Jul 112016
 

One year on from when we last reported on the desperate plight of Mexico’s “little sea cow”, the endangered vaquita marina, where are we now?

According to the World Wildlife Fund, “The vaquita is at the edge of extinction”. The latest population estimate suggests that the number of vaquita in the wild has fallen from about 100 in 2014 to just 60 today, despite a much-publicized ban on fishing in the main area where the little sea cows are found.

As we reported in Mexico’s “little sea cow” on the verge of extinction two years ago, the sea cow’s fate is inextricably tied to fishing for the (also endangered) totoaba, a fish in demand in China for its swim bladder, which is believed to have medicinal properties. Fishermen in Mexico’s Gulf of California (Sea of Cortés) are reported to have been offered more than $4,000 for a single totoaba bladder, which weighs only 500 grams. The price in China is reported to be between $10,000 and $20,000 each.

Map of sightings and acoustic detection spots. Adapted from North American Conservation Action Plan for the vaquita

Map of sightings and acoustic detection spots. Adapted from North American Conservation Action Plan for the vaquita

In April 2015, federal authorities imposed a two-year ban on gillnets and expanded the vaquita protection area to cover 13,000 square kilometers (5,000 square miles) of the upper Gulf of California . Some 600 gill nets (each of which can be up to # meters long) were seized by the Mexican Navy in 2015 (and 77 individuals detained), and navy personnel claim they are still confiscating nets every day.

The International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) is trying to make a difference. Among the options being considered by Mexico’s Environment Secretariat (Semarnat) is assisted breeding, though a vaquita expert, Barbara Taylor of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is quoted in The Guardian as claiming that “We have no idea whether it is feasible to find, capture and maintain vaquitas in captivity much less whether they will reproduce. The uncertainties are large.” The World Wildlife Fund Mexico is currently opposed to such a strategy, given the very low number remaining.

Mexico has had conservation successes in the past, allowing the populations of other marine animals, including the Guadalupe fur seal and the northern elephant seal, to recover.

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Jan 042016
 

The World Trade Organization (WTO) issued a final ruling at the end of 2015 favoring Mexico in its long-running trade dispute with the U.S. over the labeling of tuna products. The acrimonious dispute began, more than 20 years ago, because the USA refused to allow Mexican fishermen to use the coveted “dolphin‑safe” label.  The “dolphin safe” labels certify that tuna fishing is in compliance with the International Dolphin Protection Program.

The USA is the world’s largest importer of tuna, imported tuna worth more than one billion dollars in 2014, only 2.1% of which (about 20,000 metric tons) came from Mexico.

Dolphin-safe-logoWhen the dispute began, there is no doubt that Mexican fishermen were catching many dolphins as by-catch. Part of the conflict revolved around the very different methods of fishing employed in the two countries. USA tuna fishermen use long‑line fishing in which every species hooked is killed. Mexican tuna fishermen, on the other hand, use the encirclement method which involves locating tuna by tracking the dolphins that swim with the tuna schools. Large nets are then employed. Any dolphins trapped in the nets are released by hand and returned (alive) to the ocean.

Mexico has introduced far more stringent restrictions on tuna fishing methods since the dispute began, including professional observers on every ship to record each tuna catch; conservation measures over the past two decades have reduced dolphin by-catch by 99%. Mexican fishing methods are now recognized as fully sustainable by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

Mexico is one of the world’s ten leading tuna producers. Mexico’s tuna catch (mainly yellowfin tuna) rose to 166,000 metric tons in 2013. Domestic demand exceeds 190,000 metric tons a year, so Mexico currently has to import some tuna.

Mexico’s leading producer of canned tuna for the domestic market, worth close to a billion dollars a year, is Pinsa Comercial. Its three main brands – Dolores, El Dorado and Mazatún – account for more than half of the local market. Consumption of tuna has been rising steadily in Mexico, and Pinsa has introduced various new presentations of canned tuna in order to boost it still further from its current level of around eight cans/person/year. Pinsa is a vertically-integrated firm with its own fleet of tuna boats and freezing plants. (The firm also has Mexico’s largest fishing fleet for sardines, used to make fish flour, sold to agricultural and pharmaceutical industries.)

