Letter from the Sea of Cortez — From the August 2013 issue

Emptying the World’s Aquarium

The dismal future of the global fishery

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Like most local fishermen in Kino, a sleepy Sonoran town about halfway down the eastern side of the Sea of Cortez, Ernesto Acuña Salazar had been working small boats off the coast since he was a teenager. A handsome, stocky twenty-four-year-old, Salazar specialized in hookah diving — a practice similar to scuba diving, except that divers breathe through a long tube leading to a compressor at the surface rather than carry a tank on their back.

One day almost four years ago, Salazar put on his gear and entered the water in search of callo de hacha, a long shallow-water mussel whose succulent meat tastes like scallop. In recent decades, most of the callo beds along the coast have vanished, plundered by hookah divers. But Salazar was aiming for a recently discovered, pristine bed at 130 feet — about ninety feet deeper than usual. Water this deep is treacherous, and dive tables recommend staying down no longer than twenty-five minutes. But fishermen like Salazar regularly spend an hour at that depth and then another hour or more slowly decompressing as they rise to the surface.

“Tables are for tourists,” Salazar’s brother, David, says proudly. “It’s work. We’ve got to get product.”

That day, Salazar found callo everywhere, but he knew that with so many fishermen hitting the beds, the callo wouldn’t last much longer. He spent two and a half hours at 130 feet, pulling close to forty pounds (worth about $230 to him). But after he sent the last bag up to the boat, he began to feel light-headed. As a seasoned diver, he quickly realized he was experiencing nitrogen narcosis — a drunk-like condition caused by breathing nitrogen under high pressure. Immediately he dropped his weight belt and began climbing a rope to the boat.

What followed isn’t clear to Salazar. He meant to rise slowly on the rope, decompressing for an hour. But part of the way up he was caught by an unexpected current. He clung on desperately, but he was dizzy, nearly unconscious, and the rope eventually slipped from his hand. The next thing he knew he was at the surface: “The side of my face was numb, and when I opened my eyes I didn’t recognize anybody,” he recalls.

The rapid change in pressure had forced the gases dissolved in his blood and tissues into tiny bubbles, turning his body into something like a giant carbonated drink. The bubbles saturated all his major organs. His head, legs, and chest burned in agony. He couldn’t move or think. By the time his friends got him into the boat, he felt nothing.

Salazar should have died from decompression sickness, which killed at least ten Kino divers in 2011. He was rushed to a hyperbaric chamber two hours away for the first of forty-one sessions to clear his body of gas bubbles, the most dangerous of which had lodged in his spine. For the next three days, he was so disoriented he didn’t recognize even his close family. He couldn’t move a muscle for two months. And now he is paralyzed from the waist down.

Lying on a bed in his mother’s house, a urine-drainage bag at his side, Salazar says he forces himself to think positively about the future. Still, it is unlikely he will ever walk again. Decompression treatment alone has cost his family more than $5,000. He had known he was pushing it that day, but his family needed him and it was the only place left to fish. “There’s no product in the shallows,” he says quietly. “Everybody knew that.”

Jacques Cousteau once called the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, the “Aquarium of the World,” citing both its extraordinary variety of life and its accessible bounty. In many ways, the sprawling sea is the world’s ocean writ small. The west is deep and rocky; the east, shallow and sandy. In the Upper Gulf, temperatures can swing from chilly in the winter to hot and tropical in the summer. The water is crystal clear in some places, murky in others. It hosts an astounding 950 fish species, 10 percent of which are found nowhere else in the world, including the world’s most endangered marine mammal — a diminutive porpoise called the vaquita (“little cow”).

This very abundance, of course, has ensured the Sea of Cortez a key role in Mexico’s economy. It supports 80 percent of the nation’s commercial fishing and almost 90 percent of its shrimp catch, and directly employs 60,000 people. Fishermen working the sea’s 26,000 boats are both rich and poor, newcomers and inheritors of thousands of years of tradition. The sea is perfectly situated to supply the hungriest markets — the United States, Japan, and now China — and over the past few decades it has seen one of the world’s largest drops in biomass. Eighty-five percent of its species either are being fished at their maximum or are overexploited. Consequently, there is no better place on earth to look at the future of global fishing and the crisis facing the oceans.

