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Editor’s note: The following is a 3-part account by scientist Sheila Walsh of her recent research in Loreto, Mexico. With a team of ecologists, economists and anthropologists, she is studying the surprising ways in which local fishing practices may create more benefits for nature and people than traditional conservation solutions alone. The team hopes to find out how local management practices can be part of regional, integrated fisheries and protected area management. Read part 1 and part 2.

Just like putting away savings for a rainy day, protecting the ecosystems that sustain our livelihoods and economies may help us weather unexpected storms. In places like the Gulf of California, Mexico, this is especially important because marine ecosystems provide critical food and income for the region. At the same time, the region is faced with increasingly strong climate events like El Niños, which impact fisheries through changes in the productivity of the ocean.

Our research team is trying to understand not only when local people can better manage ecosystems but whether well-managed and more biodiverse ecosystems may help fisheries be more resilient to environmental changes. We saw the importance of resilience first-hand after unexpected storms and rains hit.

At the end of our first dive of the day, I was following my bubbles upward to the surface. The typical bright silver of the surface was an ominous steely gray. Scanning to my buddy and then the panga, my eye caught the storm clouds rapidly approaching over the island’s mountain peaks. We scrambled to get our equipment—slates, cameras, transect lines, weight belts, BDCs and tanks—and ourselves into the boat.

Just as everyone was out of the water and the pangas’ engines started-up, large, cold raindrops began pelting down. Within minutes, we were in a virtual white-out. The strong wind flattened down the waves and raindrops shattered the black surface of the ocean into silver spray. Even with our GPS to guide us, our captain decided it was time to take shelter rather than continue back to Loreto.

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The clouds eased for a moment and ahead of us, I saw jagged cliffs rising up. Our captain said this was what we were looking for—Puerto Escondido. Motoring slower now, we rounded the cliffs and the channel opened up to reveal a small cove surrounded by high, protective mountain slopes. This place has been a refuge for many. In the Log from the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck calls this “a place of magic…..fringe[d] with bright-green mangroves.” It did feel magical. Up on the slopes, tens of waterfalls were springing to life in front of our eyes as the rain regained its strength.

Taking shelter in Puerto Escondido with us was a boat of 5 fishermen. They had also gotten stuck out in the storm and had almost run out of gas. Grabbing a hose from one of the benches in our panga, our captain put one end in our gas tank and his mouth on the other. With a quick draw of air, he got the fuel flowing from our tank to the nearly empty canister of the fishermen.

This was a reality check. Heavy storms just mean a day off of diving for us, but for fishermen, storms mean dangerous seas and less food or money to bring home. If overfishing combined with climate change is making fish catches more variable and fishing conditions more dangerous, what will this mean for fishermen and their families in the future? Can more intact and biodiverse ecosystems help buffer fishermen from the impacts of climate change?

Using data that we have been collecting during this project, we are starting to see evidence that the wide diversity of species that fishermen in the Gulf rely on for food and income may in fact may help buffer fishermen them from the impact of El Niño events. When El Niño events bring warm waters and heavy rains, some species do better and some species do worse.  For instance, the yellow snapper juveniles that live in mangroves of Puerto Escondido and other areas benefit from the nutrient rich land runoff that happens during rains. In contrast, grouper juveniles live in sargassum, or brown seaweed, that dies back because ocean is to warm during an El Niño. With climate change, El Niño conditions are expected to be stronger and occur more often.

Ironically, the rain days gave me some unexpected time to dig a bit deeper into this analysis, which is still in its early stages. So far, from the café in flooded Loreto, the results are hopeful. Looking at 9 years of daily records for the entire multi-species fishery around the Gulf, it seems that the different responses by the different species are canceling each other out.

It looks like biodiversity creates a portfolio effect for the fishery. If this is the case, protecting biodiversity would be critical to protecting fishermen’s livelihoods from shocks like El Niño. Stay tuned.

 Parting Thoughts

I’m packing up my soggy dive gear and noticing that my clothes all smell a bit like ocean (that might be putting in nicely). For now, we have completed another piece of the puzzle—collecting data on the marine ecosystems around Loreto Bay National Park—but there is a lot more work to do. I think about how we will measure our success. Not just in Mexico but for conservation globally.

In Loreto, success would be sustainable and resilient fisheries and marine ecosystems. Our research is showing that local ownership of fisheries resources and protection of biodiversity may be complementary strategies to achieve this goal. Local ownership may not only protect fisheries species but also non-target species. In turn, greater biodiversity may make local fishermen and fisheries more resilient to climate change. Together, these complementary strategies could be implemented through a regional system of fishing rights and reserves that is based on co-management by local institutions and the government.

Globally, I think success would be that we are all out of a job. That we don’t need conservation organizations and strategies because investing in conservation to benefit people and nature is a systematic part of how fishing communities, businesses and governments operate. I like this vision. But, what would I do if I was out of a job? I guess I’d spend more time in the ocean (and my dive gear would be perpetually wet).

Learn more about the NSF grant and team members for this project.

(Image 1: Storm encountered while on dive research in Loreto. Image 2:Loreto fishermen. Source: Sheila Walsh/TNC.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.

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