Mexico’s tuna fishing quota, set by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Fishing Commission, is about 35% higher than its current annual catch. Modernizing the tuna fleet is one way to raise catches and reduce tuna imports.

About 20,000 families in Mexico depend on tuna fishing for their livelihood. This figure includes not only fishermen but also those working in associated processing and packing plants. Mexico’s 130-vessel tuna fleet is the largest in Latin America.

The WTO ruling means that Mexico may now seek compensation for its trade losses.

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Nov 232015
 

As we discussed in this earlier post, historical analysis combined with greater climatological understanding shows that many of the worst droughts and floods in Mexico have been associated with either El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events or with the related Pacific-North American Oscillation. Perhaps 65% of the variability of Mexican climate results from changes in these large-scale circulations.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) says the 2015-2016 ENSO is expected to be one of the three most powerful ENSO events since 1950 with effects that will last for up to eight months.

What will this winter’s El Niño bring? 

  • slightly higher ocean water temperature off west coast; some fish species may migrate northwards
  • some winter rain in north-west
  • increased winter storms, and cooler temperatures, along east coast; risk of flooding, mudslides
  • reduced summer rainfall in Mexico’s central highlands; risk of drought and lower crop yields

This winter, according to the Center for Scientific Investigation and Higher Education of Ensenada (CICESE), the Baja California Peninsula is likely to receive more rain than usual during this year’s very strong ENSO (El Niño) event.

The distribution of fish species is likely to change as the ocean temperatures are higher than usual, resulting in the migration of some species, leaving fewer fish off the coast of Baja California, one of the world’s most important commercial and sports fishing zones. Sardine fishermen may have a difficult season, incurring greater costs as they try to locate viable schools of fish.

A NASA climatologist predicts that California (USA) will be on the receiving end of more winter storms (January-March), and heavier rain, than usual. This increases the risk of hazardous mudslides in some coastal communities. It could also mean more mosquitoes, and an increased chance of contracting dengue fever or chikungunya.

What is the longer term outlook?

The first map shows likely precipitation anomalies for early next year (Spring). Areas shaded brown are areas expected to receive less rainfall than normal. Areas shaded light blue through green are predicted to get more rain than usual.

Spring precipitation anomalies

Spring precipitation anomalies in a strong El Niño year. Source: CNA

The second map shows summer precipitation anomalies. A significant reduction in rainfall is expected across most of central Mexico, though some areas in southern Mexico will likely get more rainfall than normal.

Summer precipitation anomalies in a strong El Niño year. Source: CNA

Summer precipitation anomalies in a strong El Niño year. Source: CNA

We end with one piece of good news for our more active readers. Previous El Niño events have brought great surfing to the west coast of Mexico, so make your travel and hotel plans as soon as possible.

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Mexico’s shrimp farms tackle disease crisis

 Updates to Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on Mexico’s shrimp farms tackle disease crisis
Sep 202014
 

Mexico’s total shrimp production in 2007 was 178,000 tons. This total masks a significant trend in shrimping. The high-seas catch has declined since 1990 and less than a third of the total catch now comes from the 2100-vessel specialist shrimping fleet based in the port of Mazatlán. On the other hand, production of fish-farmed (“cultivated”) shrimp has risen sharply over the past 20 years and now accounts for almost 70% of total national production. In the past 24 months, fish-farmed shrimp have been hit by a serious disease, which has caused high mortality and a drop in production.

The main shrimp producing states are Sinaloa (520 shrimp farms; 35,000 hectares of shrimp ponds; 40% of cultivated shrimp production), Nayarit and Sonora (see map).

shrimp-map

Credit: Shrimp News International

Wild shrimp

Catches of wild shrimp have been in decline. Shrimp fishermen are worried about the overfishing of shrimp stocks in shallow coastal waters, allegedly due to clandestine fishing by non-authorized boats. Pollution of coastal waters from agricultural chemicals is also a major concern.  According to Adolfo Gracia Gasca, a researcher at UNAM’s Instituto de Ciencias del Mar y Limnología (ICMyL), only two species of wild shrimp are NOT overexploited: the brown shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico, and the brown shrimp in the Pacific.

