Mexico imposes seasonal ban on all shark fishing

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Mexico imposes seasonal ban on all shark fishing
Jun 272011
 

According to government statistics, about 21,000 metric tons of shark are landed in the nation’s ports each year. However, many studies have suggested that shark populations are in decline due to overfishing. A series of conservation strategies are being guided by on-going research into shark populations undertaken by scientists attached to the National Fisheries Institute (Inapesca).

As part of Mexico’s efforts to conserve shark populations, the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Commission (Conapesca) has announced a seasonal ban on all shark fishing in Mexican waters. The ban will be in place each year for the main breeding period, May to August. Several other Latin American nations are enacting similar measures.

A representative of shark fishing cooperatives in Mexico said fishermen will fully support the closed season for shark fishing but would expect some compensation for having their boats confined to port for several months each year.

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Mexico’s pearl collection industry: from boom to bust in less than 100 years

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Mar 282011
 

In a previous post, we looked at the early history of pearl collecting in Mexico. In this post, we carry the history forward to the present-day.

The search for oyster shells with pearls inside was revolutionized after 1874 when larger vessels, equipped with diving suits and accompanying equipment, first entered Mexican waters. The newer methods permitted access to shells in much deeper water, and lengthened the season, greatly increasing the industry’s productivity. The dangers associated with pearl hunting changed. Equipment failures and lax supervision cost many lives. According to Kunz and Stevenson, divers confined to diving suits for hours at a time frequently suffered rheumatism, paralysis (due to compression and sudden temperature changes) and partial deafness. On the other hand, diving suits reduced shark attacks.

The conditions in Baja California were so favorable for pearling that by 1889, within a few years of its incorporation, the Compañía Perlífera de la Baja California (based in La Paz, and employing about 900 men) had come to completely dominate the world pearling industry. One of the largest pearls found in the Sea of Cortés was one weighing 372 grains found near Mulegé in 1884. On arrival in Paris, its value was estimated at 85,000 francs (about 16 600 dollars at the exchange rate of the time). A 400-grain pearl, found in the same area, now forms part of the Spanish crown jewels.

A 1903 article in The New York Times says that the Baja pearl industry had produced more than two million dollars worth of pearls in 1902, including some of the “finest jewels of this kind found anywhere in the world”. The article describes several individual pearls, and emphasizes that the area is “noted for its fancy pearls – that is to say, the colored and especially the black ones”. As mentioned earlier, the native Indians wore fire-blackened pearls. This seems to have been a particularly prescient choice, given the extremely high premiums long placed on natural black pearls. Even today, at least one firm in Baja specializes in producing cultured black pearls from rainbow-lipped oysters.

As the twentieth century progressed, cultured and artificial pearls were able to out-compete natural pearls in terms of price and availability. By 1936, a century of rampant overfishing of oyster beds had depleted natural stocks to the point where recovery was unlikely. Finding fifteen to twenty small pearls required the harvesting of a ton of oyster shells. To cap it off, an unknown disease then spread rapidly through the remaining oysters, virtually wiping them out.

poster for steinbeck's "the pearl"

By the time the American writer John Steinbeck arrived in Baja in 1941, the glory days of Mexican pearling were over. While in La Paz, Steinbeck came across a legendary (and cautionary) local tale about the greed associated with finding a massive pearl. The story became the catalyst for his novella “The Pearl“, published in 1947, in which Kino, an impoverished pearl diver, finds a huge pearl, “The Pearl of the World” which promises to transform his life. It does, but not in the way one might expect. Kino becomes a brutal sociopath; the story, which was later turned into a movie starring Pedro Armendáriz and María Elena Marquéz, becomes a dark tale of the costs of defying traditional customs.

Today, very few natural pearls are harvested in the Sea of Cortés, but several Baja California firms cultivate pearls, helping to extend a centuries-old industry into the present. It is especially appropriate, therefore, that the city of La Paz, once the center of the world’s pearling industry, is still known, even today, as the “Pearl of the Sea of Cortés”.

Sources / Further reading:

  • Anon. Important Pearl Fisheries on the Coast of California. The New York Times, June 14, 1903.
  • Hardy, R. W. H. 1829 Travels in the Interior of Mexico in 1825, 1826, 1827 and 1828. London: Henry Colburn & Richard Bentley. Reprinted in 1977, Texas: Rio Grande Classics.
  • Kunz, G. F., and Stevenson, C. H. The Book of the Pearl: Its History, Art, Science and Industry. Dover. 2001.
  • Landman, Neil H and Mikkelsen, P. Pearls: A Natural History (Harry N. Abrams, 2001)
  • Mayo, C. M. Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico. Milkweed Editions. 2007.

