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Gulf of California: A study in marine conservation challenge and reward

Celebrated ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau called Mexico's Gulf of California the "aquarium of the world." The nutrient-rich marine environment shelters the planet's highest whale diversity, nearly 900 species of fish and 34 marine mammal species--82 percent of all those found in the Pacific Northwest. Its more than one million acres of mangroves and coastal lagoons provide a critical nesting ground for hundreds of resident and migratory species.

With myriad threats, the Gulf has also been called a microcosm of the crisis facing the world's oceans. "Poorly planned and regulated fishing, aquaculture and agricultural activities are having a profound effect on Gulf biodiversity," notes Maria Carvajal, executive director of CI's 15-year-old Gulf of California program. She adds, "Fifty percent of all Mexican seafood, 800,000 metric tons, comes from the Gulf. Much of this is harvested at unsustainable levels using destructive techniques."

Despite these enormous pressures, CI has spearheaded several successful conservation initiatives in the Gulf that can serve as a guide for work throughout the ocean.

Establishing marine protected areas. In 1993, CI led a successful initiative to establish a 2.3-million-acre marine protected area (MPA) in the upper reaches of the Gulf, home of the critically endangered vaquita porpoise. In 2002, CI strengthened conservation of this and other protected areas by supporting passage of a law that restricted the use of harmful fishing gear, such as bottom trawls, in MPAs.

Reducing catches of nontarget species. Gulf fleets capture around 180,000 metric tons of nontarget species, called bycatch, every year, affecting some 300 species. Led by Gulf Fisheries Director Juan Garcia, CI has been working with the fishing industry to test bycatch reduction devices (BRDs) and train crews in their use. "This equipment is often just a simple screen or escape door added to fishing nets," says Garcia. "Yet it can reduce bycatch by over 40 percent." To date the 8-year project has helped rig 150 boats and convinced the government to recommend the use of BRDs for all Gulf fishing vessels."

Protecting mangroves and other wetlands. Along the Gulf's eastern shore, CI has partnered with the Sinaloa State Aquaculture Institute in the Bahia Santa Maria region to train shrimp farmers in techniques that reduce the impacts of their ponds. Construction of shrimp farms, combined with marina development, deforestation and the building of inland channels, have been destroying the Gulf's vital mangrove forest habitat. Once in place, shrimp farms continue to be a threat, circulating overtreated water out of ponds and impacting adjacent mangroves and other ecosystems. The CI-led project is now helping to protect roughly 146,000 acres of the most biologically important mangrove forests in the Gulf. "In the past 2 years, it has helped mangrove forests in Bahia Santa Maria rebound by 10 percent," says Wetlands Conservation Director Armando Villalba.

Building alliances for conservation. The Gulf still suffers from a lack of coordination among stakeholders in the region. "A complex mix of agencies governs the region and there is little synergy among these authorities," explains Carvajal. To tackle this problem, CI is establishing regionwide alliances with business, government leaders, research institutions and conservation groups to create a common development vision for the Gulf. Says Carvajal, "We are promoting the idea that we are all part of one region, that the decisions of one group affect us all."

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© Fulvio Eccardi
Shrimp fleets, like these in Guaymas, Mexico, can put enormous pressure on marine biodiversity in the Gulf of California.

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