Cabo Pulmo Saved!

Mexican President Calderón withdraws permit for development of Cabo Cortez

by Catharine Cooper, for The Ocean Foundation

A massive school of stingrays at Cabo Pulmo (Photo: Fleur Schultz)

In an unprecedented move, Mexican President Felipe Calderón withdrew the development permit for the 9,400 acre development of Cabo Cortez on the southern tip of Baja California. The land, adjacent to Cabo Pulmo National Marine Reserve, had become a regional – if not national cause – among ocean conservationists and environmentalists because of its proximity to the only intact coral reef in the Sea of Cortez.

The reef itself is estimated to be 20,000 years old and is home to 226 of the 875 species that exist in the region. Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park was created in 1995 and encompasses 17,750 marine acres. Parts of the shallow coral mountain lie just 10 miles offshore. In addition to sea turtles, dolphin, tiger and bull sharks, migrating blue and humpback whales, and rare whale sharks congregate in the area. (For a stunning collection of Cabo Pulmo photographs, see National Geographic’s Pictures: Best Marine Park? Booming Fish Leap and Swarm)

Decades of overfishing and the commercial practice of dragging anchors and nets had left the reef nearly devoid of life. In the early 90s, local fishermen recognized the need for protection, and rallied for the reserve. Four years after its establishment, monitors from Autonomous University of Baja California Sur (UABCS) and Scripps were astonished at the changes in the sea life. Enforcement of the no fishing/no take zone had given rise to Gulf groupers larger than anywhere else in the Gulf, dense schools of predatory jacks, increased numbers of black top reef sharks, and other predators.

In 2005, Cabo Pulmo was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in 2008 it was added to the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. A great deal of credit goes to the local population, who made a dramatic shift from fishing to eco-tourism, and put their muscle to enforcing the marine protections. A study released by Scripps Institute of Oceanography reported that in August 2011, Cabo Pulmo’s biomass – the total weight of living species – had increased by 463 percent from 1999 to 2009. “No other marine reserve in the world has shown such a fish recovery,” wrote researcher, Octavio Aburto-Oropeza.

Such great results made the Mexican government’s permit of the upscale/uber-development Cabo Cortez all the more mind-boggling. For a local population to have worked so hard to bring life back to the sea, and to be sanctioned and honored by numerous world-wide organizations, it seemed impossible to believe that a permit for 9,380 acres with seven hotels, 27,000 guestrooms, two golf courses, a marina for 490 boats, and 5,000 residents for workers could even be considered.

Groups such as U.S. NGO Wildcoast, the Mexican NGO Niparajá, Pro Natura Northwest, Community & Diversity, Friends of Cabo Pulmo, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, and UABCS joined together to protest Cabo Cortez. Their efforts proved that grassroots campaigns could be effective.

An onslaught of media outlets – websites, newspapers, radio spots, and prime time television segments – garnered attention. A photo exhibition was staged in the Federal Senate and Legislative Palace in Mexico City to highlight the importance of the Reef, and led to motions against the proposed project. Pressure was placed on Mexico’s environmental protection agency to revoke the development permit.

In his announcement on Friday the 15th of June 2012, Calderón restated environmentalist concerns. “Because of its size,” he said, “we have to be absolutely certain that it wouldn’t cause irreversible damage, and that absolute certainty has not been proved.”
Omar Vidal, the head of WWF Mexico, called the announcement, “an important victory, because it shows that when the public organizes, it can achieve great things.”

For the moment, we who care most deeply have spoken for the sea, and we have been heard. The fragile resuscitated reef is safe – temporarily. The chemical run-offs, garbage and waste water, which would have resulted form the enormity of development – and killed off reef life once again – has been halted. However, the owners of the land, a Spanish development group, Hansa Baja Investments, stated in a press conference, that they would re-apply, and would take counsel from qualified advisors. Their new plan will be, “… compatible with the conservation and preservation of the area’s environment.”

