PUNTA ABREOJOS, BAJA CALIFORNIA SUR – A blinding light suddenly slashed through the deep darkness of the night in Asuncion Bay, striking the deck of a small expedition boat. The squinting crew members were aghast to see armed men in another vessel shining the beam on them. Were the intruders dangerous traffickers of contraband? That turned out to be the question both parties of sea goers were asking. The spotlighted mariners breathed more easily when they learned the approach came from coast guards of the nine lobster and abalone cooperatives on the Pacific shores of the Baja Peninsula. For their part, the security patrol members were visibly relieved to learn that the passing craft carried a science mission recreating a voyage round the peninsula recorded by authors John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts in their 1941 Log from the Sea of Cortez.

On board was the director of the Biodiversity Research Center at the San Diego Museum of Natural History, Exequiel Ezcurra. The sagacious doctor in ecological mathematics recognized the self-proclaimed guardians of the main as the answer to the worst threat facing fisheries in the Gulf of California Region: piracy. The cooperatives” sentinels form part of a community fishing strategy, which has earned international certification for sustainability, positioning them as a model in their line of work.

The cooperatives” success stories cover the west coast of the peninsula from Isla Cedros on the north to Punta Abreojos on the south. Set as they are against a desolate backdrop of overexploitation and habitat degradation, they give hope to the fishing industry, the most important socio-economic activity in the Gulf of California Region. "It”s the only place from Los Cabos to Vancouver where abalone and lobster are fished in a sustainable manner," says Ezcurra, who also has served as director of the Mexican government”s National Ecology Institute.

Punta Abreojos: The cooperatives’ success stories cover the west coast of the Baja Peninsula from here to Isla Cedros. Photo: Dahl McLean

Here as in the rest of the world, fishing is in danger. It is in a supply-and-demand crisis. More than 75% of fisheries have exceeded capacity or are at maximum capacity, according the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. It seems as if the fishing industry is figuratively trapped in its own net. It must satisfy the needs of the market and assure its own survival at the same time.

In the end, solutions will depend on bringing the prevailing chaos to order. The challenges demand a mix of formulas that range from respecting traditional use areas to enforcing unprecedented bans, from retiring parts of an old fleet to utilizing new technologies, from removing subsidies to offering credits. Diversification of income sources is needed everywhere, from Natural Protected Areas to aquaculture farms, from cooperatives to joint federal-community projects. In all of this, training and environmental education are crucial. Mustering the will to conserve resources today will promote their abundance tomorrow.

Lobstermen Lead the Way

A whirring outboard motor propels a fishing boat on its daily rounds of 75 lobster pots. On deck, Martin Murillo and Jorge Leere scan the sea for faded red buoys. The color distinguishes their traps from those of 39 similar boats run by the 158 members in their Punta Abreojos cooperative. The fisherman made these cages with escape hatches for smaller lobsters and biodegradable staples to avoid injuring marine life. By law, any lobster taken must have a minimum thorax length of 82.5 mm. As Murillo steers the craft into the waves, Leere measures all the lobsters in each trap and throws back to sea about half the catch, which is too small. On this day, near the end of the five-month season, the morning”s commercial take is 58 specimens, while at the opening of the season in October it was as many as 500. Each kilo of lobster brings a fisherman six pesos (a little more than 50 cents) after it is sold in China. A lobsterman also can take home up to six of the shellfish every two weeks. At Murillo”s home, Sara Nieto impales a lobster with a knife and slices it in half lengthwise. You can bet she”s accustomed to this, 22 years after moving from her native Sinaloa state on the opposite side of the Gulf of California and marrying Murillo here. "Poor thing, it hurts," she repeats with apparently genuine sympathy as the lobster squirms in a frying pan with butter, salt, and pepper.

Martín Murillo and Jorge Leere: They made these cages to prevent damage to marine populations. Photo: Dahl McLean

Counting Punta Abreojos and the other eight fishing cooperatives, the Baja California Cooperative Societies Regional Federation (Fedecoop) has an annual lobster catch of 1,400 tons. Scientific Certifications Systems, Inc. first verified the sustainability of the federation”s fishery management in 2004, for its compliance with the international guidelines of the independent, non-profit Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The cooperative members not only have reversed the downward trend in the species” reproduction rate, but also have as much as doubled production volume since 2000, in the case of Isla Cedros. With that, the federation has become the first community fishery to obtain certification in a developing country. The eco label it receives as a result means greater competitiveness and better prices in the European market, where diners demand that products guarantee protection of the environmental and producers” income. More than 100 seafood distributors, including large supermarket chains in France, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States, have pledged to buy products with the MSC logo.

