Miracle at Cabo Pulmo

In a small coastal community tucked away in a corner of Baja’s East Cape is Cabo Pulmo.

Cabo Pulmo

Cabo Pulmo (Photo credit: jeffgunn)

This seaside paradise inhabited by friendly fishermen and a colorful group of expatriates is ground zero for efforts to restore the ocean.

If in Cabo Pulmo, local fishermen can work with biologists, conservationists, divers and government park staff to make a marine reserve that is a global model for the protection of a marine ecosystem and fisheries, than our conservation efforts are on the right track.

I was in Cabo Pulmo last week to review efforts to preserve Cabo Pulmo from development threats. A Spanish company had proposed building a new city larger than Los Cabos adjacent to the reef.

My colleagues and I discussed future strategies needed to improve the protection of the coral reef that is home to humpback whales, sea turtles, manta rays, schools of giant fish and a growing population of sharks, including the elusive and docile whale shark.

“There really is nothing else in the Gulf of California like Cabo Pulmo,” said Dr. Octavio Aburto, a research scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography who has studied Cabo Pulmo for years.

“Our family noticed that the reef and fish and Cabo Pulmo were not doing well,” said Judith Castro, the daughter of a fisherman and a longtime resident.

The Castro family has lived in Cabo Pulmo for generations. But by the early 1990s the fish were disappearing and, due to climate change, there were fears that the global wave of coral bleaching would forever damage the reef.

Breaching Mobula ray Schools of giant bat rays...

Breaching Mobula ray

I first visited Cabo Pulmo in 1996 as the founding director of The Nature Conservancy’s Sea of Cortez Program. Back then I attempted to develop a conservation program to manage the newly established national park at Cabo Pulmo.

But due to political conflicts, conservation efforts at Cabo Pulmo initially failed. Marine biologists who had studied Cabo Pulmo and had advocated for the development of the marine reserve were desperate.

It took a few years, but by 1999 conservationists, marine biologists, fishermen and the Mexican government came together to support a no-take reserve at Cabo Pulmo. Local fishermen, including the Castro family who had fished the waters of the region for decades, agreed to give up fishing inside the reserve.

“Our family had to learn to dive,” Judith said. Her family now runs a dive operation.

Ten years later Aburto and his Scripps team confirmed what marine biologists had only dreamed about, but that local fishermen and divers already knew was happening: The fish have returned to Cabo Pulmo. The reef is teeming with life.

“Fish biomass increased 460 percent over a decade, but even more critically the predator population increased over 1000 percent,” Aburto said.  “And abundant predators are key to healthy marine ecosystems.”

“No other marine reserve in the world has shown such a fish recovery,” he said. “There are so many fish that species like tuna are coming from outside the reserve to feed around the reef.”

Last year I went diving more than a mile from the Cabo Pulmo shore and was amazed by the schools of huge fish that hugged the reef. In my more than 25 years working in the Baja California peninsula, I had never encountered so many large fish.

Even sharks, whose slaughter and decline has alarmed marine biologists and conservationists, have returned to Cabo Pulmo.

“You can stand on the rocks at the end of Bahia de los Frailes at the western end of the reserve and see schools of sharks swimming around,” said Sofia Gomez, my WiLDCOAST colleague who is coordinating our Cabo Pulmo conservation program.

With additional recent good news from California’s Central Coast about the increase in marine species in marine protected areas, there is reason to be hopeful that we can reserve the decline of the ocean and the species within it.

Marine explorer and conservationist Sylvia Earle has called Cabo Pulmo a “Hope Spot” because of its importance in demonstrating that we can restore our oceans.

I am just glad that there is at least one place left where the ocean is as it is supposed to be—filled with fish and undisturbed by man.

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WiLDCOAST ACCOMPLISHMENTS IN 2012

wildcoast accomplishments 2012

2012 was a great year for WiLDCOAST, the international conservation team that conserves coastal and marine ecosystems that I run. With offices in Imperial Beach, Ensenada, Los Cabos and Oaxaca, our  fast-moving and strategic coastal conservation team made a big difference this year in protecting some of the most iconic and biologically significant coastal and marine sites along the Pacific coast of North America. Since 2000, WiLDCOAST has helped to preserve more than 3.2 million acres of coastal and marine ecosystems including 340 miles of beaches in Mexico protected through conservation concessions and acquisitions.

Wildcoast

Some of our accomplishments in 2012 included the following:

  • Preserved 2,970 acres of 9.3 miles of Baja California pristine coastline through private acquisitions.
  • Challenged the abysmal response of PEMEX to respond to and clean up an oil spill in Salina Cruz, Oaxaca, that impacted more than 120 miles of beaches including the world-class right point breaks of southern Oaxaca and some of the world’s most important sea turtle nesting beaches.
  • Pushed the Mexican Attorney General to file legal claims again PEMEX for impacts to coastal ecosystems and wildlife from the oil spill.
  • Helped to manage and conserve more than 15,000 acres of marine ecosystems protected as MPAs in San Diego County.
  • Worked with 3,050 volunteers to clean up 154,546 lbs of ocean-bound trash in the U.S. and Mexico.
  • Protected sea turtle nesting beaches in southern Mexico where more than 20 million sea turtles hatched and 650,000 sea turtles laid eggs.
  • Reached more than 430 million people wiht 928 media pieces through campaigns.
  • Successfully convinced Mexican President Felipe Calderon to halt the proposed Cabo Cortes mega-project on Baja’s East Cape that would have built a new city larger than Cancun next to Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park, the world’s most robust marine reserve.
  • Carried out 228 public outreach events attended by more than 16,000 people.
  • Worked with community residents  in Los Cabos, Magdalena Bay and Ensenada to create vibrant coast and ocean conservation art murals.
  • Established a new conservation network in Mexico, Red Costasalvaje to help bring together and train community leaders and residents to carry out coastal protection efforts on their own.
  • Supported the ongoing management of three WiLDCOAST chapters in Baja California Surf, Mexico.
  • Worked with PBS to produce an episode of the series, Saving the Ocean, on sustainable fishing and whale watching in Punta Abreojos and San Ignacio Lagoon, Mexico.
  • Received the NBC-Universal 21st Century Solutions Award for our efforts to restore and preserve the Tijuana Estuary and Tijuana River Mouth MPA.pulmo1

Thanks to all of our donors, members, staff and partners  2012 was  a groundbreaking year for conservation and WiLDCOAST. We look forward to working with all of you and all of our amazing network of coastal conservation leaders in the U.S. and Mexico to continue preserving our coastal and marine heritage.

Fish populations returned more than 460% in the Cabo Pulmo MPA in Mexico.

Fish populations returned more than 460% in the Cabo Pulmo MPA in Mexico.

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