It is 5:50 a.m. and I am speeding across sand flats and down tiny dirt roads, chasing a truck full of Seri fishermen from the town of El Desemboque. The Seri are an indigenous community based on the mainland side of the sea. Originally nomads who wandered wide stretches of the current-day state of Sonora, they have since settled along the coast in small fishing villages. They have close ties to the sea, believing sea turtles to be their distant kin. If they pull up a dead leatherback in a net, they must bring it to shore, then hold a special ceremony.

Anthropologists and linguists have long been fascinated with the Seri, whose language bears almost no similarity to any other in the region. But their isolation is not merely linguistic. The Seri are suspicious of outsiders — and especially of the Mexican government, which spent much of the early twentieth century trying to eradicate them. Their population, once in the many thousands, dipped as low as 215 during the early 1950s, and even today there are fewer than a thousand Seri scattered among the villages. They have a reputation for vigorous, sometimes violent defense of their land, which includes the rugged terrain of Tiburón Island, the largest island in the Sea of Cortez, where they once took refuge from government assaults.

We get to the tiny fishing camp just before dawn. The fishermen are jovial and speaking quickly in their native Seri, which to my ear sounds more like Arabic than the indigenous Mexican languages I’m familiar with. The boat captain, Abrahim Molina, is a lanky twenty-two-year-old who once dreamed of becoming a lawyer but came home from school to help with the family business after his father hurt his arm. Today we are fishing for blue crab in a channel between Tiburón Island and the mainland called Infiernillo (“Little Hell”). It is one of the region’s most fertile fishing grounds, thanks to nutrient-rich mangrove forests and estuaries, which as incubators are crucial to the health of the sea. As we launch, the crew members bait hooks with bits of pelican meat to catch rockfish, which they will in turn use to bait the crab traps. Checking crab traps is slow, dull work, but the more lucrative shrimp season doesn’t start for another week or so.

Lorenzo Herrera, a Seri historian, remembers as a young boy watching fishermen in canoes brave the fickle channel waters wearing cured sea-lion skin and hats woven from reedlike torote roots. In the 1940s and 1950s, however, these traditional practices began to fade. Big Japanese ships entered the Sea of Cortez, set up camp, and offered flour, beef, lard, and water in exchange for fish and turtles. The Seri were soon seduced by modern amenities. The Japanese taught the Seri their own classification system — from first-class halibut, which fetched a high price, to third-class blue crab — and lent the Seri motorboats, showing them how to use dynamite to kill huge numbers of fish in the channel. Eventually the Japanese outpost evolved into what is now El Desemboque — a permanent residence for the once nomadic Seri.

“First they came and they asked only for the first class of fish. But it became very scarce,” Herrera recalls. “Then they came for the second class of fish, which also became very scarce. The first-class fish is gone, second is gone. Now the third is disappearing, and the people say, ‘What are we going to do?’ ”

Pulling up traps heavy with crabs, Molina and his companions are polite but distant, working mostly in silence. When prodded, they express concern about the channel, especially about the trawlers that come through. Of all the outsiders to wander into Seri territory, the trawler — a sixty-foot boat that drags a cone-shaped net along the seafloor — is the most hated. Most people here work on small motorboats known as pangas, but the Seri complain that almost all the fish in the channel are caught by these huge vessels.[1]

[1] The World Conservation Union estimates that just 1 percent of the world’s boats have the capacity to snag 60 percent of the global catch. In the Sea of Cortez, about 50,000 fishermen run 25,000 pangas while 10,000 fishermen run 1,300 big industrial boats.

