BLUE NOTES #114: Sea, Earth and People
August 20, 2013
By David Helvarg
Sea, Earth and People
At the end of a six-mile dirt track in Baja California on the Sea of Cortez is a hand-painted cutout of a whale shark hanging on a cattle fence by a welcome sign for Cabo Pulmo. “Santuario de mar, tierra Y gente – Sanctuary of sea, earth and people,” reads the sign, a low-key introduction to one of the world’s most productive marine reserves. Although the water temperature was cool and visibility little better than 20 feet during the hot July days I did back rolls off small panga dive boats that launch from the beach here, it still felt great dropping into a salty wilderness with an abundance of fish and healthy corals. There were spur and grove canyons full of fan, cup and stony corals, green moray eels and garden eels swaying like prairie grass in the sandy flats, also porcupine puffer fish, yellow tailed gray sturgeon grazing the corals along with huge brightly colored humphead parrot fish, stately queen angels and curious ten pound snappers that would quickly be caught and eaten anywhere else along the rugged 800-mile desert peninsula.
The story of how the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park came into being is almost as inspiring as its still teeming waters.
“My grandfather came here and began free diving for pearls. He was the first pearl diver and built a ranch with cows and sheep and raised corn and vegetables. He and his sons then became commercial fishermen,” recalls Judith Castro, a respected local leader with a broad friendly face, dark hair and eyes that sparkle as she recalls growing up with her father Enrique and brothers Mario, Paco, Kiki and Milo in the small sage brush and cactus fishing community. But soon, like in much of Baja and the world, the sea bass, snapper and cubera were overfished and depleted and the fishermen’s livelihoods threatened. “As a teen I’d watch them go out fishing before sunup and come back near dark without any fish so that was super sad for me,” she recalls. “Soon the men had to spend part of the year away, fishing the Pacific for shrimp and lobster.
“Then in the 1980s University of La Paz scientists came to study the coral reef and talked to my father and uncle and brothers and let them know about the importance of the reef and gave them dive masks to see the reef for themselves and from there it took ten years to decide to protect it.”
Her brother Mario became a leader in that decision, talking to others in the community and appealing to the government to create the no-take reserve. “I was the first one from here certified [as a scuba diver] in 1991,” Mario tells me outside his small office next to the semi-enclosed dive locker of Cabo Pulmo Divers, the first of three dive shops now operating in town. “On June 6, 1995, the government created [the marine park] and said no fishing and for the first years after that it was too hard,” the short, burly fisherman turned diver recalls. “We’d have one, two, three people a week coming to see it. But now we have a bunch [of divers and eco-tourists] and I taught my boys to dive and we make a better living than before.”
A regular feature of Blue Notes where we shine the light on a group from the Blue Movement Directory in order to create a more self-aware and collaborative movement. This month we feature Amigos para la Conservacion de Cabo Pulmo.
Across the open beachfront from the dive shop is the two-story cinder block office of Amigos para la Conservacion de Cabo Pulmo (ACCP) its entry decorated by a children’s paintings of sea life. Established in 2003 by Judith, Mario and a Canadian activist to protect the local sea turtle population ACCP soon expanded its aim to include protection of the marine park and community. Today it has a staff of five women headed by Guatemalan biologist and dive master Paulina Godoy. From 2009 to 2012 ACCP fought a protracted battle against a planned mega-resort just up the road that was to include 27,000 hotel and condo units and that could have destroyed the reef with sediment runoff and other impacts. With support from Mexican and international environmental groups they won their battle after former President Felipe Calderon cancelled the resort’s permits in June 2012. Still, other developments are being planned for the isolated East Cape area between the city of La Paz and sprawling tourist nexis of Cabo San Lucas. Recognizing some development is inevitable ACCP is working on a strategic plan with other cape communities and urban planners for a sustainable future. Their vision and goals include providing water, sanitation and other public services for Cabo Pulmo, creating an urban plan in keeping with their existing community profile and promoting eco-tourism that provides locally based jobs. Also they want to strengthen protection for their park, recognizing that good stewardship is key to their economic and social development. Already tourist dollars have helped open a learning center for the town’s kids. When I visited there an older U.S. couple were rehearsing 16 youngsters for a ‘symphony’ performance of A cappella voices and percussion instruments. The center also has a big wall mural of three mermaid girls studying their lessons while a sea turtle brings them more books on its back.
