By: Shilpi Chhotray
What happens when fishers give up their fishing poles in the name of conservation?
An iconic example is the Cabo Pulmo Marine Park- 17,570 acres of protected water in Baja Mexico’s East Cape. I had the wonderful pleasure of visiting Cabo Pulmo last December after hearing so much about local fishers collaborating with biologists, conservationists, government staff and divers from around the world to create a no-take marine reserve, providing us hope for life in the sea. There’s a reason Dr. Sylvia Earle holds up Cabo Pulmo as a model to the world:
“I love how this community celebrates the living value of the creatures that occupy the ocean in your neighborhood. It’s a matter of respecting them as neighbors. You are all part of one system. And their existence right now is very reliant on what you do or what you fail to do. If you let down your guard, if you stop the protection, it would not take long to eliminate the progress you made in restoring what’s here. But, I was out diving today and there was that huge school of jacks and the golden grouper swimming around. They are there as your treasury. It is your bank. It’s your home. A home as much for you as it is for them.” – Dr. Sylvia Earle, March 2016
Visiting Cabo Pulmo, which is located in the Gulf of California Hope Spot, is a bit surreal: it’s like the clock stopped 50 years ago. The unpaved dusty roads, desolate beaches, and friendly dive shops support an economy focused on a marvelous coral reef that has inspired efforts to restore the ocean. It’s above and beyond any type of ecotourism destination I’ve seen: from running on solar to zero tolerance towards plastic pollution, residents are committed to a minimalist and remote lifestyle. This is exceptionally impressive given the pressure small coastal towns face from large scale developers incentivizing them with lot of money. However, this wasn’t always the case. Decades ago, Cabo Pulmo was a fishing community and the norm was killing marine life to sustain their livelihood. Now, many of the same fishing families operate dive shops in town and are the strongest advocates for marine protection.
Although Cabo Pulmo has worked hard to protect the marine park, which is listed as an UNESCO World Heritage site, it is not impermeable to external forces. Residents voice concern about development happening to the north of Cabo Pulmo which will threaten the health of the park. And during Mission Blue’s last expedition to Cabo Pulmo in 2016, the team encountered illegal shark fishing (see video below).
Cabo Pulmo boasts blue-green crystal water that is home to hundreds of fish like grouper and jack, thriving coral, humpback whales, mobula rays and curious sea lions. Looking back, I can feel how special it was to swim freely with huge schools of fish. I treasure the memory of a mother and baby humpback whale surfaced near our boat, just meters away. We could hear them singing underwater.
What captured my heart were the playful sea lions with bright eyes and big personalities. On land we often witness sea lions lazily basking on rocks to catch sunny rays. Underwater, they turn into different creatures with remarkable athleticism and poise as they swim. I had the pleasure of snorkeling with these animals who seemed to be equally curious about us as we were of them. One sea lion (which we were told was a male) encircled us playfully, as if he was showing off his beautiful ocean home.
Cabo Pulmo is a shining example of what Mission Blue Hope Spots are all about: a community that is driving success in the creation and endurance of protected areas. The result? A bright future of natural beauty, thriving marine life and human prosperity.