Measuring all the lobsters: They obtained sustainable management certification. Photo: Dahl McLean

The escape hatches are the result of self-policing, as are other sustainable practices, such as a ban on using nets in areas where fish lay eggs. The cooperatives determine penalties, such as barring a rule breaker from fishing during the lucrative first two weeks of a season. These measures are based on technical advice to directors” councils and approved by membership consensus. Periodic monitoring and evaluation contribute to the community-based decisions. Patrol boats fend off furtive fishing trips from far-off places. Direct sales is the next step in commercialization for the Punta Abreojos cooperative. It is starting to export canned yellowtail with its own brand name, Punta Abreojos Fishing Co. Diversification of income sources is part of the strategy cooperatives follow. Besides yellowtail sales, Punta Abreojos cultivates abalone. After four years of a community ban to reestablish the mollusk”s population in the wild, the cooperative now sells abalone. Members also promote protection of endangered species, such as sea turtles. This helps them increase income sources through ecotourism from turtle watchers who visit the cooperative”s Estero El Coyote camp. The cooperative”s days of over-fishing are gone, according to Miguel Valenzuela, in charge of the Punta Abreojos abalone nursery. "It”s better to have a more secure future so our children can see the lobster, and the abalone, too; not just see the photo," he says.

“ … so our children can see the lobster … not just the photo.” Photo: Talli Nauman

It”s been 30 years now that the cooperatives have been in charge of not only their productive activities, but also the services in their locations, including desalting and supplying sea water for domestic use; generating and distributing electricity; and providing roads, security, health, and education. The direct responsibility of keeping their communities” infrastructure up and running has motivated cooperative members to train themselves in the best available technology. Self-sufficiency is their watchword. Government support is barely beginning to reach remote fishing villages like Punta Abreojos, which has a population of 1,000. Now, with the Federal Electricity Commission”s introduction of a power plant, with new state credits to buy boat engines, and with the advent of docks proposed by the Tourism Secretariat, cooperative members insist on taking part in decisions and management of local activities. In their efforts to assure sustainability, they receive support from scientists and environmental organizations, such as World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Comunidad y Biodiversidad, and the Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas del Noroeste, among others. By the same token, they have shared their experiences to help fellow fishers from Central America to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, as well as in communities throughout the Gulf of California Region. WWF analyses qualify the cooperatives” practices as "being valuable for fishing resources management and conservation of any region and in particular in the Upper Gulf of California." (See sidebar "Family Fishers …".)

Family Fishers Should Feel Like Owners of Their Resources

The abalone and lobster cooperatives along the Pacific Coast of the Baja Peninsula have inspired many other fisheries. Among them are the Divers Cooperative Society of Puerto Peñasco, Sonora, and new organizations in Bahia de los Angeles, Baja California. Now they too serve as examples to other communities of family fishers who seek to improve their situation.

Family fishing is particularly important in Mexico and other developing countries, not only because it provides many employment opportunities and the bulk of the food in many coastal communities, but also because it is the first line of defense against marine environmental deterioration. The National Fisheries Inventory shows 12,000 registered small fishing boats compared with 2,000 large ones in the Gulf of California. The coastal fishers, as the family fishers are also called, are part of the 94% of fishers in the world who operate on a small scale and provide 45% of the planet”s seafood production, according to CEDO researcher Cudney.

Family fishers” progress in protecting the environment is stymied by problems specific to their status, such as lack of organizations to help diagnose and communicate their circumstances, little regularization, and insufficient official recognition of their needs. That”s why Semarnat earmarked US $1 million to support their productive activities in Baja California and Sonora in the past federal administration.

