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?”

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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

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

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“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

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"She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. 'Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.'"
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