Among the many wild shrimp populations that have collapsed are the white and pink shrimps of the Gulf of Mexico. Catches of pink shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico declined from 10,000-12,000 metric tons a year in the 1980s to around 500 metric tons in recent years. Catches of white shrimp in the same area over the same period fell from 1,600 metric tons/year to less than 200 tons/year. The major problem has been the failure to enforce a closed season for shrimping during their main reproductive periods. On the Pacific coast (including the Sea of Cortés), shrimping resumed on 5 September 2014.

The Shrimp Trade

Shrimp exports are worth $360 million a year. Shrimp imports have risen sharply in the past two years as disease has reduced domestic production. Indeed, Mexico is currently having to import more frozen shrimp than it exports.

Mexico’s shrimp exports in the first half of 2014 were worth US $91.4 million, slightly down from 2013, while imports shot up 935% to $106.6 million. Mexico is importing shrimp from Ecuador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Belize.

Cultivated shrimp

As a consequence of Early Mortality Syndrome (EMS), the production of farmed shrimp dropped sharply between 2012 and 2013, but is expected to recover in 2015. EMS first appeared in 2009 in the southern part of China, and then spread to Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand. According to SAGARPA, the disease shows up in the first 20 to 30 days of life of the shrimp, and especially affects tiger (Penaeus monodon) and white (Litopenaeus vannamei) shrimp. The disease adversely impacted thousands of producers, with shrimp mortality rates as high as 98%.

The strain of EMS found in Mexico is very similar (but not identical) to the Asian strain. It is unclear how it arrived in Mexico and whether or not it was transferred across the Pacific.

The National Aquaculture and Fishing Commission (Comision Nacional de Acuacultura y Pesca—CONAPESCA) sets the closed season for fishing and shrimping. In general, the closed season is timed to coincide with the shirmp’s summer breeding season.

What is being done about EMS?

Among the strategies being adopted to combat the adverse impact of EMS are research, provision of financing and limits on shrimp imports from infected regions.

In June 2013, a breakthrough in EMS research was reported, when investigators attached to Kinki University and the National Research Institute of Aquaculture in Japan showed that the disease repeatedly manifests itself in ponds where the pH levels are between 8.5 and 8.8.

Shrimp farmers have needed emergency financing to help them restock shrimp ponds. In 2013, fish farmers in Sinaloa received $75 million to help with shrimp production and exports.

In April 2013, Mexico’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Secretariat (SAGARPA) ordered the temporary suspension of shrimp imports originating from China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand. The suspension included all tiger and white shrimp, whether live, raw, cooked, dehydrated or “in any presentation”. However, this strategy was criticized by international experts as “counterproductive”, given that there is no evidence for EMS being spread via dead shrimp.

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Ecocide in Lake Cajititlan, Jalisco: massive fish death

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Ecocide in Lake Cajititlan, Jalisco: massive fish death
Sep 062014
 

Hundreds of thousands of dead fish have washed up on the shores of Lake Cajititlán in Jalisco in the past ten days.

Lake Cajititlán is about 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) long and 2 km wide. It is mid-way between the city of Guadalajara and Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest natural lake. Fortunately, Lake Cajititlán does not have an outlet, so water and fish from the lake can not enter other nearby streams or lakes.

Map of Lake Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico

Map of Lake Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico. Credit: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

According to government officials, about 3 million dead popoche chub (Algansea popoche) with a combined weight of 82 metric tons were removed from Lake Cajititlán in the latest ecocide.

