Science Journey to Loreto, Mexico: Sustainable Fishing, Part 1

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.

From the airplane I can see the Sierra de la Gigante, the spine of the Baja Peninsula, plunging into the Gulf of California and re-emerging as a string of islands in the bay surrounding Loreto, Mexico.

These islands are why Loreto is a national park. In 2000, the Mexican government made a landmark decision to protect all the islands of the Gulf of California and in 2005 the area became recognized as a World Heritage site for its unique biodiversity and oceanographyLoreto Bay National Park is now a destination for tourists who want to dive in “the world’s aquarium.”

Advertisements along the malecón, or promenade, show the spectacular whales and some of the 891 fish species you can see during a day’s trip to the islands. That’s an impressive amount of species, to be sure. But another impressive number is the 50,000 fishermen who fish these waters. And the $400 million in revenue that Loreto Bay fisheries support each year. Loreto has ridden the wave of tourism development that has swept the region but under it all, Loreto, and most of the towns around the Gulf, are still sustained by fishing.

While Loreto Bay National Park has been a success for tourism, it has not been a success for fisheries. Although the park bans destructive fishing practices like bottom trawling, commercial and recreational fishing is still allowed in all but two small no-fishing zones (totally 1.4 km2). These no-fishing zones are simply too small to replenish and sustain fisheries in the area.

As a result, commercially valuable species like snapper, grouper, and parrotfish have not recovered. Expanding these no-take zones could be a logical part of the solution—and is currently being considered. However, the surprising finding that populations of leopard grouper, one of the most commercially important species, has actually declined more inside the park than outside of the park suggest that  an even bigger part of the solution could be found in the fishing areas outside of the no-take zones.

Are government-managed marine protected areas a target for illegal fishing because local fishermen do not see benefits to protection? Can local fishing cooperatives do a better job of promoting sustainable fishing outside of protected areas? What economic and ecological factors provide incentives for sustainable fishing? How can conditions that promote sustainable fishing be embedded into regional co-management of fisheries and protected areas by the government and local fishing cooperatives? When is conservation part of the solution to sustain fisheries?

To answer these questions, my colleagues and I are collecting ecological, economic and anthropological data on fishing and marine ecosystems around 3 marine national parks (Loreto Bay National Park, Espíritu Santo National Park, and Cabo Pulmo National Park) along a  ~250 mile stretch of the Gulf of California, from Loreto to La Paz to Cabo Pulmo (just north of Cabo San Lucas). We’ve already been to the latter two and seen that no-take zones can have tremendous success in Cabo Pulmo. And, we have seen how market demand together with pressure from local fishing cooperatives can actually promote more sustainable fishing around La Paz. In both cases, it has been about the people and how their fishing practices reflect the ecology and economy of the place.

Now the question is, what will we find in Loreto? For three weeks, we will be focused on surveying the health of the reef fish communities. These surveys are critical to maintaining a unique 15-year ecological dataset. Only more recently have we been filling in the human side of the story.

By putting together these two pieces of the puzzle—nature and people—we are starting to learn about:

  • when marine reserves can be successful,
  • how economic incentives outside of reserves play a role, and
  • how healthy marine ecosystems and strong communities can build resilient fisheries.

The lessons we are learning will provide critical information to help design integrated conservation and fisheries strategies for the new 10 year, region-wide Baja Marine Initiative, led by The Nature Conservancy and Fondo Mexicano.

Stay tuned for part 2 in this series, coming soon!

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

(Image 1: Islands off Loreto in the Gulf of California, Baja. Image 2: Fishing boats at Loreto. Source: Sheila Walsh/TNC.)

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

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