Richard Brusca, a zoologist at the University of Arizona and an expert in Cortez fisheries, is no more enthusiastic about the trawlers than Herrera is. A trawler net “just lops off the top six or eight inches of the seafloor,” he says. “It takes everything: rock and mud and all the animals that live in it. That’s the most destructive thing that’s going on anywhere in the world’s oceans.”

The industrial fishermen insist that they have been made scapegoats. The Seri insist that after the trawlers pass, the beaches are littered with dead fish. In recent years, they have begun enforcing a kind of vigilante justice: armed Seri militias called guardia tradicional board trawlers and “tax” shrimp. The industrial fishermen consider this practice piracy, but to the Seri the trawlers are invading what they consider sovereign waters.

Some anthropologists have romanticized the guardia as eco-warriors whose traditional fishing practices are harmonious with nature, even suggesting that the guardia’s style of policing may provide a model for the future of conservation (as with the special patrol the Seri have set up to protect turtle nests along the beach). But the truth, I soon see, is more elusive. Sitting down with one of the guardia, I learn that a family in Punta Chueca, the wealthier Seri town to the south of El Desemboque, sells permits to pangas and trawlers for a few hundred dollars each. The two towns are connected by blood relations but have never gotten along. According to the inhabitants of El Desemboque, neither the money nor the guardia ever come north, so they have started their own informal patrol, taking as much as 1,300 pounds of shrimp from fifteen or so trawlers on a given night.

Seri waters are healthy compared with the sea around nearby Kino, where Ernesto Salazar fished until his accident. Kino is a typical Mexican fishing village: docks, rows of beached pangas, a few processing plants, and something of a lawless atmosphere. Its residents fish for sardines, shrimp, and crabs, but the town is best known for hookah diving and turtles.

In the 1960s, leatherback turtles were so numerous in the area that people used to say you could reach Tiburón Island by walking on their backs. They seemed to drive the entire economy: in 1962 alone, fishermen pulled 186 tons of turtles out of a single bay, the Bahía de los Angeles. In the early 1970s, Kino lobster divers made a strange discovery. During the winter, the reptiles lazed on the seafloor, barely moving for months. Thus began a decade-long bonanza as divers picked thousands of turtles off the ocean bottom. Fishermen from around the country flooded into Kino (aided by March to the Sea, a government program established in the 1950s that encouraged the unemployed to take up fishing), and by 1982, the turtle population in the bay had declined by 96 percent.[2] By 1990, when Mexico announced a nationwide ban on turtle fishing, they were nearly extinct.

[2] Even today, political parties give generous subsidies for anyone who wants to buy a boat or replace a boat engine, an informal system of payment widely viewed as vote bribing. As a result, densely populated slums ring many of the port towns, and countless fishing camps line the coast, each little more than a collection of corrugated-metal shacks.

The fishermen turned to sharks, selling the meat to Mexican cities and the fins to the emerging Chinese market. Amy Hudson Weaver, a biologist at the Sociedad de Historia Natural Niparajá, an NGO whose mission is to preserve biodiversity in the Sea of Cortez, has worked with area fishermen for more than a decade. She says that in the mid-1990s as many as seventy boats came to Kino every day, each of them hauling in 600 to 700 pounds of sharks and rays — which, like turtles, reproduce and grow slowly.

Not surprisingly, the shark population plummeted. Since then, the same fate has befallen sea bass, manta rays, halibut, tuna, oysters, an endemic drumfish called the totoaba, and many other species. Scientists call this process fishing down the food chain: fisheries hunt one species after another, starting with the valuable predators and working their way down to harvest whatever’s left — triggerfish, puffer fish, even jellyfish.

