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One man’s quest to improve the lot of fishermen – and fish

Conservationist Crispen Wilson is helping local Indonesians recover after the tsunami, but in a way that doesn’t deplete local fish stocks.

By Oakley BrooksCorrespondent / December 30, 2008

Wharf culture: Crispen Wilson, a conservationist, moves easily among fishermen on the docks of Banda Aceh, where he’s trying to boost their livelihood while protecting fish populations.

Oakley Brooks


Banda Aceh, Indonesia

On the new concrete wharf at Lampulo, this city’s main fishing port, Crispen Wilson wades through the crowd of men moving their catch on shore from high-prowed wooden boats. It is just after dawn as last night’s bounty hits the deck: mackerel almost as long as their barefoot captors, exotic reef fish splashed across wicker baskets, two giant swordfish, tuna of every stripe, and a small circle gathered around something big.

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“Here we go,” Mr. Wilson says, squeezing into the group. In the middle is a dark tan ray, more than four feet wide from wingtip to wingtip, with giant hoods for eyes and a narrowing tail that curls outside the knot of men. It looks extraterrestrial.

While the fishermen look on, Wilson produces a pair of flat-nosed scissors, clips off a piece of tissue from the gill area, and drops the sliver into a vial of alcohol. Eventually, he’ll send it to a Canadian group creating a genetic tree of plants and animals around the world that could aid customs officers in identifying illegally trafficked material – including fish.

Joining these sorts of efforts comes naturally to Wilson, a Missouri native with a goatee and a penchant for T-shirts that say things like “Nigeria’s Endangered Primates” or “Conserve Madagascar’s Biodiversity.” As a conservationist, he’s worked with many of the world’s governments and largest green organizations to save endangered species and sensitive ecosystems.

But here in Lampulo, Wilson walks among the fishermen as a colleague. They know him because he spends his days working for the traditional local fisheries association, known as the Panglima Laut. In the wake of the Asian tsunami that tore through here four years ago this week, Wilson’s helped the Panglima build new digital navigation maps and databases of local fish with the idea of opening up export markets.

For locals, the efforts are the next stage of rebuilding – replenishing the collective knowledge of things like fish seasons and shoals once handed down by word of mouth and then erased when tens of thousands of fishermen and traders perished among the nearly 170,000 Acehnese dead in the tsunami.

Wilson hopes his plucky grass-roots efforts will win the affections of fishermen so that one day he can ask leaders to aggressively manage their fishery and save this piece of the eastern Indian Ocean from the steep decline so common elsewhere in the world. “If you develop relationships,” he says, “then at a later time when you come up with a good management plan, maybe the Panglima Laut will help implement it.”


Some of Wilson’s old colleagues are praising his unusually deep dive from lofty global conventions into the hardscrabble, poverty-stricken world of Indonesian fishing, rife with illegal boats and heavy shark hunting that’s depleting the important predators. “Indonesia’s the No. 1 shark fishery in the world, and it’s going to be in serious trouble unless the [harvest] is taken care of,” says Frazer McGilvray, with Conservation International in Washington, D.C. “Without locals buying in, no program is going to work.”