With the exception of the organizations that have concessions, no group has succeeded better than the Divers Cooperative Society of Puerto Peñasco. "The Peñasco divers” management and conservation efforts are in themselves testaments of the larger restructuring processes in which Mexican fisheries are engaged," Cudney observes. The cooperative”s 30 members adopted their own initiatives for more responsible local fishing a decade ago, after encountering declining shellfish stocks, increasing boundary conflicts, and insufficient control over access to marine resources. For that they received the government”s 2003 National Conservation Award. While other groups were opposing restricted fishing areas, in 1996, the divers established rules for themselves based on a community diagnosis. Their success in reestablishing the sea snail population motivated other Puerto Peñasco fisheries. The cooperative”s shell banks remain productive because of its no-take zones and temporary bans. Still members complain about raiders. The group is demanding the right to exclusive permits and official recognition of its private coast guard.

Another coastal fishers” group effort that demonstrates the sector”s transition and the influence of the lobster cooperatives is the one in Bahia de los Angeles.

The instructions for getting to the center of the town of "Bay of L.A.," as gringos call it, are: Take the only paved road; go until it ends and turn to the right; it”s a house on the left side. The center, in this case, refers to the Bahia de los Angeles Community Resources Center. It is the only center of the village of 600 fishers and their families. Before it existed, the town had not a single institution. Bay of L.A. lived outside the law. Now this house, belonging to fisherman Fermin Smith, sports a logo of Pronatura, a non-profit environmental consultant. Between sunset and the hour the local generator shuts down the power for lighting, the fishers gather here with cold beers in hand to talk things over. They discuss putting their fishery in order, because of urgent challenges posed by government directives that entail restricted areas and tourism infrastructure projects. When the rooster crows in the morning, the fishers are back at the center again to take a safety course in diving or receive some other training.

Since about 70 years back, when the first 86 ejido families settled here, they have considered themselves free fishers, without any associations or legal recognition. To this day only a handful exercise the prerogative to show up at meetings with authorities. Guides for foreign sports fishing parties often shirk their duty to inform clients of fishing take limits. Now the National Fisheries Inventory shows that their area has been fished to its maximum capacity. And Fermin Smith”s father, who bears the same name, laments, "The worst problem we have is that we don”t unite in our efforts."

Fermin Smith, father: “The worst problem we have is that we don’t unite in our efforts.” Photo: Talli Nauman

However, change is happening little by little, since the younger Smith brought Pronatura into his home. Its promoters encourage a culture of legality, form work crews, and train fishers in everything from how to obtain permits and registrations to public speaking. Through workshops, meetings and parties, the fishers formed the Bahia Divers group in March 2005, and the Bold Bay Fishermen in November of that year. They have registered their boats and obtained government fishing permits. They are forming a non-profit fishing organization in order to diversify income sources. "Working with Pronatura, I learned that to protect the resources, we have to manage them," says Smith.

In a way, Bahia de Los Angeles is taking shape as a model post-modern fishing village. The fishers are carrying out a census, and they are keeping a permanent record of local catches for submission to the National Fisheries Inventory, something that few other communities to date do for themselves. Next, they want to elaborate a sustainable management plan for commercial and sport fishing of sea cucumbers, octopus, and sole, which will relieve pressure on clams, crab, corvina, and sierra. Working together, they also could establish minimum sizes for the catch of other species. They would like to acquire concessions, like those at Punta Abreojos. They need to feel like "owners of their resources," says Smith. Likewise, says Esteban Torreblanca, the Sustainable Fisheries Program coordinator of Pronatura in Ensenada, Baja California, "Family fishing is an economic option because it maintains community and income. But as long as local people don”t understand management, they are not going to achieve real sustainability." – TN

Another secret to success is the 26 lobster concessions granted to the cooperatives since the government created them in 1936. Each cooperative has a clear description of its area, which helps with legal matters and in preventing piracy. It also facilitates access to credit and commercialization.

Squandering the Gulf”s Rich Inheritance

The cooperatives started out as fishing camps like those of the natives to the Gulf of California Region, the indigenous Seri (Conca”ac) and Yaqui (Yoreme). Among all the native inhabitants of the region, these two ethnic groups alone obtained constitutional recognition of parts of their coastal territory, such as Taheojc Island and Tiburon Island, the Conca”ac”s last stronghold.

