Postcard — July 31, 2013, 8:00 am

Two Fish, One Fish, Don’t Fish, Ton Fish

How one community on the Sea of Cortez restored its fishery — and its economy — by stopping fishing altogether

Trawler deck, Sea of Cortez. © Dominic Bracco II

Trawler deck, Sea of Cortez. © Dominic Bracco II/Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

Last fall, while reporting for Harper’s Magazine on the decline of fisheries in the Sea of Cortez, photographer Dominic Bracco and I had the chance to watch an industrial trawler pull in its catch in Guaymas, midway up the eastern coast of the Gulf of California. As I related in the story, most of the fish we saw were juveniles, because older fish have become increasingly difficult to find. It made me sad to watch baby sharks flop around on the trawler’s deck, slowly suffocating as the fishermen collected shrimp around them. But later a thought struck me: the fact that sharks were there at all meant not all hope was lost.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in Cabo Pulmo, on the southern tip of Baja. In 1995, this tiny fishing pueblo saw that its catches were shrinking to the point of crisis, so they took a strange step. With the help of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, they closed off their own waters to fishing. Instead, they would try to make ends meet with tourism. So they created an underwater preserve that would give the area time to recover, and eventually attract scuba divers to their crystal-clear waters. “They suffered the first few years,” said Octavio Aburto, a scientist with Scripps. “They didn’t have any other choice. They implemented the park, had to pay taxes, and could not fish. But there wasn’t anything that tourists could see yet.”

Around the same time, 150 miles to the north, another town called Loreto tried a similar thing, with one difference — they allowed sport fishing, which most studies suggest isn’t a huge threat to fish populations. Its fishery, like Cabo Pulmo’s, had traditionally benefited from strong upwelling currents, which carry nutrients that nourish the entire food chain to the surface. But Cabo Pulmo featured an additional attractant for underwater creatures, one no other town on the Sea of Cortez could boast: a viable coral reef that could host complex ecosystems and attract bigger fish, as well as divers and snorkelers.

By 2009 the towns had found an answer to a question often asked by environmentalists and fishermen: “What would happen if we just stopped fishing?” Biomass in Cabo Pulmo’s waters increased 460 percent. Dip into the water and it’s hard to believe: grouper, octopus, and fish of every color swarm around the reefs. Black-tipped reef sharks, thought to be gone from the region, are back. Meanwhile, up in Loreto, Aburto says, the biomass stayed level even as fishing rods increased 400 percent. “Cabo Pulmo attracted fish,” he says, “Loreto attracted fishermen.”

Today, Cabo Pulmo is one of the great success stories among the so-called marine protected areas (MPAs). Those who dove the area in the 1970s say that though it’s still a shadow of what it was, the recovery is striking. It’s as if the fish so obviously absent from the Gulf of California were just waiting for a moment — a few years’ reprieve — to come roaring back. And with the fish have come tourists, who now bring a brisk business to the little town. In fact, the region recently managed to fight off a massive development proposal for Cabo Pulmo that would have turned it into another Cabo San Lucas.

“There were lots of different kinds of fish, different colors,” said Joel, a fisherman from Guaymas who had been flown out to Cabo Pulmo for a diving trip by a Mexican nonprofit called SuMar. “I started thinking, ‘This one is worth 2,000 pesos!’ And it’s still alive so that more people can come and go see it.” Back in his home waters, Joel fished an estuary that acts as a vital nursery to juvenile fish, which further depletes an already shriveled ecosystem. The day we fished with him he threw most of what he caught to the pelicans as we talked, saving only the prawns. There were so many people on the water he spent as much time faking out other boats in an attempt to draw them away from potentially good spots as he did fishing.

Despite the success of Cabo Pulmo, it’s still not clear that MPAs will genuinely restore the waters that surround them, let alone the Sea of Cortez as a whole. As it stands, fishermen tend to gather near the borders of the Cabo Pulmo preserve and “fish the line,” catching everything that leaves. Scientists like Aburto hope that once they gain a better understanding of the life cycles of various species, they can target the most important waters for protection, as they might on land — say at a breeding ground or an important migration stopover.

But Aburto was quick to tell me that it will take more than a map of mating grounds to reproduce Cabo Pulmo’s success. For one, not every strip of beach will attract tourists — in many places in the Sea of Cortez, the water is naturally the color of coffee. Also, there are only so many tourists to go around, and they can be capricious. But the biggest difference between success and failure was finding decisive leaders in fishing communities. “The question is,” he said, “who will have the courage?”

Share
Single Page
is a science writer based in Mexico City. His work on the Sea of Cortez fisheries for Harper’s was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

More from Erik Vance:

Perspective August 20, 2013, 4:11 pm

On the Trouble with Farmed Shrimp

The Mexican government announces a state of emergency following a mass shrimp die-off in the Sea of Cortez

Suggestion August 15, 2013, 8:00 am

Four Steps Toward Guilt-free Seafood

What can we do to address the collapsing global fishery?

From the August 2013 issue

Emptying the World’s Aquarium

The dismal future of the global fishery

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2015

In the Shadow of the Storm

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Measure for Measure

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trouble with Israel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Camera on Every Cop

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Part Neither, Part Both·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Eight months pregnant I told an old woman sitting beside me on the bus that the egg that hatched my baby came from my wife’s ovaries. I didn’t know how the old woman would take it; one can never know. She was delighted: That’s like a fairy tale!”
Mother with Children, by Gustav Klimt © akg-images
Article
What Recovery?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Between 2007 and 2010, Albany’s poverty rate jumped 12 points, to a record high of 39.9 percent. More than two thirds of Albany’s 76,000 residents are black, and since 2010, their poverty rate has climbed even higher, to nearly 42 percent.”
Photograph by Will Steacy
Article
Rag Time·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

From a May 23 commencement address delivered at Hofstra University. Doctorow died on Tuesday. He was 84.
“We are a deeply divided nation in danger of undergoing a profound change for the worse.”
Photograph by Giuseppe Giglia
Article
The Trouble with Israel·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“We think we are the only people in the world who live with threat, but we have to work with regional leaders who will work with us. Bibi is taking the country into unprecedented international isolation.”
Photograph by Adam Golfer
Post
Greece, Europe, and the United States·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“A progressive Europe—the Europe of sustainable growth and social cohesion—would be one thing. The gridlocked, reactionary, petty, and vicious Europe that actually exists is another. It cannot and should not last for very long.”

Photograph by Stefan Boness

Percentage of Americans who say they would have cosmetic surgery if they could afford it:

69

An upside-down rainbow appeared over England.

Hackers breached Ashley Madison, a website that facilitates extramarital relationships, compromising the private information of millions of users. “This could be a boon,” said one lawyer, “for divorce attorneys.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today