Ballena! Pescado! Santuario! Hispanic Communities Register High Interest in Marine Conservation and Access to the Ocean

By Anne Smrcina

October 2021

The kids were glued to the railing, caught up in the excitement of seeing their first whale in the wild. Each flipper slap elicited a shout of approval. Nature’s dramatic show attracted the attention of adults, too, as they raised cameras and moaned about missed shots of an earlier humpback breach. An interesting note was that most of the awed exclamations that day were in Spanish.

This group of almost 100 whale watchers to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary had traveled from Lawrence, a city along the northern tier of Massachusetts. Making the trip special was the knowledge that the whales they were watching had migrated from breeding grounds in the Caribbean, including the waters of the Marine Mammal Sanctuary of the Dominican Republic, a sister sanctuary to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Many of the whale watchers who came out to the sanctuary that day to see humpbacks had themselves emigrated from the Dominican Republic or had relatives still there.

two whales at the water's surface with some recreational vessels in the background and a person in the foreground taking a picture with a camera
A participant in the Lawrence whale watch trip photographs feeding whales in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Anne Smrcina

Sister site partnerships allow sites within the National Marine Sanctuary System to work with their peers in other countries collaboratively on common issues and concerns, while sharing important lessons learned. Sister sites are typically linked by a variety of natural and cultural aspects.

Building Partnerships to Reach the Hispanic Community

The students learned of this long-distance whale connection through an education program at a Lawrence Elementary School, offered by staff from Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The program was made possible by a partnership with the Hispanic Access Foundation (HAF) and a local faith-based community. The partners followed that initial effort with an ocean-themed summer school program in a different Lawrence school and, earlier this summer, a virtual fishing workshop with a welcome from Lawrence Mayor Kendrys Vasquez.

A child leaning over the railing on a vessel to look for whales in the water
A Lawrence, Massachusetts student looks for a whale during a whale watch trip. Photo: Anne Smrcina/NOAA

"Hispanic Access Foundation is delighted to work with NOAA to bring the joys of recreational fishing, whale watching, and time on the water to Latino communities, who often face barriers of access to nature and ocean recreation,” said Shanna Edberg, HAF’s director of conservation programs. Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and its sister sanctuary in the Dominican Republic show the richness of human and wildlife connections across waters, countries, and cultures."

A recent report from HAF finds that the extensive cultural and historical connections that Latinos have to the ocean and its coasts could result in this community becoming one of the leading voices in its protection. This evolution will depend on better understanding environmental issues, empowerment of the Latino community, engagement in stewardship efforts, and advocacy.

Teaching Fishing in a Virtual World

people fishing with rods and reels over the side of a boat
Participants from the fishing workshop practiced their learned skills out on the water during a charter fishing trip. Photo: Victor Jarvis

The fishing workshop was held virtually due to the pandemic, which presented a challenge to the webinar team from the sanctuary, NOAA Fisheries, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (MassDMF), and HAF. An educator from MassDMF prepared a video on casting and knot tying, NOAA educators took on fish identification, ethical angling, fish regulations, and connections between shore and sanctuary. HAF arranged for simultaneous translation of the program into Spanish along with translation of fishing documents provided by the agencies.

NOAA provided funding for the webinar and fishing gear for 20 families. The enthusiastic response to the program led to a charter fishing trip soon after, where participants practiced their new fishing skills. Pastor Victor Jarvis, representative of the Lawrence Dominican community said, “Information is power, and reinforcement through hands-on learning is never too much. One thing is the theory and another is being on the playing field.” He had opened the webinar with a blessing that included mention of the parable of teaching a man to fish instead of merely giving a fish. While whales provided the initial link to the community, “fishing is something that can bring families together to enjoy a healthy environment,” said Pastor Jarvis.

“This family fishing program strengthened the relationship between all partners,” said Anne-Marie Runfola, sanctuary program coordinator for volunteers and recreational fishing liaison. “Together, the sanctuary, NOAA Fisheries, and the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries will offer the resulting products and services to other communities for long-term outreach and to broaden our commitment to diverse audiences.”

Learning to Love and Respect the Ocean

“For many of the children and some of their parents, this was the first chance to experience the ocean. For kids who have only seen city streets, the expansive, open ocean is a totally new world,” noted Runfola. “We hope these programs are opening new horizons, both literally and figuratively. The program's on-the-water recreational experiences may inspire a love for fishing, an appreciation of our majestic whales or marine career goals that will stay with the students all their lives.”

The sanctuary is working to build stronger links with the sister sanctuary in the Dominican Republic and the Dominican community in Massachusetts, particularly Lawrence (which is over 40% Dominican—the largest concentration in the state). This work will include education programs in the schools, virtual public outreach sessions, and enhanced communication between technical experts.

The Dominican Republic was the first nation to name their marine protected area a sister sanctuary to NOAA’s Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in 2006. This was the first link in an international network of marine sanctuaries protecting a marine mammal species (humpback whale) at both ends of its migratory route. Bermuda’s whale sanctuary became part of this sister sanctuary network in 2011, and is strategically situated between humpbacks' northern feeding grounds and their southern calving and breeding grounds. Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is also a sister site to marine sanctuaries in the French Antilles and Bonaire’s exclusive economic zone.

a black and white whale at the surface of the water with both flippers up in the air
Flipper slapping is a common humpback whale behavior that the whale watch participants got to see. A similar action, as pictured here, was photographed during a past research cruise. Photo: Elliott Hazen

“We are dedicated to reinforcing our partnerships and building new relationships locally, regionally, and internationally,” said Pete DeCola, superintendent of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. “With the easing of the pandemic, we hope to resume in-person outreach activities and help future participants either get out to Stellwagen Bank or visit the shore. By doing so, they can enjoy the experience of whale watching or recreational fishing while also learning to appreciate the importance of becoming stewards of the marine environment,“ he added.

These programs were made possible by the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Diversity and Inclusion Grant, NOAA Fisheries, Hispanic Access Foundation, and Mass DFW.

Anne Smrcina is the education coordinator for Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.