Ricardo Sagarminaga
Ashoka Fellow desde 2014   |   Spain

Ricardo Sagarminaga

Ricardo engages the diverse sectors working within marine eco-systems (from each segment of the fishing industry to government regulators, conservation organizations, the navy and others) to be active…
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This description of Ricardo Sagarminaga's work was prepared when Ricardo Sagarminaga was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.


Ricardo engages the diverse sectors working within marine eco-systems (from each segment of the fishing industry to government regulators, conservation organizations, the navy and others) to be active and collaborative players in the conversation of marine biodiversity while ensuring sustainable livelihoods for coastal and marine dependent communities. A core element of this strategy is to ensure that meticulous research and the careful application of scientific methods are embedded in the daily lives and responsibilities of front line fisherman, as well as in the hands of policymakers and marine sector constituencies.

La idea nueva

Ricardo is introducing applied science as a critical tool for fisherman on the front line of marine conservation in order to develop effective and appropriate fishing strategies that both preserve marine eco-systems and contribute to fishing communities and to the sector’s long term sustainability. He is transforming traditional fishermen into “organized scientists,” as they have the knowledge and experience of the sea that allows them to collect valuable data contributing to scientific developments balancing livelihood and conservation priorities.

By building bridges among stakeholder groups who have historically refused to talk to one another, or who were innately suspicious, Ricardo has broadened the definition of what it means to be a stakeholder responsible for marine biodiversity conservation by considering all those that live, intervene or affect a specific area. The result is that new and productive collaboration takes place between small-scale fisherman, large fleet operators, research institutions and environment advocacy groups with private marine businesses.

From these collaborations, Ricardo creates solutions that emphasize stewardship and long-term mutual benefits, creating a new equilibrium in the fishing industry necessary for its survival

El problema

Our marine environment is being degraded, leading to the extinction of many fish species, endangered food supplies (especially in developing world) and threatened livelihoods. The core causes of this problem are multiple and diverse, from climate change to pollution to over-exploitation of marine resources.

Oceans cover 71% of the planet's surface and are home to millions of species. In the future, according to expert opinion, they will provide the main food source for humanity. However, sea resources are limited.

Historically, conservation has been seen as the “property” or responsibility of environmental organizations and academics. This has contributed to a lack of responsibility of many other actors, causing negligence, poor management of marine resources and the degradation of the ecosystems. Lack of trust among stakeholders restrains effective collaboration. In the past, groups focused on conservationhave too often worked from unilateral strategies, only belatedly engaging fishermen and their communities who must be key actors in the field.

Seas and oceans represent a way of life for many people around the globe. Worldwide, approximately 200 million people are employed in fishing and around 100 million more jobs are related to the industry as a whole. About 7% of the world's fishing industry is located in Spain.

Spain’s fleet has a very poor reputation abroad and this has legal consequences as regulations are designed sometimes in the light of public pressure rather than being based on scientific approaches. In particular the dates for fishing seasons or biological rest periods are political decisions taken in contexts of greater negotiations, with other interests influencing decisions, which in many cases have little to do with fishing or environmental needs.

Despite the regulatory mechanisms for the world’s fisheries, a high percentage of the global catch is done by illegal fleets that use unsustainable methods. These illegal fleets are pushing legal fisheries out of the markets. If legal fleets disappear, the consequences will not only be economic, but will also have a negative effect on environment, as legal fisheries practices are in majority more environmental friendly than those of illegal fleets.

To date, existing approaches to marine conservation have tended to be imposed top-down, not taking into account needs and opportunities of the community. One of the key conservation strategies worldwide has been the creation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). The benefits of MPAs are proven (protected areas drastically increase diversity, size and abundance of fish and biomass), but as they historically have been imposed top-down, it has created social conflict, failing to build support through compromise with local stakeholders. These practices have had a contributing effect to the failure to meet the established global objective to have at least 20% of oceans regulated under MPAs. As of today we have not even reached a 1%.

La estrategia

Ricardo’s first step in his strategy is identifying leaders within the fishing communities where he works who can help shift practices. These are people that live and work in the area, organize fishermen and transfer information and knowledge in an orderly manner, ensuring that conservation practices remain over time.

He ensures that fishermen become front line researchers in a triangle formed by scientists, fisherman and technology. Traditional knowledge - together with scientific experimentation and the newest technological tools - provide concrete and effective solutions to environmental challenges. For example, based on this collaboration, Ricardo’s efforts have managed to reduce turtle bycatches within the Alboran Area in the Mediterranean Sea by 95% in less than five years. Accidental captures were also a problem for fishermen, as each turtle caught meant less fish to sell and losing the bait that costs money. The idea behind the collaboration between scientists and fisherman is to draw on the expertise and knowledge of all segments to identify both the challenges and opportunities for the most promising approaches to conservation and sustainable livelihoods.

Ricardo’s approach is fundamentally collaborative, involving local, national and international actors and representing numerous sectors: private industry, academia, national and local governments, even the military. In working with communities and sectors in the marine environment, he establishes alliances such as collaborations with UN agencies, universities, national conservation organizations and fishing industry groups. Despite the perception of the fishing industry as unified, it is in fact remarkable diverse, with multiple, competing interests. Ricardo works with the broad spectrum of actors - from cooperatives, to associations, brotherhoods, large private fishing companies - and always works to establish mutual cooperation.

