Science Journey to Loreto, Mexico: Sustainable Fishing, Part 2

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 here.

The majority of the world’s fisheries are overfished. But, the good news is that there are solutions that are working. Through a combination of government-enforced fisheries regulations and no-take marine reserves, fisheries in some developed countries are rebuilding.

The problem is that these solutions don’t seem to work everywhere, especially in places like Mexico where the government has a limited capacity to enforce rules. The goal of our research is to understand when giving ownership of resources to local people, rather than the government, can create a situation where people are willing to enforce rules that protect nature and rebuild fisheries.

Today, we’ll be diving in Loreto to gather data on the health of marine ecosystems in a place where the government has control (Loreto is a national park). Before dawn, we wake to a crescent moon hanging in the purple pre-dawn sky. Shadowy cardons [cacti] frame the islands on the horizon where we will dive. I am happy for the early start because I am anxious to see what Loreto looks like under water.

Our research boats—a pair of pangas named Mar IV and Mar V—cut across the glassy morning water with ease, each propelled by double engines. As we round the north end of Isla Coronado, we hear the barking of a colony of sea lions on the rocky outcrop that marks our first site—no GPS needed. We stop the boats and roll off the side of the panga. Under water, everything is alive.

Blue, yellow, and black striped sergeant majors flit this way and that, plucking seemingly invisible snacks out of the current. Further down, a school of polka-dotted surgeon fish takes shape around the rocky reef below them and I know that we are almost at the depth for our first survey. My gauge is reading 62 ft, just about right—time to start counting.

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish

At the start of the first transect, I look ahead across the rocky reef and I am momentarily overwhelmed. 891 is a lot of species to count. But, there is work to do so off we swim: 1 Bodianus diplotaenia at size D (20-25 cm), 30 Lutjanus argentiventris at size B(5 cm), Microspathododon dorsalis at size G (30-35 cm)and, repeat, all day long. This sort of work is awe-inspiring. The diversity of underwater life is almost as fantastical as a Dr. Seuss picture book.

Over time the data tell surprising things about this place. At first, I love seeing all the diversity of brightly colored fish on this reef. But then I get worried. Where are the big fish? Where are the predators? Research myself and others have done on coral reefs in the Pacific, including the TNC preserve on Palmyra, has shown that lots of little fish is a sign of an unhealthy reef and healthy reefs should have big predators making up most the living stuff swimming around.

After this research, it’s hard to look at a photo in an in-flight magazine drawing tourists to Fiji with an image of hundreds of little orange, red, and purple anthias without thinking—that’s an ad for an unhealthy reef. In the same way, the little fish on this rocky reef in Loreto are shouting out that overfishing is a concern.

The data collected today and over the last 15 years show that the small marine reserves within the Loreto Bay National Park don’t seem to be working. The consensus is that fishermen still fish in these government-managed reserves and the reserves are too small.

“It is not like the national parks you have at home in the U.S.,” my collaborator says as he surfaces with a large penshell or cayo de hacha (Atrina maura) to give to our boat captain to have for dinner tonight. In both the U.S. and Mexico, marine national parks are also designed for multiple-uses (e.g. fishing, tourism, and biodiversity conservation). However, one big difference is that, in general, protected areas in the U.S. and other developed countries are more effective because of greater government capacity and larger no-fishing areas.

But, what do the marine ecosystems look like in places where enforcement is not left to the government and, instead, local people have incentives and capacity to enforce the rules?

Local Ownership Can Make the Difference

Data from other sites around the region indicate that marine ecosystems are healthier when local people have ownership—whether that ownership is over a reserve or an exclusive fishing area.

For instance, south of Loreto the families of Cabo Pulmo convinced the government to protect nearly 80 km2 of ocean as a marine reserve. That’s more than 50 times greater than the total no-take area around Loreto. My collaborator, Octavio Aburto, and others reported that banning all fishing in Cabo Pulmo has resulted in a miraculous comeback—a 463% increase in fish biomass. Numbers are impressive, but what was really impressive was when we visited last January and got in the water. The grouper that are small or nearly absent in areas around Loreto were like lurking giants everywhere. Massive schools of yellow snapper that might rule the roost in other places were turned into flighty prey as the grouper circled round.

The secret to the success of Cabo Pulmo—in addition to its large size—has been active monitoring and enforcement by the local families. These former fishing families now make their living running tourism operations, which provides them a big incentive to ensure that their marine reserve really is a no-take zone.

And, local ownership makes a difference in places where fishing is allowed. On the Pacific coast of Baja, fishing cooperatives have exclusive rights to high value species like abalone and lobster. These cooperatives actively monitor and enforce their areas to keep other fishermen out. Even though these areas are actively fished, there is less overall fishing than in places where fishermen do not have exclusive rights. And, interestingly, species that are not targeted by the fishery may be better protected than they would be in a typical marine reserve where there is little monitoring and enforcement.

Our findings suggest that greater ownership to both reserves and fishing areas could be a solution for places like Loreto. Some of the ingredients are already there. Tourism could provide an incentive for protecting marine reserves. And, some fishermen already have exclusive areas to fish high valued sea cucumbers. Through policy changes and capacity building, these components could be scaled-up to form a complementarysystem of rights and reserves.

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

(Image 1: A California sea lion swims in the warm coastal waters off Mexico’s Isla Espiritu Santo, in the Gulf of California’s Sea of Cortez near the Baja town of La Paz. Source: Mark Godfrey/TNC. Image 2: A barberfish (Johnrandallia nigrirostris), or blacknosed butterflyfish, swims in reef habitat in the Sea of Cortez off Baja California. Source: Daniel W. Gotshall)

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