Initial reports contained conflicting versions of events, with local fishermen claiming far higher losses than government officials. The currently accepted figure of 82 metric tons suggests that the fishermen’s estimate was far closer to reality than the early “official” figures.

cajititlan-ecocide

(AFP Photo / Hector Guerrero)

Local authorities at first tried to persuade residents that the die-off was part of a “natural cycle”. However, this idea was quickly dispelled by state and federal agencies who are continuing investigations to establish the precise causes of the ecocide. Their preliminary technical studies have confirmed that the die-off of fish was due to contaminated water with dissolved oxygen levels well below the limits for a healthy fish population. The contamination appears to originate from raw sewage entering the lake and the inefficient operation of the existing sewage treatment plants.

Low oxygen levels could also result from seasonal rainy season runoff washing excess fertilizers into the lake, increasing the water’s nitrogen and phosphorus loads, promoting eutrophication.

State authorities have issued an environmental emergency alert for the lake, but have consistently maintained that the event has not endangered the health of local residents.

This is the fourth fish kill affecting Lake Cajititlán in 2014. This latest ecocide is only one of several ecological disasters that have befallen Mexico in recent weeks.

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Mexico’s “little sea cow” on the verge of extinction

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Aug 202014
 

Wildlife groups from around the world are urging the Mexican government to take urgent action to prevent the extinction of the “little sea cow”, the world’s smallest porpoise, known in Spanish as the vaquita marina, currently the most endangered cetacean in the world.

This particular porpoise is only found in the upper sections of the Sea of Cortés (Gulf of California), and fewer than 100 are thought to exist.

Scientists say that gill-net fishing must be eliminated in the little sea cow’s native habitat for its population to have any hope of recovering to a sustainable level. Mature females will usually only give birth to one calf every two years. Even with a total ban, it would therefore take several years for natural increase to boost the population. In the port of El Golfo de Santa Clara studies have suggested that gillnet fishing is responsible for approximately 39 vaquita deaths a year.

Map of sightings and acoustic detection spots. Adapted from North American Conservation Action Plan for the vaquita

Map of sightings and acoustic detection spots. Adapted from North American Conservation Action Plan for the vaquita

According to Jo Tuckman, writing in The Guardian, environmental groups blame the decline of the popoise population on a “booming illegal trade in the totoaba fish (mistakenly called “toboada” in The Guardian), driven by Chinese demand for its swim bladder, which is believed to have medicinal properties.” Chinese fishermen are alleged to have overfished a similar fish in their own waters, leading to a sharp increase in demand for imports of totoaba. Fishermen in the Sea of Cortés are reported to have been offered more than $4,000 for the single bladder (which weighs 500 grams) of a mature fish.

There have been numerous reported instances of illegal cross-border trade in totoaba bladders, including, Man Admits to Smuggling Swim Bladders of Endangered Fish. The fish has been listed as “endangered” since 1979 under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Between February and May 2013, border inspectors in Calexico, Arizona, seized the swim bladders of more than 500 endangered Totoaba.

In 2008, Mexico, the USA and Canada launched the North American Conservation Action Plan (NACAP) for the vaquita, under the jurisdiction of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), a NAFTA environmental organization. Mexico has also established a program known as PACE-VAQUITA, which compensates fishermen who choose one of three alternatives to commercial fishing: rent-out (payments to avoid fishing in specific areas which are known to have resident vaquitas), switch-out (compensation and inducement to switch technology to vaquita-safe methods), and buy-out (compensation for permanently relinquishing their fishing permits and gear).

Clearly, these efforts have not yet paid off and more stringent controls and enforcement are desperately needed if the vaquita marina is to be brought back from the brink of extinction.

Update (31 December 2014):

“The Mexican federal government has recently proposed a US $37 million compensation plan that would ban gillnet fishing in waters inhabited by the world’s most endangered mammal species.” (Mexico News Daily, 27 Dec 2014)

Want to read more?

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Jul 152013
 

More than a year ago, the World Trade Organization (WTO) sided with Mexico and appeared to finally bring to an end a long-running dispute between Mexico and the USA over “dolphin-safe” tuna. The WTO decision confirmed that the methods used by Mexico’s tuna fishing fleet met the highest international standards, not only for protecting dolphins but also for conserving other marine species.

