Published 02 November 2017
What happens when fishers give up fishing to protect the sea? A success story.
Historically, overfishing has severely impacted marine ecosystems around the world. The extraction of fish without limits or regulations has caused fish stocks and coral reefs to collapse at an alarming rate globally, with more than three-quarters overexploited or overfished (Brunner, et al., 2009). Furthermore, the planet is warming, sea levels are rising, and the ocean is becoming more acidic.
However, it’s not all bad news. For the first time, we are capable of recognising, studying and understanding these problems, and we are capable of taking action. Cabo Pulmo’s story embodies regeneration and success through community initiative, commitment and teamwork, and that is why I want to share it with you.
Cabo Pulmo is located in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Situated in Cabo Pulmo’s waters is the largest coral reef in the Gulf of California and is one of the oldest reefs in the Eastern Pacific. Cabo Pulmo National Park has been a Marine Protected Area since 1995, which means that commercial fishing is prohibited to protect the marine environment.
Since the first settlers of Cabo Pulmo arrived, more than 300 years ago, they have been dependent upon the resources of the sea to survive. In the beginning, the residents were pearl divers and extracted mother of pearl until they were depleted. Then they recognised the great abundance and variety of marine species and started fishing for commercial purposes.
The fishing business in that region was profitable, and Cabo Pulmo became a famous fishing area, attracting fishers from all over the region looking for wealth. This caused significant marine environmental degradation as fishers caught everything with no limits or discrimination, from the smallest fish and crustacean species to the largest turtles and sharks. The fisheries activity caused significant damage to the coral reefs and Cabo Pulmo’s marine biodiversity. The region exploited until there was nothing left, causing fishers to venture further only to find that marine resources were depleted there as well.
In the 1980’s, the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur and villagers noticed the ecological significance of Cabo Pulmo and the threat that the loss of biodiversity represented. Together they developed a conservation strategy to protect and regenerate the zone. Fishers and villagers ceased all fishing activities for the environments’ sake and their own. This represented a significant challenge as for generations, the primary economic activity in the region had been fishing. Nevertheless, they understood that only by working in favour of conservation and sustainability could they overcome the crisis. The community organised itself and requested the government to name Cabo Pulmo as a Natural Protected Area to secure it from over-fishing.
A 2011 study examined the marine biomass in Cabo Pulmo in 1999 and again in 2009, and found that there was astounding growth in the size and amount of marine species in the region. There was a 463% increase in overall marine biomass and a 1070% increase in top predators’ biomass (sharks, Marlins, Tuna, Grouper, etc.). Cabo Pulmo National Park revealed the largest recovery of biomass in a marine reserve that the world had ever seen.
The villagers changed professions and went from being the exploiters to the protectors of the natural park. Fishers’ families became small-scale alternative tourism operators of local restaurants, hotels and scuba diving shops. A not so recent census found Cabo Pulmo’s alternative tourism generated US$538,800 in 2006, and has been growing at a steady rate.
Even though tourism is not always the best option in ecologically sensitive areas, the inhabitants of Cabo Pulmo are determined to protect the Natural Protected Area through mindful management with strict boundaries.
The success of Cabo Pulmo Natural Protected Area can be attributed to local leadership, an efficient bottom-up model that protects and manages the region with auto-enforcement and the support from the wider public. This model isn’t unique, and it can be replicated successfully in rural settings where people depend on local natural resources. Residents have to be thoroughly engaged as they must enforce the rules to visitors and among themselves. They must be responsible for the surveillance, protection and cleaning programs. In Cabo Pulmo, these labours have created strong social bonds within the community, which are essential for a successful outcome.
There is still much to be done. However, nature is wise and resilient, and if we care about protecting and regenerating it, nature will pay back. Only when individuals and communities work together, change is possible.
Brunner, EJ., Jones, PJS, Friel, S, and Bartley, M. (2009). Fish, Human Health and Marine Ecosystem Health: Policies in Collision. International Journal of Epidemiol, 38(1): 93-100.
Bertha Duek Kalach is a Sustainability MSc candidate at the University of Sydney, has a background in chemical engineering and environmental studies.