Most of the lobsters and turtles are gone, but Kino divers still harvest sea cucumber, octopus, and callo. That’s how I came across Miguel Durazo, known to everyone as Piolín (Spanish for “Tweety Bird”). Like everyone else on Kino’s beach at six a.m., Piolín is a lifelong fisherman. In his fifties, he’s slight of frame and hunches when he sits, but his sharp eyes, constant fidgeting, and nervous laugh make him seem like a much younger man. I meet him and his partner, Javier Rodriguez, just as the sun is rising; the light is spectacular and a faint breeze begins to blow. The plan is to collect callo about thirty feet down — a shallow depth that will allow the diver to stay submerged for hours. It’s a two-man job: one collects the nearly invisible shells buried in the sand; the other hauls them up and shucks them. A good day’s haul is thirty pounds of meat, which will bring in $200 for the boat.

It’s grueling work for the diver, so the partners alternate days. This is Javier’s day. He goes down at around seven a.m., and when he comes up nine hours later, starving and exhausted, he gulps down two burritos practically in one breath. A beautiful wall of clouds is coming in from the north as we begin the bumpy ride home. In a plastic bucket is about sixty dollars’ worth of callo — a meager haul once it’s split between the fishermen and the boat’s owner.

It wasn’t always this way. Piolín tells me that even fifteen years ago fish were plentiful. With a simple rod, you could catch hundred-pounders all morning and be done by noon. Now the fish are smaller, the distances to find them greater, and Kino divers look hungrily toward Seri waters to the north. Scientists say this is the first sign of an impending crash: wider and wider swaths of ocean giving up scantier and scantier catches. Yet the Mexican government tracks only how much is caught and not the effort that goes into the catch.

A different sort of catch has gradually taken the place of the dwindling fish population. It began with a few lost and hapless people from farther south trying to get to the U.S. border. “They would come to our camps armed. Mostly with problems like being out of gas,” says Piolín. “Because we were fishermen and didn’t have weapons, we were obliged to help them. And they would pay us with drugs.”

Fishermen eventually began helping the narcos by scouting ocean routes, running drugs, and diving for product tossed overboard during police chases. Eventually they started using, and a cycle of addiction and debt was added to the already serious problem of overfishing. Piolín got sucked in and developed a cocaine habit of his own. If you are high, he says, you can fish for days on end, unafraid of dangerous seas. He insists that he’s now clean and that the narcos have mostly moved on. But when there isn’t a way to earn a living legally, fishermen will turn to other means.

Piolín’s kids live inland, working construction or other jobs in the city. He talks about someday getting out of fishing, maybe setting up an ecotourism business, but you get the sense that his heart’s not in it. And it’s hard to imagine Piolín giving up the thrill of the catch.

“A human being has a destiny,” he says quietly one night, sitting in a hammock as the last light sinks over the water. “If I’m in the desert, I am thinking about the next time I can go to the sea and feel the breeze. I feel free. I will never cease to be a fisherman.”

Aquaculture is the big story in seafood today, having grown from a quirky side industry in the 1980s to nearly half of the U.S. seafood harvest. China, the world’s leader in farmed fish, now farms more than twice as much as it catches. And the Sea of Cortez has followed suit: in the south, seemingly every inch of its eastern shoreline has been converted into shallow pools where growers can harvest shrimp several times a year in huge batches. A state like Sonora is lucky to harvest 12,000 tons of wild shrimp, but lately it’s sold some 90,000 tons from expanding shrimp farms.

Many environmentalists point to aquaculture as an ecological savior, since it provides virtually unlimited cheap fish and jobs for unemployed fishermen without taxing the already overtaxed oceans. But there are complications. First among them is where to put the fish farms. Until a recent policy change prevented them, farmers commonly leveled large swaths of mangrove wetland to create new shrimp ponds. When those ponds became riddled with disease, they simply cut more forest in a different location. The second issue is waste disposal. Shrimp waste, mixed with nutrients, herbicides, antibiotics, and other additives used in farming, can be fairly toxic. The last issue is what to feed the shrimp. They eat almost anything, but the best food for them is fish meal — ground-up wild fish. It can take up to twenty pounds of fish meal to yield one pound of shrimp — something of a dispiriting equation for conservationists.

