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.”

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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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