Dolphin-safe-logoThe USA has now responded by strengthening the rules governing the use of “dolphin safe”, a label first established in 1990. According to Mexican officials, the changes effectively circumvent the WTO decision by establishing two distinct regulatory regimes, one for the Tropical Eastern Pacific Ocean area (where the Mexican tuna fleet operates) and another, much less restrictive, for all other regions.

Mexican officials argue that the second regime, which does not include independent observers, has been unilaterally established by the USA in order to protect its own tuna fleet which uses methods that are not environmentally sound.

Part of the conflict over “dolphin safe” tuna revolved around the very different methods of fishing employed in the two countries. Mexican tuna fishermen use the encirclement method which involves locating tuna by chasing dolphins that swim with the tuna schools. Large purse seine nets are then employed to scoop up the fish. Decades ago, this method did indeed result in many dolphins being caught as bycatch. This led to justifiable outrage from environmentalists and the “dolphin safe” system. It quickly led to Mexico’s fleets employing specially-adapted nets and changes in procedure to ensure that any dolphins accidentally trapped can escape or are released and returned (alive) back to the ocean. According to the best available data, these improvements quickly reduced dolphin bycatch to close to zero.

Most US tuna fishermen, on the other hand, rely on either long-line fishing, in which every species hooked is killed, or employ fish aggregating devices to encourage the tuna to school. Both methods used by US tuna fisherman kill many immature tuna as well as numerous other species, including sharks and marine turtles (especially the critically endangered Pacific leatherback turtles), as well as seabirds (especially albatrosses and petrels).

The WTO agrees with Mexico that the method used by its tuna fleet is the most sustainable of those permitted by the International Dolphin Protection Program, and protects not only dolphins but also avoids the bycatch of juvenile tuna, ensuring the long-term viability of the tuna fishing industry.

The WTO resolution appeared to finally end this acrimonious dispute which had begun thirty years ago and included a US embargo against Mexican tuna which lasted for more than a decade. It meant that Mexico’s tuna fishermen could legally stamp “dolphin-safe” on their exports to the USA, the world’s largest tuna importer, certifying that the tuna had been caught in full compliance with the International Dolphin Protection Program. The revised US rules mean that most Mexican-caught tuna will still not qualify for the “dolphin safe” label.

Mexico’s tuna catch (mainly yellowfin tuna) peaked at 166,000 tons in 2003 when more than 20,000 tons were exported, mainly to Spain, and has since declined to around 115,000 tons. About 20,000 families in Mexico depend on tuna fishing for their livelihood. This figure includes not only fishermen but also those working in associated processing and packing plants. Mexico’s 130-vessel tuna fleet is the largest in Latin America.

The USA-Mexico tuna war is a classic example of a cross-border fishing/trade dispute. The new US regulations mean that the ball is now firmly back in Mexico’s court. Mexican fishing officials were quick to criticize the new rules, but have not yet announced their next move in this long-running saga which looks set to rumble on for quite some time.

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Case study of the June 2013 ecocide in Hurtado Reservoir, Jalisco

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Case study of the June 2013 ecocide in Hurtado Reservoir, Jalisco
Jul 042013
 

This post presents a short case study of the dramatic ecocide in the Hurtado Reservoir in Jalisco a week ago that resulted in the sudden death of between 200 and 500 tons of fish.

What?

  • The ecocide killed between 200 and 500 tons of fish
  • 30 local residents were affected by gastrointestinal problems
  • 15 of them required treatment in local health centers
Local fisherman sees his livelihood disappear. Credit: Vanguardia

Local fisherman sees his livelihood disappear. Credit: Vanguardia

Where?

The ecocide occurred in the Hurtado Reservoir (Presa del Hurtado, aka the Valencia Dam) in Jalisco, mid-way between the villages of San Isidro Mazatepec and Bellavista, the location of a sugarcane mill (see map). The reservoir can hold up to 8,000,000 cubic meters of water. The two municipalities involved are Acatlán de Juárez and Tlajomulco de Zúñiga. The most affected community is the small village of San Pedro Valencia (about 300 inhabitants),

Location of Hurtado Reservoir (extract from INEGI 1:250,000 map)

Location of Hurtado Reservoir (extract from INEGI 1:250,000 map)

When?