Residents of the area would prefer no development at all. With their shift from fishing to scuba tours, kayaking trips and other eco-based activities, the community is working to develop their own model for sustainable tourism in southern Baja. Integral to the program is to maintain the rustic environmentally friendly atmosphere of the community, and to expand that vision to other towns in the region.

In other words, there is no need for another Cabo or Cancún. We need more places that are safe to swim, to snorkel, and be in the sea. We need seas that are healthy, free of pollutants and teaming with life. Our underwater friends and partners depend on us to make that happen. So join hands with The Ocean Foundation, and put your heart and spirit into protecting the seas.

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/08/pictures/110815-worlds-most-robust-marine-park-cabo-pulmo-science-mexico-baja-california-public/

Island Living

Loreto is surrounded by seven islands, which lend themselves to abundant snorkeling, diving, fishing, whale/dolphin/manta watching, sailing, SUP. and beaching opportunities. It’s a water paradise with sea temps in the 80s in July, August and September.

The peninsula itself is a long finger of land surrounded wrapped by the Sea of Cortez on the east coast and the Pacific on the west. A day’s drive and a traveler can experience two vastly different environmental climates. The middle of the Baja can be more like an inferno mid-summer, with temps not unusual in the 110+ range.

“On the Island”

It is the sea that draws me, holds me, keeps me waking next to water and all her power to soothe, to invigorate and to heal. My new neighbor, Dave, took this photo this morning of my Casa de Catalina using an iPhone ap : http://www.photosynth.net.

It certainly appears from this image that I live on an island. What a whoop! Better get the paddles out!

beauty where we find it …..

Baja : Pacific Morning

For the uninitiated, there is little that can be said to fully express the beauty of Baja California Sur.  From the moment one leaves the populations of Colonet & San Quintin, makes a requisite gas stop in El Rosario, and heads into the heart of undeveloped land of cardon, bojum, cholla, poloverde, cirrius and more …  the heart slows, the shoulders drop, and the mind begins to embrace again that primal space of undeveloped land.

Mex One zigzags across the peninsula in undulating rhythms, following for the greater part, the easiest passage through rough terrain.  That translates to switchbacks, mountain climbs and descents, and arroyo crossings.  Wide plains, dry lakes and craggy rock piles – the spewn evidence of long-ago volcanoes litter the landscape.  I’ve stopped counting the trips. I never fail to be inspired.  I am always stunned by her beauty.

For those who are afraid to travel, I am sorry.  So much the greater landscape and less crowded roads for me.  While the horrors of the drug cartels are not to be ignored, the city streets of any major metropolitan area has its own body and assault count.  I feel safer in my home in Loreto than I ever did in the states.

The Pacific side teases with waves that follow distant swells.  Spots like the Wall, Shipwrecks, the local spots of Ensenada .. and of course, Pescadero, Todos Santos and Cabo San Lucas beckon surfers from across the globe.

The east coast, the beautiful bountiful Sea of Cortez, is filled with dolphin, sea turtles, fish of every color and size, rays and whales – blue, pilot, fin and orca.  Sunrises, sunsets .. kayaking, paddling, surfing, hiking, sailing, scuba diving, snorkeling .. exploring ..  magic.  To be with and surrounded by such beauty is to me – pure magic.
And then there are the people – beautiful kind warm family loving folks.

Food!  Beverages!  Music!  Dancing!  Camping under stars and/or a full moon. Yes : Baja : I love and dream of you always.

Sanctity of the Seas

Tuna Boats : Maria Veronica & her sister ships

Off shore, three tuna boats have sat at anchor for the last four days.  At first, I had been told that they were National Geographic research ships and I was thrilled that they had stopped in Loreto.  When I discovered that they were anything but research ships, my heart felt a deep sadness.

