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Upper Gulf of California Biosphere Reserve: Restoring the "Aquarium of the World"

More species of whales and dolphins feed and breed here than in any other part of the world. Nearly 900 fish species and 34 species of marine mammals swim these waters, and more than 800 of the Gulf's marine and coastal species are found nowhere else. Hundreds of species of birds, both migratory and resident, nest in mangroves and coastal lagoons.

In 1993, CI and its partners spearheaded the creation of a marine protected area (MPA) to cover 2.3 million acres (930,000 hectares) in the sensitive northern reaches of the Gulf and a small portion on land. In the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve, CI and its partners have been working with community members to manage fishing and fish processing in a sustainable fashion and to integrate economic development with conservation.

The Gulf owes its species wealth in part to the calm, protected waters and in part to its location at the crossroads of North and South America. In addition, two upwellings a year -- from wind and sea currents -- rouse nutrients from the sea bottom, making them available to life in the upper waters.

The Gulf holds economic as well as biological riches. It provides food and employment for nearly half of Mexico's burgeoning coastal population. Fishing and shrimp fleets here catch roughly half of all seafood consumed in Mexico.

But the Gulf and its shoreline have suffered severely from human impact. "Poorly regulated and planned fishing, aquaculture and tourism activities are having a profound effect on Gulf biodiversity," says Maria de los Angeles Carvajal, executive director of CI's 15-year-old Gulf of California program.

Large fleets have overworked the narrow waters, fishing several popular food species to dangerously low levels. Trawlers have dragged enormous nets that snag everything in their path and disturb even the seabed. For every pound of shrimp netted by shrimp fishers, ten pounds of bycatch -- "unwanted" species -- are snared and thrown away. Caught and killed species include sea turtles and fish that live nowhere but the Gulf. Shrimp farming and the building of marinas, poorly planned tourism facilities and inland channels are wiping out coastal habitat at an alarming rate.

For more than a decade, CI-Mexico has been investigating and promoting best practices in fishing and shrimp farming in the upper Gulf reserve and throughout the Gulf-helping forge a consensus on protecting this vital center of biodiversity and economic growth.

For instance, CI has been training crews in the construction and use of bycatch reduction devices. A simple escape door in a fishing net can reduce bycatch by 40 percent. The project has helped rig 150 boats and convinced the government to recommend the use of such devices on all Gulf fishing vessels.

Two years ago, CI released a study on the environmental and economic impact of trawlers in the Gulf. The conclusion: while trawling fleets were causing great environmental damage, they were not currently economically profitable.

"The fleet owners realize they're overcapitalized, and many of them want to sell out anyway," says Carvajal. "Meanwhile, those who do remain in the business could double their income-while harvesting sustainably. We believe we are coming to a win-win situation regarding the environment and the local economy." Ongoing negotiations include how those who leave the industry might be compensated.

The study also helped provide the basis for a 2002 law restricting bottom trawls and other harmful fishing gear in all of Mexico's marine protected areas. Small-scale fishermen are now monitoring and reporting illegal activities to the authorities.

CI's larger strategy in the Gulf of California is to create a network of protected areas to maintain the health of the entire ecosystem. Four exist already, and CI and its partners are working to create five more. Realizing this mission requires the active commitment of all stakeholders.

"The way forward," says Carvajal, "is to create a common vision between the government, industry, business, conservation organizations and academics. Then we can come up with measurable goals for protecting the richness of the ecosystem while we use best practices for development."

Vital Statistics

Country: Mexico

Site: Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve

Size: 2.3 million acres (930,000 hectares)

Key marine ecosystem: Gulf of California

Major donors: CEMEX, International Community Foundation, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, International Whaling Commission, the Mulago Foundation

Other major partners: World Wildlife Fund


© Doc White
Manta ray, one of nearly 900 fish species found in the Gulf.

© CI, Russell A. Mittermeier
Fleets of fishing vessels, such as these shrimp trawlers, have severely depleted several popular food species in the Gulf of California.

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