All stakeholders, including the large fishing companies most often criticized, become part of collaboration to identify “win-win strategies.” These strategies are developed by stakeholders whom Ricardo has engaged, basing their proposals on research and experience, coming up with solutions such as sharing of fish harvests among fleets, identifying better bait options or changing length of lines used to avoid accidental bycatch of turtles and dolphins, etc. At the Alboran area, where Ricardo has tested this strategy, he managed to reorganize the transportation routes (that constitute 25% of global marine transportation) to avoid accidents with dolphins, as well as prompting NATO to design a “risk zone map” at the Mediterranean for the use of its sonar that was causing massive whale groundings.

He also works with companies who are willing to have a conversation about improving harvesting practices. Most of the long distance Spanish fleets are family businesses. An important part of this fleets’ production is based on the purchase of fishing to locals (especially at African ports). Ricardo is injecting conservation practices to the big fleets with the aim that it is be transferred as well to locals.

With the goals of raising social awareness about marine biodiversity, recognizing the role traditional fishermen communities’ play, and to attract attention of the main conservation organizations, Ricardo and his collaborators work carefully to build media and public awareness. Ricardo has managed to attract impressive media attention throughout the years to his work: several TV documentaries have been produced by for example National Geographic and ARTE, and he has recently gained the support of the international organization Mission Blue, founded by Sylvia Earle (one of the most respected marine biologists in the world). Journalists are often part of the consortium of stakeholders whom he engages early in the process to draw attention to marine conservation issues and livelihood priorities in the area where they work.

Identifying key flagship species such as turtles or dolphins has been a way to better connect with media and the general audience. This year, in cooperation with the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the US), a group formed by a fishermen, a boat owner, a teacher and a journalist (as well as Ricardo) from the Alboran area will go to Florida to visit the place were loggerhead turtles lay their eggs and reproduce. It is a way of publicly acknowledging the efforts made in this area to preserve this animal.

In much of Ricardo’s work, the research - as well as part of the trainings and even meetings with officials - takes place on his institution’s boat. The boat itself was and is an important element to link and build trust with fishermen. It also serves as a unique platform where diverse groups of stakeholders come together in enclosed surroundings to work collaboratively for marine conservation. Throughout the years, the Toftevaag, this old fishing boat that Ricardo restored himself, has hosted more than 3,000 volunteers from 60 countries. The boat is also a revenue source, as most of volunteers pay for their stay personally or come through corporate responsibility programs from companies that give financial support to the project. As the work has expanded internationally, the Toftevaag cannot serve as the platform in all areas, but the principle of working on boats has remained.

Ricardo is actively expanding his model throughout the world. Although cases differ from region to region, challenges in high biodiversity areas are more or less the same. He is already working in Malta and Djibouti (in partnership with EU and United Nations) developing “Management Action Plans” that take into consideration not only environmental challenges but also socioeconomic aspects, giving a central role to local communities. Together with Calvo, a Spanish long distance fleet, he will bring the model to the Pacific fleet based in El Salvador. In Mauritania, Cabo Verde and other African and Central America countries, they are early in the stage of identifying potential local leaders.

At all these places Ricardo establishes “hard” and “soft” collaborations, being the key partnerships the ones established by scientist and fishermen and building bridges with other stakeholders depending on local needs and challenges, e.g. NOAA, US Fish and Wildlife, UNDP, Hopkins Institute, European Union, etc.

His personal background and experience at conservation organizations and his vision to involve all partners into the conservation strategy has made him focus as well on big NGOs as a way to produce a big domino effect that reaches society and influences as well policy makers.

We live in a time of revolution in oceanography. Thanks to satellites and marking systems we will soon be able to know where fish shoals are, where concrete endangered species are and have maps like the weather forecasts to know this in advance. This will help all stakeholders to improve efficiency while contributing to the conservation of the marine environment, but before that, they need to feel part of the solution.

La persona

Ricardo was active since very young in various environmental organizations, activity he combined with his other two passions: restoring boats and sailing.

He studied marine biology and combined it with a very active participation at Greenpeace. It was back in the 80’s, a busy time for the organization when there was lots of media attention to their actions. Ricardo understood then the power of the individual to mobilize others and to change things but he also felt that this intervention model was not enough for a real change and sometimes negative as it did not take into account other actors and the economic and social consequences of the demands. For that reason, he launched several protest within the organization (including a mutiny in Iceland) that made him decide to approach the topic of conservation from a different perspective.

He stayed with his wife at the Alboran area, restored the Toftevaag, and old fishing boat, and started to carry out scientific research.

In 1989, he founded the Alnitak, an association whose original aim was carrying out scientific research; but in 1999 they changed their perspective and started an intervention strategy. At that time Alnitak participated in a European project called LIFE INDEMARES, whose aim was creating the largest network of protected areas in the world. At the research phase, he acknowledged that one urgent and concrete challenge was accidental turtle capture.

Local fishermen practices were about to make this species become extinct and international Agencies such as NOAA were about to forbid fishing practices at the area, something that could have meant dramatic consequences for local communities. He turned his frustration into action and together with local fishermen they implemented concrete actions to prevent by catches. Their work was considered Best Practice by the EU and highlighted by renowned institutions such as ACOBAMS and Earthwatch.

Once this problem was solved he thought that this collaboration method could be useful to confront other threats and challenges and he also realized that a larger number of stakeholders needed to be included in the conservation efforts. Aware of the bad reputation of Spanish fleet, Ricardo realized that confronting them was not the solution. Working with fisherman and other stakeholders to collect data and help them improve their work to be more sustainable would better guarantee sustainability and food for the future.

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