The first reports were made on 25 June when a local government official in San Pedro de Valencia, in the municipality of Acatlán de Juárez, reported to state environmental protection officials that the water in the Hurtado Reservoir was contaminated with something smelling like molasses. Within 48 hours, officials had identified the source, and had conducted a formal inspection, reporting that the water was dark brown in color and contaminated with molasses.

Why?

According to press reports, an unlicensed firm in nearby Potrero los Charros was using molasses (a by-product of sugarcane mills) as an ingredient to make cattle food. Some of the molasses (melaza) was dumped into the San Antonio stream which carried them into the reservoir.

The problem arose because molasses have a very high biochemical oxygen demand (BOD). This means that they require large amounts of oxygen as they decompose. In this case, they required more oxygen than was available in the water in the reservoir, reducing the water’s dissolved oxygen content, effectively depriving all aquatic life of oxygen. While final results are pending, the fish are believed to have died of oxygen starvation.

Effects

  1. The local fishing cooperative of the Hurtado Reservoir has agreed to accept a moratorium on catching, selling or consuming local fish. The fishermen normally catch and market about 100 kg of fish a day.
  2. Health services are offering vaccinations to local residents and all those involved in the environmental clean-up.
  3. 18 local restaurants are closed until further notice. When they reopen, they will likely have to purchase fish from further away (eg the fish market in Guadalajara) at a higher price than they previously paid for local fish
  4. About 100 fish traders in nearby towns (including Tala, Acatlán de Juárez and Villa Corona) have lost a source of income.

Responses

  1. Within 48 hours of the first report, authorities had ordered the business responsible for the pollution to take immediate remedial action. Meanwhile, authorities began to clean up the dead fish. The fish are being buried in a 30 meter by 2 meter trench about one km away from the lake.
  2. Federal officials from the National Water Commission and the Environmental Secretariat were quickly on the scene; they promised access to federal financial assistance.
  3. Most of the clean up was carried out by about 100 local fishermen and volunteers, including firefighters.
  4. State health officials have closed the 18 small fish restaurants near the lake until further notice
  5. Local officials are also cleaning up the storage area, using tanker trucks to remove an additional 8,000 tons of molasses for appropriate disposal elsewhere.
  6. The municipality of Tlajomulco has issued the owner of the company with a fine of about 1.5 million pesos ($120,000) and further legal action is underway.

Remediation

  • Environmental expert Gualberto Limón Macías estimates it will take between two and four years to rehabilitate the reservoir. The priority is to re-oxygenate the water, possibly using solar-powered pumps, and seed the reservoir with young fish.
  • The University of Guadalajara has promised to arrange for a team of experts to provide specialist advice about how best to rehabilitate the lake.

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How important is the fishing industry in Mexico?

 Excerpts from Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on How important is the fishing industry in Mexico?
May 262012
 

The fishing industry now accounts for only 0.24% of gross national product. The relatively shallow waters off the Pacific coast and abundance of plankton in waters cooled by the Californian current make for particularly good fishing in the north-west. Together, Sinaloa (23%) and Sonora (22%) account for about 45% of the national total. Fishing is also economically important in Veracruz (8%), Baja California Sur (6%), Campeche and Baja California (5% each) and Yucatán.

Mexico's fishing fleet

Mexico's fishing fleet

Almost three quarters (72%) of the total annual catch of 1.5 million metric tons is landed at Pacific coast ports such as Guaymas, Mazatlán and Manzanillo. Gulf coast ports like Tampico, Veracruz and Campeche, together with Caribbean coast ports such as Puerto Morelos and Progreso, account for a further 25% of the catch. The remaining 3% comes from inland lakes, rivers and fish farms.

In terms of value, the most important species are shrimp, tuna and sardines. Fresh-water fish farms are becoming more common, with many of them specializing in the production of high value species such as trout and indigenous white fish. Mexicans consume only 13 kg (29 lbs) of fish per person per year on average, considerably less than the equivalent figures for the USA (21 kg), Canada (24 kg) or Spain (44 kg).