This post is an edited version of the original article which appeared on MexConnect.

Mexico’s long romance with pearls began way before the arrival of Spanish explorers

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Mar 192011
 

This post highlights the pearl, the beautiful birthstone associated with the month of June. Few people realize that Mexico was once the world’s major source of pearls.

The history of pearl collecting in Mexico goes back a very long way. When Spanish explorers sailed into the Sea of Cortés (Gulf of California) in the early 1530s they encountered Pericú Indians wearing necklaces strung with red berries, shells and blackened pearls. It is believed that pearl jewelry in the region dates back about 7000 years. Lacking metal knives, the only way the Indians could prize open the oyster shells and find pearls was by throwing the shells into a fire, hence the charred pearls. The Spanish explorers quickly recognized that their knives would yield lustrous milky-white pearls, the equal in quality of any found in the Middle East or Asia.

Harvesting pearls became a priority as the Spaniards tried to establish permanent settlements on the arid peninsula now known as Baja California. From 1535 to Mexican independence in 1821, thousands of pearls were dispatched to Europe on a regular basis, where they were incorporated into the lavishly decorated regalia of many notable European courts. During the period of Jesuit missions in Baja (1697 to 1768) pearl collecting was restricted, but even then illegal traffic in pearls persisted.

Cover of Pearls, a natural history

Following Mexico’s independence, other European nations besides Spain sought access to Baja pearls. For instance, English traveler R. W. H. Hardy arrived in Mexico in 1825, to prospect for pearls and coral on behalf of the General Pearl and Coral Fishery Association of London. Hardy was proud of having “travelled over a part of Mexico visited by no other European” and greatly valued the local knowledge of the coastal Indians of north-western Mexico. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Hardy developed a very positive view of the Indians he met, and felt that they had far more to offer outsiders than just the location of natural resources.

The pearling industry in Baja really took off in the mid-nineteenth century as enterprising, business-minded armadores hired native divers (mainly Yaqui Indians from Sonora) to explore the numerous shallow coves between La Paz and Mulegé, and around the islands including Cerralvo and Isla Espíritu Santo. Diving was a seasonal occupation, primarily carried out during the warm months from May to late September. At other times of the year, water temperatures and higher winds made diving difficult or impossible. The Indian divers worked from rustic canoes for up to five hours a day, armed with a short sharpened stick which did double duty, to pry oyster shells off the seabed and to ward off lurking sharks and manta rays. The divers earned a share of the catch, but their rewards were meager and benefits few.

Citing a 1859 paper, Kunz and Stevenson report that by 1857, 95,000 tons of oysters had been removed from the Sea of Cortés, “yielding 2770 pounds of pearls, worth $5,540,000.” Mexico’s high society also lusted after pearls, leading Empress Carlota to remark how the ladies attending a theater event all wore dresses “covered in pearls”.

Mexico’s pearling industry was on the edge of world-wide fame. In a future post, we will see how the introduction of newer technology after 1870 revolutionized pearl collecting in Mexico, bringing a boom that would last well into the twentieth century.

Sources / Further reading:

  • Hardy, R. W. H. 1829 Travels in the Interior of Mexico in 1825, 1826, 1827 and 1828. London: Henry Colburn & Richard Bentley. Reprinted in 1977, Texas: Rio Grande Classics.
  • Kunz, G. F., and Stevenson, C. H. The Book of the Pearl: Its History, Art, Science and Industry. Dover. 2001.
  • Landman, Neil H and Mikkelsen, P. Pearls: A Natural History (Harry N. Abrams, 2001)
  • Mayo, C. M. Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico. Milkweed Editions. 2007.

This post is an edited version of the original article which appeared on MexConnect.

How sustainable is commercial fishing in northwest Mexico?

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Mar 092011
 

Mexico’s 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. 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. [excerpt from Geo-Mexico page 97]

A study of fisheries in the region by a team of researchers from the University of California San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Centro para la Biodiversidad Marina y la Conservación in La Paz, Baja California Sur makes for interesting reading.

The team looked at fisheries data for northwest Mexico, defined as including the coasts of five states: Baja California, Baja California Sur, Sonora, Sinaloa and Nayarit. They conducted field research and then examined the connections between local fisheries data and the geography and habitats of the various fish species. They found a close tie between the geography of local habitats and the (local) decision as to which fish species to catch (clams, red snapper, shrimp). They also found that small-scale local fishing, which relies on thousands of pangas, remains an important component of local economies.