La Borbolla is one of the region’s most sustainable shrimp farms. It is set amid flat, unending dunes and consists of rows and rows of shallow pools, each the size of several football fields. Alfonso Apodaca Vásquez, the production manager, greets me warily. He’s dressed in nice jeans and a polo shirt and has a tidy corporate demeanor. Pointing to a large, shallow pond covered with a sort of tent to keep it hot enough for the shrimp, he says they have sixty-three pools on 400 acres. Normally every cubic meter of water holds thirty to forty shrimp, but it’s been a bad year for disease and the number has dropped to an average of thirteen. He takes me to an enclosed nursery pool, where the shrimp will grow to a little less than an ounce in their six-month lives. Water, oxygen, and nutrients are at an optimal level. A scoop with a sieve reveals a dozen bouncing little whitish bugs. Nearby, a hulking man Apodaca calls Big Joe lumbers through the chest-deep water vacuuming shrimp waste from the pool’s floor.

The farm is unquestionably a dreary place — hot, smelly, and bleak. The few breezes that waft through are a reminder of how stale the air is. But La Borbolla claims to have solved the three perennial problems of shrimp farming. Because it’s located in the desert, miles inland from the water, the mangroves are safe, and much of the sludge is (or theoretically could be) filtered by the time it gets to the sea. And by using alternative proteins, La Borbolla manages about a pound of shrimp for a pound and a half of feed. Still, it’s hard to imagine Piolín here, miles from the sea.

At the last pool I visit, Apodaca tosses in a small net, pulls out some full-grown shrimp, and lines them up across his hand like pub darts. With their stalked eyes and translucent bodies, they are beautiful, almost alien creatures. Apodaca says he likes his job. His father fishes a few hours north, in Puerto Peñasco, but gets fewer fish every year, while Apodaca makes good money and has job security and a future. He admits that it’s not the same as fishing. “The environment that you have out there in the sea, it doesn’t compare. Here you are just looking and waiting. Out there you have the capture, the adventure,” he says. “But this is the future. Until the sea can recuperate.”

Between all-you-can-eat buffets, cocktail parties, and gumbos, Americans eat well over a billion pounds of shrimp a year, more than three times what we catch, and the Sea of Cortez is crucial in meeting that demand. But the hunger for shrimp has an additional price.

Unlike turtles or sharks, shrimp are essentially ocean locusts that show up in annual, inexhaustible swarms. For one month starting in mid-September, shrimp fishing is the only job on the Sonoran coast. A week before the government opens the fishery to the big trawlers, small pangas take to the water to scoop up as many shrimp as they can. A decade ago one could see lawyers, teachers, doctors rushing to the sea, borrowing pangas, and trying their luck at the harvest. And many people — from the Seri fishermen to most environmentalists and marine biologists — says the biggest source of this sort of collateral damage is the trawlers. To catch something so small, fishermen inevitably dredge up lots of bycatch — sharks, turtles, sardines, crabs, mackerel, and even dolphins.

Which is why I decide to meet with León Tissot, the vice president of the Fishing Industry Association of Sonora and a spokesman for all the operators of the industrial fishing boats. I’ve been warned by more than one person that Tissot is not to be trusted, and the mention of his name is universally followed by a scowl and a grumble about corporate greed. The man I meet surprises me. He’s wearing jeans and a casual shirt and has a phone clipped to his belt like someone’s goofy dad. Tissot was educated in the United States and taught fisheries biology for two decades in Mexico before becoming the defender of the hated trawler. He speaks bluntly and, as far as I can tell, honestly. As he sees it, the real culprits for the disappearing fish population are the pangas. “Nobody else is to blame,” he says.

He admits the trawlers have created problems but says that blaming them for overfishing is outdated and lazy. Trawlers are slowly disappearing from the Sea of Cortez because of insolvency and government buybacks of trawler permits: since 2006, their numbers have dropped by 40 percent.

He may have a point. Fully half the pangas on the water are illegal, and all are unregulated. And how much bycatch do the trawlers actually take? Researchers at Prescott College’s facility in Kino estimate that about 86 percent of the catch in trawlers is accidental, and it includes seven endangered species.

