This article is from the February 1997 The Mexico File newsletter.
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It's Time to Save the Sea

by David Simmonds

Sea of Cortez 1
Sea of Cortez 2
Sea of Cortez 3

I have never worked for an environmental cause, never marched for the spotted owl, never petitioned to preserve wetlands. I have never hugged a tree. Yet I consider myself to be an environmentalist. I have for years sent membership money to Greenpeace, Sierra Club, and The Nature Conservancy. It makes me feel better and enables me to embrace an air of superiority, however misguided, when engaged in beer-swilling harangues with less enlightened friends. I'm able to "put my money where my mouth is," knowing that these organizations rely on donations to make the world in which we live a better one. Actually doing something...well, who has the time?

That's about to change in my life because the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, is running out of time. I have to do something. I can't sit and watch the unconscionable deterioration of this most unique and beautiful body of water. I have a two-year old son who has a right to see and know the Sea as I have, and I have an obligation to ensure that he does. Toward this goal, I have applied for and received non-profit status (501-c-3) for a newly formed corporation, the Sea of Cortez International Preservation Foundation. Joining me are my brother, Bob Simmonds, and my friend, Chris Hogan. Bob is an ex-college professor at the State University of New York who is now a psychologist practicing in San Diego; he is the editor of Emotional Wellness Matters, a newsletter for psychotherapists with a national distribution, as well as my partner in The Mexico File. Chris is an ex-river guide (U.S., Mexico and New Zealand) and long-time outdoorsman who owns a construction company in San Diego. We are going to need your help and I'm going to tell you why.

John Steinbeck explored the Sea of Cortez with his friend, biologist Ed Ricketts, in 1940 on a voyage from Monterey, California, down to the tip of Baja California and most of the way up into the Sea. The exploration is chronicled in The Log From the Sea of Cortez, published in 1941. Steinbeck writes, "We take a tiny colony of soft corals from a rock in a little water world. And that isn't terribly important to the tide pool. Fifty miles away the Japanese shrimp boats are dredging with overlapping scoops, bringing up tons of shrimps, rapidly destroying the species so that it may never come back, and with the species destroying the ecological balance of the whole region. That isn't very important in the world. And thousands of miles away the great bombs are falling and the stars are not moved thereby. None of it is important or all of it is."

The Sacramento Bee recently published a six-part investigative report entitled "A Dying Sea." I will frequently refer to the contents of the article without acknowleging each instance. It is a great source of information, one that I strongly advise you to obtain (the box accompanying this article will show you how).

THE OVER-FISHING OF THE SEA

The Sea is being over-fished. "Ten years ago the town of Loreto on the Baja Peninsula was a vacation mecca. Today, it feels more like a ghost town. At Alfredo's Sportsfishing, business has dropped more than 50 percent in five years. 'It's a clear connection,' said owner Alfredo Ramirez. 'If there are no fish, there are no fishermen. And, no business.'"

Baja Life has been writing about the destruction as well. Their reporter, Enrique Vargas, had this to say about the shrimpers. "One of the most destructive fishing practices is shrimp trawling. The common technique used by each boat is to drag several trawl nets equipped with heavy chains to scrape the bottom. A single vessel hauling four nets for four hours can scrape sixty miles of ocean floor in a single pass! Only two to five percent of the catch is marketable shrimp, the rest is dicarded as bycatch. Tragically, the bycatch consists heavily of juvenile fish such as red snapper, flounder, sharks and rays and other invertebrates such as sea stars, crabs and octopuses. All of this bycatch is shoveled overboard, mostly dead, to float to the bottom."

Some more quotes from the Bee article:

"Here the ocean was full of fish, like a smorgasboard," said Manuel Palacio, 65, a fisherman in Puerto Peñasco on the Sonoran Coast. "Now there's nothing. The gulf is exhausted."

"When I was nine years old. there were turtles all over this bay, " said Mario Coppola, owner of Los Arcos , a La Paz hotel. "They would sparkle like little shining glass mirrors, all over. Today you see one where you used to see 150."

"We haven't seen a big manta ray in years, " said Lisa Jayne, 36, owner of Casas de Cortez, near the tip of the Baja Peninsula. "Four years ago was the last time I saw one and it was being gaffed and clubbed to death."

"Talk to anyone who's been here more than 15 years and they will tell you it's going fast, " said Niki Rodriguez, whose family owns Las Cruces, one of the most prestigious resorts on the peninsula south of La Paz. "Believe me, fishing is not going to be an option soon. A lot of people don't realize it. But if things continue, it will be a fact."

