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Guiding a community of small-scale fishers through times of uncertainty

How one leader is using the Resilient Small-Scale Fisheries Leadership Accelerator to keep the fishing industry moving forward in his region
August 29th, 2022
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Provided by Nico Gómez Andújar


In order to create fisheries that can withstand the changing climate and social environment, leaders must inspire their community and drive action toward a more sustainable future. 

Nicolás “Nico” Gómez Andújar is making it his mission to do just that. As a participant in our Resilient Small-Scale Fisheries Leadership Accelerator in partnership with Environmental Defense Fund, Nico has been diving into invaluable lessons. The skills he’s currently learning in the program are designed to help him navigate uncertainties and change among a powerful network of like-minded peers. Given his multiple leadership roles, he’s especially excited to promote sustainability and facilitate communication within the various fisheries communities he works with. 

Based in Puerto Rico, Nico serves in three main leadership roles. He’s a research technician at Sociedad Ambiente Marino, where he studies coral reefs. He's also the Secretary on the Board of Directors for the newly-formed Asociación Pesquera de Culebra (Fisher's Association), where he manages local and external resources and facilitates a system of “self-organization,” giving organizations the tools to problem-solve independently. His last role is as the Community Development Facilitator at Mujeres de Islas, a non-profit focused on women and children that aims to bring food security to Puerto Rico.

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Photo provided by Nico Gómez Andújar

Having left the industry to pursue his studies, Nico describes his return to small-scale fishing as an unexpected twist of fate in his life. “It’s kind of a serendipitous path,” he explained. Born and raised on Culebra, an island municipality of Puerto Rico, Nico is no stranger to the industry of small-scale fishing — it runs in his family. However, his initial aversion to the trade propelled him to explore higher education in marine conservation, which eventually connected him back to human communities. He quickly learned that “conserving and managing marine resources or any type of natural resource is really about interacting with people and understanding better human behavior and what our needs are.”

As his career path led him towards more human-centric work, Nico realized he needed develop his leadership abilities. He was beginning to manage broader conflicts in the small-scale fishing industry, specifically around “things that are very hard to untangle and that don’t have a clear answer, such as in poverty and equity.” And with magnified stressors, such as back-to-back hurricanes caused by climate change, he wanted to be able to address mounting struggles in a productive way. Around this time, he stumbled across the new Resilient Small-Scale Fisheries Leadership Accelerator.

"Before this accelerator...I had viewed leadership as a title conferred by others and I often struggled to relate its concepts back to the work that I do. I have learned that leadership is more of a verb than something that is acted upon with or without authority, and not so much a noun or a title."

Using polarities management to navigate opposing views 

An often enlightening element of the program is unpacking the idea of Polarities Management. The practice of managing polarities helps us develop the skills to identify and carry contradictory but interdependent beliefs. In practice, it allows us to create effective, proactive, and nuanced decisions in the face of opposing viewpoints and difficult conversations, and can help leaders investigate the history behind conflicts and tensions. 

In managing collectives built on cooperation, Nico had to learn how to weave information coming from different — and sometimes contradictory — sources into agreeable action. “The polarity of small-scale fishing that we face almost constantly is centralized management — and the rules come from the top down — versus the community consensus of how we should and need to manage our local resources.” Polarities Management can inspire him to investigate the history behind conflicts and tensions, and reach agreements between governance and workers on the ground. 

Photo provided by Nico Gómez Andújar

Sources of tension don’t always stem between the top and the bottom, and conflicts can occur among fishers themselves. Nico recalled witnessing an instance in his father’s work when a boat was burned down due to a disagreement. He wanted to ensure that these issues could be better managed and deescalated under his leadership. 

“Due to the environmental [and] social complexities of small scale fisheries, it's a tricky balancing act to design interventions that are socially just and also environmentally sustainable. This accelerator offered the tools to help me navigate the real-world experiences of leaders across the world [along with] our personal journeys.”

“A real challenge for me in this adaptive work has been understanding why my community has been so defensive towards a new fishing association — or any type of formal arrangement — that would unite their cooperation which has existed informally for the past 15 years or so,” he expressed. “It has to do with politics [and] the exclusion of people in the past.” 

This accelerator has also helped Nico explore his personal challenges with developing the confidence both to lead and to manage others’ losses. However, he’s now empowered to view his own difficulties as opportunities to grow his leadership abilities. “[Recognizing] the tensions between aspects of our personal and professional lives can help us anticipate the learning curve of our leadership work,” he reflected.

The trial and error of adaptive leadership 

When working with people who are used to a particular style and way of doing things, Nico realized he needs to be more sensitive and careful in choosing strategies that unite everyone. “I’ve had to change tactics,” he admitted. “For example, instead of relying on group meetings, it has had to be more of an individual conversation as we get everybody on the same page and recognizing our real needs of food and security.”

Adaptive Leadership is at the core of the Accelerator — a leadership style and technique that  embraces how to facilitate change in times of uncertainty. “In this program, I’ve learned the concept of experimentation or ‘dancing on the edge,’ the gray area between authority and informal social relationships that allow community members to feel safe and have a team.” He understands that challenging the status quo, implementing intervention, and applying trial and error will inevitably lead to disappointments, but he also views this process as a “blueprint” for how to frame other small-scale fishing projects in the future. 

Having previously developed a narrow view about conservation, Nico observed that the system was much more complex than his perspectives from academia and his family of fisherfolk. “I don’t think we would be in our community where we are now if we hadn’t taken the time to talk to other people that we might have a preconceived idea about.”

image002Photo provided by Nico Gómez Andújar

Nico realized that his effectiveness as an emerging leader in his sector doesn’t need to involve immediate drastic change and might come in smaller steps. As he learned in the program, “It’s not about charging with the flag into a battle, it’s about perhaps proposing something small.” 

When asked about advice he might pass along to new leaders in small scale fisheries, he had a very actionable response. “Talk to everyone, from managers to different types of fishers, and not just the people that harvest, but also the workers that build the gear, that repair the motors, that create the nets, that process and sell the catch. And be open about your perceptions of what is working and what is wrong.” 

Ultimately, Nico has set values and a clear vision from the accelerator to guide his leadership strategy: “working towards what’s good for vulnerable people and ocean resources.” 

Curious to find out more about our Resilient Small-Scale Fisheries Leadership Accelerator? Explore the program here, and sign up to learn more about recruitment for our next cohort here.