Tissot says these numbers are too high. He argues that they might reflect the bycatch at season’s end, when all the shrimp are gone, but that for much of the season the bycatch is closer to 10 percent. And that will change, he promises, with the trawlers’ recent adoption of new nets designed to allow bycatch to escape.

“We’ve been fishing in the same area in the Gulf of California for sixty years,” Tissot says, sounding a little frustrated. “The only difference is that until twenty years ago there were not so many pangas.”

So which has the larger impact: 1,300 trawlers or 25,000 pangas? The only way to accurately gauge the bycatch rate is to get out on a trawler and see the catch up close. I arrange to meet one the next day on the water. I secure a panga from a rotund fisherman named David Morillo to take me out, but the trawler never shows. Morillo’s son (a whirlwind of energy also named David) won’t be deterred, and we head off chasing the first trawler we see. Soon we are aboard and milling about as the crew gets ready to bring in the first catch of the day. I strike up a conversation with José Paz, first mate and forty-year fishing veteran, who tells me he’s as angered as anyone else by the bycatch that ends up in his nets. He is currently using the nets Tissot mentioned, which allow species other than shrimp to escape. Paz says the bycatch is lower, but only marginally so.

“You’ll see,” he tells me, pointing to the nets trailing us in the predawn light. “People say Mexico is still rich in resources, but they are being wiped out. All the species are being wiped out.”

A few minutes later, with the sun just peeking over the horizon, the nets start to crank up from the ocean floor as sea lions dart in and out, stealing fish. When the nets break the surface and swivel to the deck, the bottoms open and fish tumble everywhere. Paz says the catch has been lean so far — 900 pounds of shrimp, a tenth of what they’d hoped to get. But the sheer volume of life in the nets is astounding. Everyone scuttles about scooping shrimp — about half the catch — into baskets. The rest is a mix of mackerel, triggerfish, rays, and a shark relative called the guitarfish. Closer inspection shows that most are clearly juvenile: members of a younger generation that could have buttressed the dwindling populations.

Only one fisherman seems interested in the bycatch. He is the pavo (“turkey”) — an apprentice, and the only person who doesn’t get a cut of the shrimp sales. Instead, he gets to choose from the bycatch fish that are either banned or for which he has no permit and sell them on the flourishing black market. When the trawlers dock in Kino, traffickers called guateros will motor out and purchase these leftovers. To a degree, this is a sensible and efficient arrangement, since fewer fish are wasted, but it renders all regulations meaningless. If the catch is good and composed primarily of shrimp, the captain may deliberately bring up a load of bycatch so the pavo will have something to sell. But if the catch is bad, the whole crew might switch to being pavos for the day.

Is this trawler responsible for any worse devastation than fifty pangas? At least the trawlers are for the most part following state and federal regulations (barring the side business of the pavos) and fishing with the correct nets. In the end, pitting trawler against panga misses the point. The boats frequently employ the same people. If you fire a trawler fisherman, he’s likely going to buy or borrow a panga and keep fishing.

Although it’s no secret that Cortez fisheries are headed for disaster, no one seems to know what to do about it. With this dilemma in mind, I sit down to lunch in La Paz with Hoyt Peckham, a fisheries biologist who has been working in the Baja for thirteen years, mostly focusing on conservation. What he has realized is that to save the aquarium of the world, you have to help the fishermen help themselves. Peckham suggests we have lunch at Bismark-cito, a tourist spot along the ocean promenade, where we order $8 plates of fish. Our lunch, he says, comes via a strange paradox. Fish in resort towns like La Paz or Cabo San Lucas might be caught in the Sea of Cortez, but usually they are shipped to Mexico City or Guadalajara for processing and distribution. Some may even be sent back.