The indigenous cosmovision in the region puts environment protection above all other values, making it a strong source of checks and balances on the basic activity of fishing. The marine ecosystem”s importance to the culture is manifest in local artists” ironwood sculptures of whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and snails. Traditional Conca”ac turtle blessing ceremonies inspire activists. On March 18, 2006, the UN Environment Programme announced World Bank financial support for protecting sacred sites on Taheojc Island for the purpose of staunching international biodiversity loss.

The Indians no longer can assure respect for their ancestral fishing rights. Their boundaries are under siege from outside fishing expeditions, a phenomenon that exposes marine resources to overexploitation. However, the Conca”ac have legally established exclusive fishing areas, which guarantees a modicum of control over access and use of the natural resources. This provides them an advantage compared with most fishers of the region who lack defined catch areas, an issue that is as imperative to address as enforcement.

The history of the Upper Gulf is that of colonizers drawn by its enormous fishing resources, according to Richard Cudney Bueno, researcher at the Intercultural Resource Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans (CEDO). That”s pretty much the story of the whole region. The mega productivity of the gulf waters is due to the currents and deep waters, which are rich in sea-bottom nutrients. Exceptionally strong tides and seasonally changing wind directions casino online help sweep up nutrients to feed huge amounts of plankton, the microscopic organisms at the base of the food chain.

The Gulf of California”s abundance makes this sea Mexico”s principle fishing area. According to the region”s Marine Ecological Use Plan, it provides 66% of the volume and 55.4% of the total national production value. Fishing employs some 80,000 people and sustains 250 processing plants. The shrimp, sardine, tuna, and squid catch can reach 500,000 tons a year, according to WWF. Other high volume seafood resources are anchovy, crab, dorado, shark, and manta ray. The value of the gulf”s entire take exceeds US $300 million a year.

However the industry and the region suffer from resource abuse going back 50 years to when the world fishing crisis occurred. By 1996, 60% of the world”s commercial marine fishing reserves had been fished out, over exploited, or restricted for recuperation, according to WWF. Today, the non-profit Oceana maintains that the world”s fisheries are on the verge of an irreversible collapse. In the gulf, since the first years of this century, all the fisheries also have reached or surpassed the limit of capacity, according to Conservation International.

At the dawn of the century, the Pacific shrimp fleet had more boats than ever and was registering its lowest volume of capture in history. The drop in profitability is an important factor in growing emigration.

Damage Done by Inadequate Policies, Practices

Fishers have been supplying an unabashedly expanding world market in an inadequate regulatory framework, without modern technology, with ever increasing costs, with unstable prices due to international factors beyond their control, and with perverse subsidies. Now they have to compete with sport fishing, aquaculture, agriculture, manufacturing, and coastal real estate development in a setting that demands protection of clean freshwater currents, estuaries, and no-take zones. Pirates make off with 40% of the available volume, according to Ocean Garden, the industry”s best-known buyer in the region. In addition to over-fishing of commercial species, fishers snag alarming amounts of other marine life that they waste.

The National Fishing and Aquaculture Commission, Conapesca, maintains that dragnets are to blame for the lion”s share of human impact on underwater fauna, flora, and geography. The apparatuses affect the sandy marine bottom structure, altering habitat and crushing incidental species with chains and boards. Sinaloa”s shrimp fleet, which is the largest with nearly 600 boats, drags nearly 20 million acres (8 million hectares) a year, capturing some 400 different species. The shrimp industry has area permits that allow its boats into certain parts of the gulf. Other fisheries use gill nets, prohibited in the United States, and long lines, recently banned in California. Indiscriminate extraction, using these diverse methods, can result in a 10-to-1 ratio of catch-to-target species, as is the case with dragnet shrimping.

Among the incidental catch are protected species, such as the vaquita, a marine mammal found only in the extreme northern gulf. This little porpoise is in critical danger of extinction. Calculating 40 to 60 accidentally captured each season, the total population of 400 to 1,000 could disappear in a decade. For that reason WWF and Conservation International signed an accord in 2005, recognizing that "the current status of the vaquita is the most pressing environmental issue in the Gulf of California." The totoaba, an endemic fish, has been subject to a ban since 1975 when commercial fishing for it practically decimated the population. Recognized defenders of sea turtles fear that incidental deaths of these denizens of the deep, caused by fishing in the gulf, could reach one-a-day in season, the equivalent of 40,000 each year. Perhaps nothing is sadder than seeing one of these centuries-old endangered species dead in a fishing net. However, it could be worth US $300 on the black market.

