By Reef Check Assistant Program Manager Mary Luna
Once in Baja, and traveling with an open heart and mind, it is not difficult to imagine why tales of the colonization describe the natives as the “happiest people on earth.” Historically, Baja has enjoyed a low population and development rate due in part to the dry landscape and limited supply of fresh water. It is this relatively unspoiled beauty, the desert meeting the sea, the starry sky unclouded by blinding city lights, the mile after mile of open surf breaks, and abundance of breathtaking kayak-snorkel-dive spots, that take the traveler back to their adventurous, primordial self. Despite the rapid development of Cabo San Lucas, La Paz, and Ensenada northwards, the traveler may be delighted to learn that the largest total area of national park in Mexico (Areas Naturales Protegidas) is found in Baja. Yet the same forces that drive visitors to Baja also threaten the very attributes that make it so desirable. There, as in many other places in the world, the solution is not to stop socioeconomic development, but to direct it in such a way that it preserves nature and generates an educated population of locals and visitors. Ultimately, it is for the delight of every human to know that there still exist some pristine places in Baja that one can visit in body or spirit.
In 2007, Reef Check entered into a synergistic partnership with the Mexican non-profit Community and Biodiversity (Comunidad y Biodiversidad or COBI) to provide assistance to two Baja fishing cooperatives to design scientifically sound resource management plans.
The island of Natividad lies about half-way down the Pacific side of Baja. The local fishing cooperative has a name that is longer than the island: Cooperative Society for the Production of Fisher-Diver and Fishermen (Sociedad Cooperativa de Produccion Pesquera Buzos y Pescadores de Isla Natividad). With about 80 members, this cooperative is one of the oldest and best organized in Mexico. They have an exemplary fisheries management program. Following training in 2006, 2007 and 2008, they have adopted Reef Check’s California protocol to monitor self-imposed marine reserves that have been in place since 2006. Each year they pay some of their best divers to survey inside and outside the reserves and collect data to assess the reserve effect. They spend over $100,000 annually to patrol the island perimeter and discourage poaching. The ability of the local citizens to control access to their fishery, along with an innate conservation ethic, has contributed to a well-preserved marine ecosystem. The diving in Natividad is superb and currently restricted to cooperative members and national and international researchers working on projects approved by the cooperative.
Fishing cooperatives like Natividad’s make a monetary investment when they set up marine reserves. The “opportunity cost” associated with not fishing in these areas increases over time as organisms inside the reserves grow in number and size. Part of the opportunity cost is expected to be offset by migration of juveniles and adults to surrounding areas in a “spillover” effect as well as by increased export of larvae produced by bigger, more fecund individuals. Another approach to offset the opportunity cost of not fishing these areas may be found by starting non-exploitive businesses such as tourism. The economic return of any emerging tourism activity must be substantial to make it worth the associated risks.
As part of a project on specialized markets and marine reserves COBI and RC, in cooperation with national protected areas agency CONANP, will be running an eight-day expedition to Isla Natividad this fall 2009. Interested divers will pay about $3000 all inclusive. This pilot expedition will serve to collect ecological data on sites along the Baja peninsula, and to compare them with the near-pristine marine ecosystem of Natividad (all sites of interest to CONANP, COBI & RCCA). It will also serve to collect information (e.g. diver experience, basic costs, etc.) useful in creating innovative market concepts. We expect that in future years the expedition price will skyrocket based on limited access and increasing demand. For details contact Mary Luna.
On the Gulf of California side of Baja, a second fishing cooperative known as the Women of the Gulf (Cooperative Mujeres del Golfo or CMG) is based in the Loreto Bay National Park (LBNP). This small cooperative of nine women is focused on sustainable fishing of marine aquarium species. The marine aquarium trade is a controversial mix of emotions and opinions for many. COBI and RC are advising the Cooperative on sustainability issues for this pre-existing ornamental fishery in and around LBNP. Reef Check has trained COBI scientists in our detailed MAQTRAC stock assessment protocol to assist in the development of catch quotas and zonation of the area.
Monitoring data are yielding some very interesting results. One example involves the bluespotted jawfish (Opistognathus rosenblatti), an endemic species of the Gulf highly desired by hobbyists and protected under the Norma Oficial Mexicana – the equivalent of the US Endangered Species Act. This mouth-brooder invests a lot of effort in raising its young and consequently produces few offspring. MAQTRAC surveys indicated that the jawfish population is currently too low for sustainable exploitation inside LBNP. Therefore CMG has not applied for a permit to collect this species in 2009. Mexican scientists and literature seem to indicate that such patchy, low-density distribution is common in most of the Gulf. This is an example of why continuous monitoring is a key component in accomplishing an economically and ecologically sustainable fishery. It also indicates the need for a campaign to educate hobbyists regarding what species they buy.
CMG is also working on minimizing mortality and habitat degradation at every step of the collection and sales chain (capture-holding-handling-transportation). CMG would like to be identified with a label that highlights the socioeconomic and ecologic sustainability of their origins.
If you are interested in learning more about the Natividad and LBNP projects please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.