“And the fish?” he says in an easy surfer drawl. “It’s cabrilla.” Cabrilla is a cheap seabass sold in tacos on Mexico City streets that I wolf down on my way to the subway. Usually it’s caught in huge volumes and heaped on the beach, where it starts to rot. It sells for sixteen cents a pound and is piled into trucks, eventually to be chopped into indistinguishable bits, mixed with lemon juice to hide the stink, and labeled fish.

The waiter brings us a plate of cabrilla, attractively laid out with salad, rice, and butter sauce. I cut into the fish and it flakes into moist layers. The flesh is as sweet and delicious as halibut, though it’s over-breaded and tastes too strongly of garlic.

“This fish was caught in López Mateos,” says Peckham between bites. “Two days ago.”

Puerto Adolfo López Mateos is a town on the Pacific Coast similar to Kino. But the López Mateos fisherman didn’t toss this fish from the net to the beach and then to a truck. It was caught by hook and line, placed in ice water, and processed by the fisherman’s wife in an air-conditioned plant. The fisherman earns many times as much money as Kino fishermen, doesn’t have bycatch, and the fish makes for an amazing meal. Peckham says that when he first showed the fish to this restaurant, they refused to believe it was cabrilla. He’s become a cheerleader for something he calls “value rescue”; that is, if the fishermen can cut out some of the middlemen, care for and market their fish better, and make more money per fish, they can be better stewards of their coastline.

Lately, as a part of an organization he helped start called ProMar, he has been talking to fancy restaurants in Cabo about buying local fish caught by conscientious fishermen using sustainable methods. It’s not the ultimate solution, but it’s a way fishermen can start thinking more like businessmen and less like prisoners.

For one species, however, it may already be too late. In 1994, Mexico, Canada, and the United States formed the Commission for Environmental Cooperation as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement. One of this commission’s first tasks was to identify wildlife in the three countries that could be affected by increased trade. Early on, the CEC focused on the vaquita, the Mexican porpoise. In 1997, scientists pegged the population at the oddly specific number of 567; today, there are between 150 and 250 vaquitas, making it the world’s most endangered marine mammal. The last creature to hold that distinction, the Chinese river dolphin, disappeared in 2006.

There are almost no pictures of vaquitas, just a few blurry shots of their dorsal fins. Aside from being extremely rare, they avoid humans and live in water the color and translucency of chocolate milk. In the summer of 2010, a scientist working to catalogue vaquitas searched for two weeks — and saw exactly one.

In 1993, the Mexican government, eager to appear proactive, set up an enormous marine preserve to protect the totoaba, fished to near extinction in the 1960s and 1970s, and its vulnerable bycatch, the vaquita. In 2006, the government cut the number of panga permits in half and trawler permits by nearly two thirds. In other parts of the Sea of Cortez, the environmental-protection arm of the federal government, called PROFEPA, cannot even afford working boats. But here in the Upper Gulf near the U.S. border there are nine speedboats, several naval vessels, a twin-engine Cessna, and twenty inspectors.

The vaquita immediately became to fishermen what the spotted owl is to loggers. Unlike the Seri, who view turtles as their kin, fishermen here have no affinity for the vaquita, which even the most experienced have seen only once or twice in their lives. So when in the late 1990s the Mexican government sliced off the northern end of the Sea of Cortez as a preserve, the fishermen revolted, burning officials’ trucks.

“From the fisherman’s perspective, it’s very difficult,” explains Ramón Franco, a boat owner and community leader in San Felipe, a bustling town of fishermen and tourists south of the California border. “If the ocean is yours — because that’s what we are told — then why is the government coming in and making changes?”

Yet the government’s policy was effective. If you walk along the beach at dusk in San Felipe you will see that the pangas here take in ten times as much fish as those farther south. The local fishermen live modestly by U.S. standards, but their houses are sturdy, their cars work, and they can send their kids to college. Franco says that before the preserve was established, the fishermen would be gone by this time of year, looking for better grounds. Now there’s enough fish and shrimp to keep them at home.