Globally no-take Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) like Cabo Pulmo, particularly those created by bottom up seaweed groups of fishermen and community activists have proven the resiliency of ocean ecosystems. But according to a study by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography the Cabo Pulmo reserve has been especially resilient seeing an astonishing 463 percent increase in its biomass (more and bigger fish) between 1999 and 2009.
On my last dive we visit an old fishing boat shipwreck 50 feet down and soon spot three big bull sharks. If someone were to ask why we’re swimming through murky waters looking for big sharks, I’d say for the same reason you hope to see a grizzly bear when you visit Alaska. Because they’re magnificent animals totally adopted to their wilderness environment. And while we’ve learned how badly we can trash the ocean, its good to be reminded we can also restore it. Cabo Pulmo, once overfished and depleted is again a wilderness.
Name a Sanctuary
There are marine parks like Cabo Pulmo and the Luis Peña Channel Natural Reserve in Culebra Puerto Rico (see Blue Notes #112) scattered across the world, although protecting less than 2 percent of the ocean. Scientists suggest we should be protecting 20 percent. These no-take areas are very much like our National Parks only in the sea. Then there is the U.S. National Marine Sanctuary system whose 14 units are similar to U.S. National Forests in that they protect special places while allowing for multiple uses including recreation, exploration, historic preservation and fishing. Although the Sanctuary Act was established in 1972 and a number of big sanctuaries created in the 1980s, there have been no new sanctuary designations around the U.S. since 2000 (President Bush did designate four large marine national monuments in the Pacific).
So who wouldn’t love to establish a marine sanctuary off their coastline? Well, the oil companies for one. You’re not allowed to dump waste or drill for oil and gas in a sanctuary, which is one reason people in California are supporting the expansion of two of their sanctuaries. Before new designations can be proposed however the criteria have to be created for what body of waters might qualify and NOAA’s office of Marine Sanctuaries is asking for public input on this. You have till August 27 to contribute to creating these standards before the chance to nominate new sites opens up. To comment, click here. See NOAA’s special video for more information.
And for additional background on Sanctuaries go to the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation at nmsfocean.org. After all, it’s not every nation founded on a wilderness frontier that gets a second change to protect a salty new frontier.
The California Ocean Model
California has also preserved 16 percent of its waters, 9 percent as no-take marine reserves. In my book, The Golden Shore – California’s Love Affair with the Sea, I discuss how Californians’ sense of entitlement to their coast and ocean means you don’t have any single industry or special interest dominating marine policy but rather a democracy of blue interests that trends in favor of a healthy ocean, coastline and the communities and economies that depend on them. On Sunday, August 11, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an extensive essay I wrote on this topic. Click here to read it.
And the Good Government Model
We recently contacted the people who took part in the 4th Blue Vision Summit’s Healthy Ocean Hill Day on May 15. On that day we held over 100 Capitol Hill meetings with Senators, House Members and their staffs to advocate for our public seas, for support of the National Ocean Policy and for bills on Safe Seafood and against Pirate Fishing. We encouraged folks to follow up during the August recess when politicians are home meeting with their constituents. Actually, every Seaweed Rebel and ocean lover should take advantage of the dogfish day of August to meet your elected members of Congress in their offices and at town meetings and let them know you hold them accountable for the blue in our red, white and blue. Learn more here or view a summary of HOHD with links to the supporting materials.
Honoring Dana Wolfe
We just got word of the passing of Dana Wolfe, 45, a long time ocean activist, athlete and attorney who was also a delight to work with, with a radiant smile and wry sense of life on or off her bike. She helped us organize the first blue vision summit and remained a willing source of advice and great advocate for healthy seas. Our thoughts are with her family, loved ones and colleagues at the Ocean Conservancy. They have established a memorial fund in her name for young legal interns.
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