Monday, December 5, 2011

Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park: a success story and model for Mexican conservation

At the southeastern tip of Baja California, along a dusty coastal dirt road is located the small town of Cabo Pulmo. East of the popular and sometimes wild Cabo San Lucas, Cabo Plumo has a success story of its own: the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park.

At 27 square miles, the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park is small; tiny when compared to some of the expansive marine parks or sanctuaries established in the South Pacific and elsewhere. But it is a great example of what can occur when local citizens and conservation organizations come together to re-orient the local economy to support the park.

According to Octavio Aburto Oropeza, a post-doctoral researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, populations of groupers, sharks, and other top predators have begun to flourish once again, after being heavily depleted by the commercial fishing and sportfishing. The park was established in 1995 and in the succeeding years, the overall biomass has increased dramatically. From 1999 to 2009, it saw a 463% improvement. And apex predators like large groupers, tiger sharks, bull sharks, and other reef-dwelling shark species have skyrocketed by over 1,000 percent.

North of the marine park, in the Gulf of California, there are areas that show a definite decline in the number of fish and the overall health of the reef ecosystems, and that is due primarily to overfishing by commercial operations or even local fishermen. Also, a considerable amount of illegal fishing of protected species takes place in the Gulf which has contributed to a not so stellar conservation image for Mexico. Because of this, the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park serves as a model for the Mexican government to duplicate throughout the Gulf.

However, it wasn't an easy transition for the locals. Having restricted or "no-take" zones initially met with some resistance and there certainly were some economic adjustments that needed to be made. But over time, the shift from commercial fishing activities to tourism and diving successfully took place, as evidenced by the development of several resorts, scuba diving/snorkeling outfitters, and ecotourism operations.

"It's a very good example of how many benefits can be produced by coastal communities once you pick an area and leave it to that point that the recovery ... produces other benefits," said Aburto.

Aburto has recently been studying the return of the Gulf Grouper within the park; the fish reaching sizes twice that (up to 4 feet) of those caught outside of the park. He will soon be turning his focus on whether or not the positive effects of the park are spilling out beyond its borders. In California, with its system of MPAs (marine protected areas), researchers have seen fish populations increase outside of the MPAs' boundaries (boundaries that are totally unknown to the fish themselves). This is one of the benefits that many fishermen, who initially were MPA opponents, have come to realize. Soon, there will be a complete chain of MPAs along the California coast and it is hoped that the spillover effect will help to boost fish populations over a much wider area.

This is something that Octavio Aburto Oropeza would like to see happen in Mexico, throughout the Gulf of California and beyond.
"This is very important to show that if we create bigger areas, and maintain or protect them for all these years, the benefits will be huge."

The Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park is a prime example of what can happen when we preserve rather than plunder our ocean resources. Nature has a remarkable resiliency, an ability to recover - if given the chance. There's a lesson to be learned here.

Learn more about the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park.

Read a Baja Life Magazine article about Cabo Pulmo.
Source: North County Times.


Andy Brohard said...

We ran an LA Dive and Ride trip there last November. The grouper were HUGE. The village of Cabo Pulmo is like stepping back in time but the diving is awesome.

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