By Reef Check California Southern California Manager Colleen Wisniewski
For the fifth consecutive summer, Reef Check staff members have returned to Isla Natividad, on the Pacific side of Baja California Sur in Mexico, to work with the Natividad Fishing Cooperative and the Mexican NGO Comunidad y Biodiversidad (COBI) to recertify them for data collection on the biological communities of their local rocky reefs. In 2006, two no-take marine reserves and four control sites were established around the island and the sites have been monitored annually. This project is truly a partnership as members of the Cooperative, staff from COBI and Reef Check work side by side in the classroom and field, as well as in the planning of this annual event.
I was fortunate to join the team this year with Mary Luna, Program Manager for Mexico. We traveled to Baja from July 18th-26th to lead the annual recertification. We drove down through Baja, making it a beautiful and memorable trip through the desert and coastal areas of the Peninsula.
Wednesday evening, after our first day of recertification, we were part of a very insightful roundtable discussion with the members of the Cooperative. We gave a brief overview of Reef Check and COBI presented some of the findings from several years of data collection, but most interesting was when each member of the Cooperative’s monitoring team spoke about their reason for joining this project, the obvious impacts they’ve seen from the reserves and why the reserves are important to them. This was especially interesting for me after being involved in California Marine Life Protection Act meetings over the last several years which will eventually result in a statewide network of marine protected areas (MPAs). In contrast to California, everyone discussing the MPAs here lives and works closely together on a small island and relies on the local marine resources. Overall, it seemed that they had positive impressions of their marine reserves and supported keeping these protected areas and potentially expanding them.
On Thursday, we loaded up two pangas and motored to Punta Prieta, one of the two reserves, where we practiced some invertebrate, algae and uniform point contact (UPC) transects. I was amazed at the size and quantity of the kelp bass and sheephead. It made me wonder what it would have been like to dive in California 50 or 100 years ago. The kelp was very dense in spots, creating a thick canopy on the surface and darkness underwater. It was interesting to see some different species, like the Pacific porgy, mixed in with the species I’m more accustomed to seeing on surveys. In the afternoon, we returned to the classroom to review our progress from the morning and to prepare for the next day.
The next two mornings were spent practicing and testing the divers in the survey methods. On Friday we dove at a different location – La Guanera, which is not a reserve. Back in the classroom, all the divers did well on their species identification tests and we discussed specific questions these seasoned surveyors had regarding the protocols. Once the classroom sessions were complete on our last evening, Mary and I enjoyed a hike to the lighthouse for sunset. On the way back I even got to compete (and win, thanks to my teammate Mario) in a futbolito, or foosball, tournament with some of the divers from COBI and the Cooperative.
We left the island on Saturday afternoon, shortly after returning from three training dives in a beautiful spot with a friendly harbor seal and got back on the road for our long journey home. I am already looking forward to the possibility of returning to Isla Natividad to recertify these divers next year and hopefully, to eventually bring some Reef Check divers from California to join the team and learn more about this amazing project and its people.