All the species—commercial, protected, and otherwise—suffer the same from the pollution of waters by municipal and industrial discharges, as well as by boats, many of which are outmoded and burn fuel inefficiently. In addition to polluting the water, boats in the gulf emit 1.2 billion cubic meters annually of greenhouse gas, according to the multi sector National Sustainable Development Advisory Council.

The Mexican public has paid the cost for the subsidies of fuel and shrimp fleet maintenance. Consumers far from the coast, many of whom don”t make the money to buy a pound of fresh shellfish, have unknowingly contributed US $50 million in taxes to maintain the Pacific industrial fleet. On the other hand, shrimpers are tired of hearing the repeated litany of their sins of resource destruction.

Puerto Peñasco and Shrimp: Safety in Numbers

In an austere office at dockside in Puerto Peñasco, the pages of the "Mexican Shrimp Fleet Fishing Log" lie face-up on the desk of Mateo López León, manager of the National Aquaculture and Fishing Industry Chamber (Canainpesca), one of the main representatives of the private shrimping companies. Bearing silent witness to the shrimpers” efforts in transition to sustainability, the papers show the results of voluntary monitoring of species caught and support the manager”s arguments. "They made the industrial shrimpers feel guilty for the whole deterioration of the Gulf of California," he objects. "We aren”t against the environment. We take an interest in it because our living depends on it."

Vaquita in critical danger of extinction: Perhaps nothing is sadder. Photo: Alejandro Robles González, Conservation International

Shrimp has reached the proportions of a deity in the gulf. In economic terms, it is by far the most important fishery in the region, representing 52% of the sector”s total value in 2001. Related to it are more than 1,144 boats (56% of the national total) and 150 processors. The activity generates more than 30,000 jobs a year, with seasonal average production reaching 18,000 tons, worth US $150 million in the local economy. That”s 43% of the total value of the catch nationally.

Shrimp is Puerto Peñasco”s reason for being. After annihilating the totoaba, local fishers turned to shrimp. Today”s shrimp boat owners are from the same families that established the totoaba trade in the 1950s. Shrimp and other fishing contribute US $22 million a year to the economy of Puerto Peñasco and the other two points that define the triangle of the Upper Gulf—the villages of San Felipe and El Golfo de Santa Clara.

Puerto Peñasco: Shrimp is its reason for being. Photo: Dahl McLean

Fishers applauded the creation in 1993 of the Colorado River Delta and Upper Gulf of California Biosphere Reserve after a drastic decline in shrimp productivity in the late 1980s and early 1990s convinced them protections were necessary to restock. But they were disappointed when the reserve failed to reestablish marine populations. According to Conservation International, gulf shrimp fishing collapsed in 1997 and hasn”t recuperated yet. In response, the federal government declared Upper Gulf conservation a priority in 2001, ordering a ban on shrimping in the reserve”s buffer zone. Canainpesca members came out in force against the order, closing the highway to Puerto Peñasco in protest. They claimed they were not consulted or advised about the ban, and the government eventually set up a negotiating table.

By 2004, the National Sustainable Development Advisory Council requested what would become the Marine Ecological Use Plan for the gulf, declaring, "We demand an end to the ecocide in the Sea of Cortés and control of fishing activities such that they don”t endanger the natural resources of this part of the country." In response, the Environment and Natural Resources Secretariat (Semarnat), together with the region”s five state governors, launched the planning process. Real cooperation for fishing planning in the Upper Gulf began the following year with a historic series of meetings between representatives of government, non-governmental organizations, fishers, traders, researchers, and environmentalists.

Accords signed in Puerto Peñasco, Tijuana, and Mexicali were giant steps toward a better future in this part of the gulf. By the end of 2005, negotiators had established the boundaries of a vaquita sanctuary and measures to save the species, as well as compensation for refraining to fish in the refuge. Semarnat proclaimed the vaquita haven in September 2005. Offshore fishing was immediately precluded in a 25-square-mile (65 km 2 ) area near Consag Island and another 77-square-mile (200 km 2 ) zone adjacent to the biosphere reserve”s waters. The management of this requires cost sharing, registration, community patrols, zoned production logs, monitors, cutting deep sea fishing season from six to three months, reduction of the number of boats from 400 to 160, switching of net technology in a two-year period, utilization of sea turtle excluders and escape hatches for juvenile and protected large species, and control of trash and toxic waste.

