and that’s something that people are looking for today.

How does an organization as large as the WWF work at a grassroots level effectively?

We are local in the places where we work. Our staff are from the countries we work in, they understand the problems of each of the different regions, and are passionate about conservation.We are truly local in that way, and respected and trusted in a way that’s different than an organization that’s based solely in Washington or London or someplace. At the same time, we are truly global, so we can be part of change on a scale that truly matters, too. It’s a combination that works.

Can you cite an example in Costa Rica?

Sure. We are working with fishermen here, on individual boats, testing technologies, like the bycatch-reducing circle hook, and helping them find solutions. At the same time, we’re involved with the government, the bodies that regulate fisheries, and the regional Central American fisheries organizations. We’re also involved with companies like Wal-Mart and others, who are trying to change the market in support of those fishermen.

To me, we are unique in that we can put all those pieces together. We succeed when we have partnerships in all directions, from local fishermen’s cooperatives to the Wal-Marts of the world.

How did you get involved with large corporations like Wal-Mart? And why?

When you get powerhouse retailers like Wal-Mart to speak out on environmental problems and encourage sustainability, you open up doors. It’s companies like Wal-Mart and others we work with that will help change the world. The retail sector is most promising. They have an incredible amount of leverage, a lot of influence in the market and of course, a direct engagement with the public. They send a very powerful signal into the market that sustainability matters, and it has really changed the tenor of the debate.

When you consider the world’s rapidly booming population and consumption levels, do you sometimes wonder if there will be room for fish and wildlife in 50 years?

There has to be. Somehow we have to find a path that accounts for wildlife and fish, and not just because they’re cute. In the end, the more we learn about how the world works, and the ecosystems we are a part of, the more we understand that our prosperity is very much intertwined with that of the earth. It’s not just about aesthetics, it’s about survival.

And what are the biggest challenges you, as environmentalists, face in convincing people of this fact?

For decades, some people have seen environmentalists as alarmists. And yet, we find ourselves in a situation now that is objectively alarming. So everywhere I go, I have to ask, ‘how do I convey the urgency of this situation without being seen as alarmist?’ If you look at the growing evidence of climate change and the effects that it’s having, it’s pretty scary. And it won’t get easier as the population grows, and as development progresses.

So yes, the challenge is greater than ever. But we haven’t any choice.

How do you convince someone who lives in extreme poverty in China of the importance of saving the panda?

China and India and other developing countries need to find a path for sustainable development, and we collectively have an obligation to support that effort. We must find them a path that is more sustainable than that taken by the Western world, one that is both good for the environment and better for the people. It’s easier said than done. As one Chinese official once said to me, the only proven model for development is the Western one. I think it will happen because the industrialized countries have a self-interest and an obligation to help develop that path, and help support countries in the process of development.

This morning,we heard some fishermen express skepticism of working with environmental groups, and accusations that some look to create problems, not solve them. How do you deal with that kind of skepticism?

Clearly the best way to make progress is to build trust first. The work we’re doing with fishermen here with circle hooks, on the water, is very much about building trust. We’ve worked to show them that these hooks reduce bycatch of such species as turtles and marine birds, but don’t affect their catch of target species. The investment over the past four years has been focused on that, which is what has gotten us to this point.What we’re trying to avoid are situations like what we’re seeing with bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean, where the fishery is at the point of collapse, and will have to be closed if it is to survive at all. That’s not a happy choice for anybody. With the circle hooks, we’re trying to find opportunity to get ahead of the curve, to not reach that point.

But are circle hooks, and reducing bycatch, enough to save our fisheries from disaster?

It’s a place to start. Moving from where we are in many fisheries, to true sustainability, is going to be stepwise. It’s not going to happen all at once, or overnight. Addressing bycatch is a significant part of reducing fisheries’ impact on ecosystems, and we know we can make a big difference, now. There is a lot of debate about the methods, between the stepwise approach, or a more confrontational, close-it-down approach. You have to make those judgments in each context. But we believe that you really need to find a way to work with the fishermen to drive the kind of change that we’re after.

What are your impressions of Costa Rica, and the approach it’s taken to land and sea conservation over the years?

Clearly what Costa Rica did well and early is set aside important habitats in protected areas, and they did it on a large scale.

That is crucial to success. But one has to be concerned about conversion of land outside those protected areas, as well. On the marine side, it’s the subject of this conference.We’re headed in the wrong direction. Fisheries are in decline, and while not yet on the verge of collapse like we’ve seen with bluefin tuna or cod, they’re not headed in the right direction.

One of our challenges with fisheries is that they’re out of sight. For so long we assumed that the ocean was just indestructible.

But science shows otherwise. This is why we must take action here, and now.

What can the consumer do to affect ocean resource declines?

Be conscious about the fish that you buy. The more consumers express a preference for fish that come from sustainable fisheries, the better for the resource. If just a few consumers begin to take notice, the market, and retailers, begin to take notice. And the effect will be enormous. Second, if you care about oceans, you must care about climate change.

It will wreak havoc on ocean ecosystems. As with eating fish, fighting climate change comes back to the choices you make.

 

You may be interested

Of snow, kindness and Northern Lights: a Costa Rican in Manitoba, Canada
Please Send Coffee!
867 views
Please Send Coffee!
867 views

Of snow, kindness and Northern Lights: a Costa Rican in Manitoba, Canada

Gustavo Díaz Cruz - December 14, 2017

My mom named me Gustavo Adolfo. I was born in Puntarenas, next to the sea, but my home was in…

Response to disaster: aid successes, struggles in post-Maria Puerto Rico
Weather
911 views
Weather
911 views

Response to disaster: aid successes, struggles in post-Maria Puerto Rico

John McPhaul - December 13, 2017

As Costa Rica joins many other nations in looking back upon the horrendous 2017 hurricane season, longtime Tico Times contributor…

Looking back at Hurricane Maria: the initial impact
Weather
1943 views
Weather
1943 views

Looking back at Hurricane Maria: the initial impact

John McPhaul - December 12, 2017

As Costa Rica joins many other nations in looking back upon the devastating 2017 hurricane season, longtime Tico Times contributor…