June 25, 2007

Training Fishermen in Loreto, Baja California

Training Fishermen in Loreto, Baja California
by Mary Luna, Reef Check Assistant Program Manager
Marta Castro Polony (front right) and other members of the cooperative show us the packing process
The Gulf of California, or Sea of Cortez, offers a great diversity of habitats including salt marshes, mangrove wetlands, eelgrass and algae beds, and rocky reefs along the coast and offshore islands. Loreto Bay Marine Park (LBMP), located in the Gulf, contains all of these wonders. The Park sits just off the coast of the town of Loreto, which is located in Baja California Sur; 220 miles north of the state capital, La Paz. Founded by Jesuit missionaries in 1697, it was the first town in the Baja California Peninsula. In 2005, the population was approximately 15,000. A large portion of the transient population is made up of American tourists, who come to fish, snorkel and sail. A short 2 hour flight from Los Angeles, Loreto welcomes you with a cool ocean breeze.
Reef Check has been asked to assist COBI on the aquarium fish project. We are developing a program aimed at sustainable socioeconomic development and marine conservation. The first component is community involvement in the form of Cooperativa Mujeres del Golfo, a women’s group that captures fish for the aquarium trade. The second component is the assessment of the effectiveness of marine protected areas inside LBMP. The project calls for the establishment of a long-term marine monitoring network in the MPA using a modified Reef Check California methodology.

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
After Las Tijeras we headed to the community of Ligüi. There, under the shadow of a big palapa (palm hut), we held a meeting with the Coperativa Mujeres del Golfo. The cooperative consists of eight women, and its president Marta Castro Poloni. It was formed in 2000, and that same year obtained its first permit to harvest invertebrates and fishes for the aquarium trade. This permit was given under the condition that the cooperative would take certain steps to ensure that harvesting was ecologically sustainable. After working in the area, COBI realized that this initiative is an excellent opportunity to generate alternative income in a rural community, and to motivate this group of women to design a model of sustainable development. Reef Check has been working with the Marine Aquarium Council on a major sustainable aquarium trade project in SE Asia for five years. We have developed the MAQTRAC monitoring protocol and several stock assessment tools to determine sustainable harvest levels for fish and invertebrates. The opportunity is to transfer this knowledge to COBI and the local cooperative.
During the meeting the members told us the story of the cooperative and showed us how they pack and ship fish and invertebrates (mainly sea stars). In addition to the aquarium trade, they mariculture scallops and harvest the brown cucumber for sale as food, in addition to catching fish for sale to local markets. Marta said that the highest income came from the aquarium fish; the problem was distribution of wealth. Of $100.00 paid for a fish at the retail store the cooperative would get about $8.00, while 92% of the profit escaped the community. This time they want to do things differently. They want to manage their resources better, and this includes not only their members becoming scuba certified and monitoring their fishing grounds, but also getting a higher share of the retail price. Reef Check and COBI agreed to explore the market for their products and to help them develop a management plan.
That night, back in Loreto we held a community meeting at the Loreto Museum of Natural History (yes they have one and it’s pretty nice). We watched presentations by Jossue Navarro (CONANP), Andrea and Paco (COBI), and Craig (Reef Check). Other attendees included Claudia and Camilo (Cooperativa), Fernando Arcas (GEA), Marina Cazorla (The Consultative Group on Biological Diversity), and Hoyt Peckham (ProPeninsula). After the presentations, the floor was open for questions and comments. One of the main concerns was guaterismo (poaching). It was stated that the Park doesn’t have enough funding to pay for adequate enforcement. A lot of people come from the Pacific side and from La Paz to poach, and tend to concentrate at the northern and southern ends of the Park because there’s less enforcement there from local and regional authorities. Camilo added that some of these guateros are local fishermen that have been displaced by the new Park policies. These fishers have fished the area for generations; what was not discussed was how difficult it would be for them to join a local cooperative. Craig explained that the first step to take is to conduct population assessments, and then to create a management plan based on the existing stocks of each species. Andrea added that the implementation of no take areas would serve as a seed bed for the fishery.
Listening to these community discussions led me to realize that a conservation project without community participation is like a guitar without strings. I applauded Claudia and Camilo’s honesty and dedication, as much as Arca’s interest to reduce ecological degradation, and Craig’s interest in the efficiency of the surveys. All these people had different reasons for being there, yet their efforts all converge; sustainable fisheries in Loreto Bay National Park. I want to thank COBI for inviting us to participate in their project, and all the members of the Coperativa Mujeres del Golfo; especially Claudia, Camilo and Marta; GEA, and every person that is contributing to the success of this project. To see photos from this trip please visit our gallery at: http://forum.reefcheck.org/gallery/main.php?g2_itemId=7852.

From: http://www.effectivempa.noaa.gov/images/maps/loreto_map_lg.jpg