I remember my first trip down the entire length of Baja in 1974. The sea was an aquarium. From shore you would regularly see "boils" of fish just off-shore. Snorkeling in the bays and lagoons was breathtaking given the numbers of fish within arm’s length. I recall young Mexican boys in the old mining town of Santa Rosalia catching yellowtail from shore using a a line wrapped around a Tecate beer can. I remember water-skiing in the water off San Felipe in 1965 on spring break in high school, afraid to fall because sting rays were sunning everywhere you looked.

Listen again to Niki Rodriguez of La Paz, "Fifteen years ago you could go out and be in a school of roosterfish—a square mile of roosterfish just going absolutely wild. Today, 95 percent to 98 percent of the roosterfish are gone. Pretty soon all the crevalle jacks will be gone. And the yellowtail. They all go right into a gill net."

And everyone’s favorite creature, the porpoise or dolphin, is being slaughtered. Is it because they taste good and bring a hefty price in the market? No, nothing so rational. These porpoise, Flipper and friends, are harpooned, then cut up for shark bait.

Getting mad yet?

HOW ABOUT THE FISHERMEN?

It's true, the fisherman are only doing what they have always done, all they know to do. This is how they feed their families and how their fathers fed them. But they are not stupid people. They know they are ruining that which provides the necessities for their meager lives. But what can they do? There are now too many fishermen chasing too few fish. The Sea can no longer support the tremendous increase of families who depend on the sea. It is a problem facing third-world countries throughout the planet..

Not surprisingly, the Mexican government has a huge hand in the problem. PESCA is the federal fishing agency and their inspectors are woefully underpaid. And even though there are some laws and regulations to control over-fishing, the inspectors are few and the bribes are many.

"The laws are not enforced by anybody. That's not a strong statement. That's a fact," said Alfredo Ramirez, a well know businessman in Loreto on the Baja peninsula. The Asian "long-liners" were prohibited from fishing the Sea a few years ago. But they still bribe their way in and their lines contain up to ten miles of hooks. Although their target is the tuna, the hooks don't know that. They catch whatever bites, including the gamefish that has always been a huge tourist draw to this region. Marlin, wahoo, dorado...they all get taken. And unlike many of the sportfishers, the long-liners don't "catch and release."

The shrimpers do the same. Much of their catch is immature, hastening the demise of the fish population by taking fish that have not had the chance to multiply. It goes on and on, day after day. They are killing a resource that could sustain them for generations. But changes must be made soon. It is not too late to revive the sea to its abundance of the past. Marine environments have tremendous regenerative powers. But it has to start before it's too late.

SOME SOLUTIONS

The Bee article lists several ideas that are being discussed by various groups and individuals who would like to see changes made. They include:

    • Enforcing the laws already in existence

• Declaring the sea a marine preserve

    • Giving control of selected areas to local fishermen

• Banning gill nets and shrimp trawlers

    • Developing more domestic "fish farms"

• Encouraging "eco-tourism" and "catch and release" sport fishing

    • Civil disobedience

The goal of The Sea of Cortez International Preservation Foundation is one of increasing public awareness and assisting other groups and organizations in workable solutions. The Mexican government must be made aware that a great many people in the United States as well as Mexico are concerned about the future of this magnificent sea.

The foundation is developing an advisory board of experts from science and business to help in developing workable solutions. Tim Means, founder and president of Baja Expeditions and a resident of La Paz, has agreed to work closely with us. Tim is one of those people with contacts everywhere, including those in the upper echelon of Mexico's government. One of the first projects he wants to pursue is the sinking of boats in strategic locations, not only creating underwater reefs but disrupting the dragging of nets that are so detrimental to the continued viability of the Sea.

The Mexican government needs to understand that preserving the Sea will be of far greater economic benefit in the future. Again, a quote from Niki Rodriguez: "Every May, the fishermen are out harpooning manta rays, which have very little commercial value. I was talking with one of them the other day, a guy who I know. And he told me, 'In a week, we'll make maybe $150.' I said, ‘Do you know a tourist would pay you $150 just to see one?’ He looked at me in total disbelief." This is the type of education that has to take place.

Fishing has to have controls, with an eye on the development of fish farms for the future. The way the Sea provides for the people will change, but in the end more jobs will be created. And we will have saved the Sea.

YOU CAN HELP

So, there it is, friends. I haven't gone into great detail because it would take more space than I have in this newsletter. I am asking you, the readers of The Mexico File, to consider joining our organization. This is the first step in our membership campaign. Next month we will start with press releases, grant letters, celebrity endorsements, corporate sponsorships and anything else we can think of. A long time friend of mine, Ralph Rubio, has a chain of thirty restaurants specializing in fish tacos. Rubio's Restaurants (one of these days one will be in your neighborhood!) has expressed an interest in being an inaugural sponsor. This is the kind of important help we need to get started. It's going to take money to be effective.

If any of you have ideas, expertise or energy to donate, please let us know. We know we have a monumental task at hand but our commitment is unwavering and absolute.