Perched on top of each vessel is a helicopter which is used to spot schools of tuna.  What chance does a tuna have against a helicopter?   Oft times, dolphin swim in the same schools, and become innocent prey in the fishing fleets nets.  While the local seas are all part of Loreto National Marine Park, and commercial fishing is prohibited, the necessary enforcement is all but non-existent.  The boat captains know all to well that there is nearly no one to stop them, and so our seas suffer.  Local fisherman complain that both quanitity and size of all local catch has diminished in the last decade.  It is these long lingers that are mostly to blame.

I scanned the hulls of the ships looking for a name.  The largest of the three is Maria Veronica.  A quick Google and I pulled up more distressing information.  A posting in 1995 about the vessel and her tactics made me furious to see her sitting with her sister ships in our waters.

Here’s what the poster said:

Tuna Meltdown :
On November 9, 1995, I was aboard the dive boat Don Jose. We were anchored on El Bajo seamount, a dive site in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez renowned for an abundance of marine life, including schools of hammerhead sharks. Small groups of divers were going out in skiffs to drift dive over the seamount. Between dives I saw pods of dolphins and noticed a small helicopter circling the area. Shortly after that the tuna ship Maria Veronica arrived.

In a matter of minutes, without any warning whatsoever, the tuna boat and its tender dropped a net directly across the bow of the Don Jose.  Within moments, the tuna net encircled the entire seamount. Inside the circle of net was one of our skiffs with four divers aboard. If these divers had been in the water, they surely would have been killed.

The Don Jose’s captain quickly cut our anchor, which had become entangled in the tuna net. As we left the area, we watched the Maria Veronica cut its net and ditch its equipment. Our captain radioed the Maria Veronica for an explanation. We were told that the spotter helicopter saw the pods of dolphins and a large dark area under the Don Jose and concluded that the seamount was a large school of tuna. Furthermore, they said that they were unaware of the seamount’s existence because it was not identified on any of their maps; they were also unaware that we were anchored and that we were diving, since no dive flag was flown. While it is true the Don Jose was not flying a dive flag, it’s difficult to believe they could not tell we were anchored and that divers were in the area, as their spotter helicopter had made several passes close to our ship and the skiffs containing divers.

The following day we returned to El Bajo. As I made drift dives over the seamount, I was sickened by what I saw — tuna net caught on most of the north mount, chains and steel cables on the main seamount. Worst of all, the entire south seamount was completely covered with tuna net. Caught in and under the net were many, many fish. The marine ecosystem had been severely traumatized and will undoubtedly suffer permanent damage.

It seems apparent that the Maria Veronica should be held accountable for its actions and responsible for removing its nets and equipment from the damaged seamount. In addition, the Mexican government needs to take stringent action to protect its natural resources and its tourists by establishing and mapping marine sanctuaries in the Sea of Cortez and initiating a mooring system at El Bajo and other popular dive sites such as Los Islotes, Las Animas, and San Diego Reef.

Deanna and Dave Hotchner Mt. Prospect, Illinois

Baja Expeditions and another local dive operator helped organize a massive cleanup to remove the nets, cables, and debris from the seamounts. They were helped by an arriving dive group. The Mexican government reacted quickly; it fined the Maria Veronica $50,000 and agreed to a Baja Expeditions request to fund a study on creating a protected area.

An aside:  The El Bajo seamount is one of only 3 places in the world where hundreds of hammerhead sharks congregate.

Also referred to as “shoal, or bank, of the Holy Spirit” in Spanish. It is a submarine ridge that, in less than 2 kilometers, rises steeply from a 1,000-meter basin to within 18 meters of the surface.

It supports rich stocks of pelagic fishes because of an abundance of plankton that attracts consumers. The plankton (and the rest of the food web) is enriched due to the so-called “Venturi effect,” which describes how flow speed increases when a fluid is forced through a narrow area. The same volume of water carrying a given number of plankters must flow through the more constricted space between the seamount and the ocean surface, providing more drifting prey over time for predator fish lurking near the peak.