But the preserve certainly hasn’t saved every community in the area from economic ruin. A case in point is El Golfo de Santa Clara, where the PROFEPA trucks were burned ten years ago. I drive up there the day after talking with Franco. As I near the northern tip of the Sea of Cortez, the land changes. Baja is dry, but this area is really dry — long expanses of desolate wasteland and a coastline that has retreated for miles, leaving glistening white salt. This area was once thick with cottonwood and rivulets of water twisting, splitting, and reconnecting as far as the eye could see. But that was before the Colorado River dried up a hundred miles north of the Sea of Cortez. Now a tiny pond along with a few other wet spots scattered about the vast floodplain are all that remain of this river. The rest is irrigating fields in Arizona and California or providing hydropower to Las Vegas.

One of the main reasons fishing was historically so good in the northern Sea of Cortez was that the river brought in nutrients. But when the river dried up in 1999, so did the nutrients. As happened with the Great Salt Lake, dry riverbeds were followed by desertification and salt. It’s not clear exactly how this has affected the remaining fish, but locals say it has been devastating. “All the efforts that we have put into protecting the Gulf of California and the fisheries — a lot of the pressure to do that comes from the U.S.,” says Joaquín Angulo, a former fisherman. “So why did they cut off the water?”

Luis Gallardo, a boat owner and prominent fisherman in Santa Clara, is more blunt. “What are we going to do to live if not by fishing? Tourism?” he asks. “We’re fucked.”

Tourism is the great panacea offered by environmentalists around the world. Give up your nets, build a hotel, and tourist dollars will come flooding in. In 2008, the Mexican government began to pay Santa Clara fishermen not to fish. For $30,000 per permit, fishermen were encouraged to give up their gear and spend the money on tourist projects. Others received smaller sums for switching to a vaquita-safe option or for keeping their boats idle.

There are a lot of empty hotels and restaurants in Santa Clara now. One of the people who took the payout was Angulo, who owns the biggest hotel in town — a three-story affair near the water that’s clean and has Wi-Fi. It seemed like a good bet. Theoretically, Santa Clara is a perfect tourist destination — close to the border, with sand dunes and warm (though murky) water. But between the global financial crisis and the drug war, tourism came to a halt. Businesses in town started closing, and without a fishing permit people were ruined.

Angulo has managed to make a living by renting rooms to tourists who speed up and down the dunes on ATVs, but many others have gone broke. The problem is even worse in Puerto Peñasco, an hour’s drive away and perhaps the oddest city in northern Mexico. Luxury resorts loom over the shoreline for miles — but when you drive closer, you see that all the parking lots are empty. Four-star hotels stand in various states of completion. The beach is empty, on almost every corner someone is offering ATV rentals to invisible tourists, and groundskeepers are busy guarding an untouched golf course from the invasive desert sand. Puerto Peñasco is the latest “next Cabo,” a fiction that developers sell all around the Sea of Cortez.

Back in Santa Clara, meanwhile, tourism may not be the only recourse. Sitting in the living room of Carlos Tirado, or El Gordo as he is known, I learn about one last potential savior for the town. Carlos, Luis’s friend, runs a healthy portion of what fishing remains, and lives in a bizarrely luxurious house on an unpaved street. Today he’s excited about the latest fishing craze. Last year, the shores of Cortez, long bereft of turtles, sharks, and dolphins, had a new bounty: jellyfish. With his iPad, Carlos shows me footage from last spring’s townwide jellyfish harvest.

So-called cannonball jellies now get so thick in the water that you can pluck them out by hand. For $230 per ton, you can scoop up enough jellies to swamp your boat, then salt them and send them to China, where they are a bland sort of staple. It’s not clear where they came from, but for the moment, they don’t seem to have any competition or predators. And it’s not likely they are going anywhere anytime soon

“There used to be jellyfish, sure. Sometimes there would be a lot, but never like this,” says Luis. “I hope they are conserved.”

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is a science writer based in Mexico City. His work on this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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