Among the ambitious agreements reached are promises to eradicate covert fishing operations, stop anchoring nets for more than half an hour, end passive indiscriminate netting of species, prohibit gillnets with mesh of six inches or larger in the reserve”s buffer zone; test environmentally friendly boat motors; maintain an evaluation program of alternative fishing methods; ensure ongoing studies and training, and promote community-wide contracts. This is a maximum effort demonstrating how much can be achieved with determination and collaboration. A final progress report remains to be seen.

Nets: Signed accords were giant steps toward a better future. Photo: Helene Michoux

Regardless, the process detonated an unprecedented collaboration between Ocean Garden company, its suppliers, and state officials, conceived to assure consumers that their shrimp is obtained according to the environmental regulations of Mexico and the United States. The former para-state company went private on Feb. 1, 2006, and set its first multi sector meeting on a new quality control system for two days later. The system was designed to improve accountability in the shrimp commercialization cycle, from origin to processing plant, from storage through transportation. For their part, Puerto Peñasco shrimpers voluntarily reduced the number of active boats to 120, the number of fishing days in restricted areas to 90, and the length of their drag lines from 140 to 100 feet. As another self-policing method, Canainpesca tested the country”s first fish-eye excluder of incidental catch, in addition to using turtle excluders. It submitted to monitoring by 20 independent observers. What”s more, now each year it submits a report to authorities, showing the log book tallies for total extraction, bycatch, and waste disposition at docks. "There is safety in numbers," says López León.

Also in February 2006, Conapesca initiated the National Alliance Against Illegal Fishing to optimize the results of the process, make bans effective, and protect endangered species. The effectiveness of planning and sustainability depend on producers, "the main allies in achieving this important task of consolidating a prosperous fishing and aquaculture sector," said Commissioner Ramón Corral Ávila. Obviously a lot remains to be done. "There”s still no sustainable shrimping," warns Alejandro Castillo, coordinator of Sustainable Development Projects at CEDO. For his part, says Sergio Enrique Zavala, manager of industrial operations for Ocean Garden, "The political will is the main thing."

Day of Reckoning: Ocean Fisheries also Depend on Fresh Water

For projects like these to flourish, the strides taken in recent years and months require reinforcement, updating regulatory frameworks, defining efficient enforcement mechanisms, continuous monitoring and evaluation, cleaning up freshwater flows to the gulf, and finding more alternatives in production. On a recent visit to the gulf region, Anthony Cox, principle analyst for the Fishing Division of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), concluded that federal fishing administration should return to Cabinet level status to facilitate the incipient management plan for Pacific coastal shrimping and other efforts. If officials strictly obey their mandates it will benefit all concerned, from the abalone to the consumer, Ocean Garden”s Zavala summarizes. "In all I”ve seen, it”s a question of acting and doing," he says.

Even so, in marine ecological use planning, fishers face conflicts over the interests of aquaculture, tourism, conservation, and agriculture development in the gulf region. Among the most problematic are those of delimiting fishing catch boundaries and water pollution exacerbated by scarcity of fresh water. Without integrated planning these problems can reduce the region to ruin and poverty, Conapesca admits. "Fishing development in the area requires regional accords to control current emissions from industry and agribusiness, and from the nearby urban sewage," it says in an apocalyptic diagnosis of the situation. "In the long term, the regional picture on the Mexican Pacific north coast is one of increasing shortages in the watersheds, catastrophes provoked by flooding, and impact on other productive activities."

Observers need look no further than the official story to see that experts recognize the day of reckoning is here. "Protection of water basins is strategic for coastal development, requiring creation of environmental management plans, which take into consideration that industrial and agribusiness development should avoid deadly contamination of ecosystems," Conapesca says in a position paper. "The implication of the absence of policies or management plans are lowered quality of human life in cities and nearby communities, related to erosion, runoff, and declining biological populations, among them commercial aquatic ones."