Proposed fishing regions in NW Mexico
Map of five proposed fishing regions in NW Mexico. Image credit:University of California-San Diego

The researchers concluded that the area is not one homogeneous unit, but can be best divided into five overlapping sub-zones (see map) differentiated on the basis of such characteristics as whether the coast is rocky or has mangroves, the presence of reefs or sandy seafloor, the coastal geology and latitude.

Hence, the current fisheries strategy of treating the entire region as a single area is not the most effective way to manage fisheries. According to the researchers, their five-fold zonation would allow “ecosystem-based management” in each sub-region. This would encourage management techniques which ensure long-term conservation of particular fish stocks and help increase fishing’s sustainability.

However, it also requires using different strategies for large-scale industrial fishing than for local, small-scale panga-based activity. The researchers remain optimistic that small-scale fishing has a good future, but only provided industrial-scale fishing is well monitored and controlled.

Source: University of California-San Diego (2011, January 27). Study finds common ground for ecosystems and fishing in Northwest Mexico. Retrieved January 28, 2011.

Overfishing in Mexico’s Sea of Cortés (Gulf of California)

 Excerpts from Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on Overfishing in Mexico’s Sea of Cortés (Gulf of California)
Mar 032011
 

The Sea of Cortés (Gulf of California) is one of the world’s top five seas in terms of ecological productivity and biological diversity. The region is world famous for its recreational sports fishing.

Background to the region’s wetlands

Among rivers feeding the Sea of Cortés are the Colorado, Fuerte and Yaqui. Its coast includes more than 300 estuaries and other wetlands, of which the delta of the Colorado River is especially important. The vast reduction in the Colorado’s flow has negatively impacted wetlands and fisheries.

These wetlands are also threatened by the development of marinas, resorts and aquaculture, especially shrimp farms. The plant and animal communities in these wetlands provide a constant supply of nutrients which support large numbers of fish and marine mammals. These include the humpback whale, California gray whale, blue whale, fin whale, sperm whale and the leatherback sea turtle.

Wetland degradation and declining fish stocks have had inevitable consequences on many marine mammals. Concern over endangered mammals such as the vaquita porpoise, which is endemic to the area and was being taken as by catch in gill nets, led to the establishment of the Biosphere Reserve of the Upper Gulf of California and Delta of the Colorado River in 1993.

The Biosphere Reserve aims to protect breeding grounds and conserve endangered species, including the vaquita, the totoaba, the desert pupfish and the Yuma clapper rail. This was the first marine reserve established in Mexico; several other marine protected areas has since been established on Mexico’s other coasts.

Did changes in technology hasten the decline of commercial fishing?

In the Sea of Cortés, changes in technology, coupled with high demand for fish (especially in Japan), and greed, help to explain the demise of fish stocks.

Commercial shrimp fishing started here in the 1940s. The introduction of outboard motors in the 1970s allowed small fiberglass boats (pangas) to travel further afield in search of fish. Up to 20,000 pangas using gill nets had an immediate adverse impact on fish stocks, with large decreases in roosterfish, yellowtail and sierra mackerel.

In the 1980s, as the sardine stocks close to Guaymas had been depleted, new sardine boats were built with refrigeration facilities which allowed them to catch sardines further offshore, in their feeding grounds near Midriff Island.

In the 1990s a longline fishing fleet began to operate out of Ensenada. Licensed boats were required to fish beyond a non-fishing zone extending 80 km (50 mi) from the coast. A single longline boat may have 5 km (3 mi) of line with 600 to 700 baited hooks in total. The swordfish populations outside the protected zone were quickly depleted, leading fishing boat owners to apply for permits to catch shark inside the 80-km limits.

The Sea of Cortés faces numerous pressures. Decades of commercial overfishing are causing a total collapse of fish stocks. As late as 1993, the area, less than 5% of all Mexico’s territorial waters, produced about 75% of the nation’s total fish catch of 1.5 million metric tons; however, by some estimates, fish populations have declined by 90% since.

What are the solutions?

Reversing decades of overfishing requires more effective enforcement of fishing regulations, especially the 80-km zone of no commercial fishing; vessel monitoring systems; a ban on the use of gill nets; and a prohibition on the catch of certain fish such as bluefin tuna.

Fish farming may be a viable alternative and several commercial tuna farms, where wild tuna are raised in near-shore pens, have been established in Baja California but more research on the ecological pros and cons of establishing such farms is urgently needed.

In our next post, we will take a closer look at some recent research connected to the restoration of fish stocks in this region.

Fishing in Mexico is analyzed in chapter 15 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Ask your library to buy a copy of this handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography today! Better yet, order your own copy…