|Marta Castro Polony (front right) and other members of the cooperative show us the packing process
After arriving at the airport Reef Check California’s director, Dr Craig Shuman and I were met by Dr Andrea Saenz-Arroyo and Francisco (Paco) Fernadez, Research and Project Directors of the Mexican environmental group Comunidad y Biodiversidad (COBI). They drove us to a scenic overlook of the Loreto Marine Park where we could see the bays and islands on the horizon. Andrea said that most of the park is open to harvesting of fish and shellfish by members of the local cooperatives and some areas are designated as no-take zones based on seasonal and species criteria. On our way back to Loreto we drove by the Loreto Bay housing project, located next to a half-moon shaped natural harbor, with a big rock and a picturesque estuary on one side; the scenery was breathtaking. Yet, Andrea said that lately the estuary has had sedimentation problems and the mouth needs to be dredged regularly.
My first impression of Loreto was that of a beautiful, rural, fishing village. As time went by, however, I started to realize it is increasingly becoming a tourist destination and a permanent residence for many foreigners, as exemplified by the Loreto Bay project. Although good for the local economy, development also presents the community with the challenge of balancing economic growth with conservation of the natural resources upon which such growth depends. Local nongovernmental organizations such as Grupo Ecologista Antares (GEA) are already taking the lead in dealing with some of these issues. On World Environment Day (June 5th), for instance, GEA partnered with the Comisión Nacional de Areas Naturals Protegidas (CONANP) to set up an educational display in the town center. That afternoon as I walked by, I spotted GEA’s executive director, Francisco Arcas, talking to a group of Loreto students about pressing ecological issues.
|Clockwise: Abraham, Paco, Craig, Ines, Monica, Mary, Camilo, Claudia, and the canine named ‘La Alarma’ (The Alarm)
Early in the morning on our second day in Loreto we headed to the site known as Las Gaviotas (the sea gulls), which is composed of two islets. Since the areas had been selected already during a community meeting, the next steps were to mark the sites in the field and conduct surveys. The plan was to mark the areas with buoys, and survey shallow and deep transects in each area. Claudia (cooperative member), and Camilo (the grandson of the cooperative’s president) would survey the shallow transects on snorkel. The deep transects would be surveyed on scuba by Craig (Reef Check), Paco and Abraham (COBI), David (Cabo Pulmo Divers), and Yuliana, Emeralda and Saul (students from the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur). I snorkeled next to Camilo while he practiced transect surveying. As a first-timer in semi-tropical water I was amazed at the vibrant colors, sizes, and tame behavior of the varied fish species. Some of the most abundant fishes in shallow water were the Panamic Sergeant Major (Abudefduf troschelii), the King Angelfish (Holocanthus passer), the Bumphead Damselfish (Microspathodon bairdi), the Redtail Triggerfish (Xanthichthys mento), Chanco Surgeonfish (Prionurus laticlavus), Cortez Rainbow Wrasse (Thalassoma lucasanum), among many others. Camilo kindly pointed to me a variety of ‘cryptic’ species including the brown cucumber (Isostichopus fucus), which the cooperative harvests and sells to the Korean market, and a beautiful Zebra Moray (Gymnomuraena zebra).
The next morning, on our trip to a survey site named Las Tijeras (The Scissors), we were joined by Monica and Inés from the Wildlife Department in Mexico City. They were tasked with writing a report about the project because some of the species of interest fall under the jurisdiction of the Norma Oficial Mexicana (similar to the Endangered Species Act in the United States). Once there, we noticed an abundant cover of green algae that had not been present at Las Gaviotas. The water was colder and the biodiversity did not appear as abundant in the shallow areas. Yuliana, however, told me the deeper dive was teeming with invertebrate life. Later that day we moved to another side of the islet where Camilo showed us how the cooperative members catch ornamental fish. Armed with snorkel, net, and a small container he dove to the bottom and broke open a brown urchin to attract the fish (we do not advocate this). He waited until a puffer arrived, and captured it with the net. Then he proceeded to release it; the puffer, however, seemed to like the trick and kept following us for the rest of our stay in the water.
|Camilo demonstrates how to capture an ornamental fish