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The extraordinary ecological recovery of Mexico’s Cabo Pulmo Marine Park

 Updates to Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on The extraordinary ecological recovery of Mexico’s Cabo Pulmo Marine Park
Aug 152011
 

In an earlier post—Can Mexico’s Environmental Agency protect Mexico’s coastline? we took a critical look at proposals for a tourism mega-development near Cabo Pulmo on the eastern side of the Baja California Peninsula. Cabo Pulmo (see map), a village of about 120 people, is about an hour north of San José del Cabo, and on the edge of the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park (CPNP).

Baja California Sur MapJacques Cousteau, the famous ocean explorer, once described the Sea of Cortés as being the “aquarium of the world.” The protected area at Cabo Pulmo, ideal for diving, kayaking and snorkeling, covers 71 sq. km of ocean with its highly complex marine ecosystem.

Cabo Pulmo is on the Tropic of Cancer, about as far north as coral usually grows. The water temperatures vary though the year from about 20 to 30 degrees C (68 to 86 degrees F).

The seven fingers of coral off Cabo Pulmo comprise the most northerly living reef in the eastern Pacific. The 25,000-year-old reef is the refuge for more than 220 kinds of fish, including numerous colorful tropical species. Divers and snorkelers regularly report seeing cabrila, grouper, jacks, dorado, wahoo, sergeant majors, angelfish, putterfish and grunts, some of them in large schools.

On my last visit to Cabo Pulmo in 2008, local fishermen and tourist guides regaled me with positive comments about the success of the National Marine Park, and the area’s recovery since the area was first protected in 1995. Ever since, I’ve wondered how much their positive take was due to wishful thinking, and how much was due to a genuine recovery in local ecosystems. My doubts have been answered by the publication of Large Recovery of Fish Biomass in a No-Take Marine Reserve in the Public Library of Science (PLoS) ONE journal. The article’s authors present compelling evidence, based on fieldwork, that the area has undergone a remarkable recovery.

Recovery of Cabo Pulmo Marine Park

Recovery of fish in the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park (CPNP). Credit: Aburto-Oropeza et al (2011)

The graph above shows the changes in biomass for three distinct zones of the Sea of Cortés. The open access areas allow commercial fishing. The “core zones” are the central areas of other Marine Parks in the area, including those near Loreto, north of Cabo Pulmo. The CPNP is the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park, where no fishing is allowed. Clearly, since the CPNP was established, the number and weight of fish inside the park boundaries really have increased rapidly.The total amount (biomass) of fish increased by a staggering 460% over 10 years.

The major reason for the success of the CPNP has been the strength of local residents in undertaking conservation initiatives, and their cooperative monitoring and enforcement of park regulations, sharing surveillance, fauna protection and ocean cleanliness efforts.

The Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park is perhaps the world’s best example of how local initiatives can lead to genuine (and hopefully permanent) environmental protection. The researchers describe it as “the most robust marine park in the world” and say that “The most striking result of the paper… is that fish communities at a depleted site can recover up to a level comparable to remote, pristine sites that have never been fished by humans.”

Here’s hoping that the residents of other parts of Mexico’s coastline threatened by fishing or tourism developments take similar actions and manage to achieve equally positive results for their areas.

Citation:

Aburto-Oropeza O, Erisman B, Galland GR, Mascareñas-Osorio I, Sala E, et al. (2011) Large Recovery of Fish Biomass in a No-Take Marine Reserve. Public Library of Science (PLoS) ONE 6(8): e23601. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0023601

Further reading:

For an exceptionally informative series of papers (in Spanish) on all aspects of tourism and sustainability in Cabo Pulmo, see Tourism and sustainability in Cabo Pulmo, published in 2008 (large pdf file).

Another valuable resource (also in Spanish) is Greenpeace Spain’s position paper entitled Cabo Cortés, destruyendo el paraíso (“Cabo Cortés: destroying paradise”) (pdf file)