Mexico faces tough battle in saving marine reserve

By Julie Watson, Associated Press
October 23, 2002

EL GOLFO DE SANTA CLARA, Mexico — It's no surprise that catches are good for the shrimp-laden boats plying the upper Gulf of California; they're fishing in a nationally protected marine reserve.

As leaders from the Pacific rim nations gather in the resort of Los Cabos further south on the Gulf, President Vicente Fox is facing off against angry fishers in a last-ditch battle to save what Jacques Cousteau once called "the world's aquarium."

The battle has affected U.S. tourists, hundreds of whom were prevented from returning to the United States over the weekend when fishers blocked a highway that connects Arizona with the sleepy Mexican port of Puerto Penasco, known among tourists as Rocky Point.

The fishers formed human chains across the highway after Fox sent in the Navy earlier this month to oust shrimping vessels from the northernmost section of the Gulf of California. Declared a national park and U.N. biosphere reserve nearly a decade ago, the million-acre (400,00-hectacre) reserve cuts a glistening blue swath through one of North America's driest deserts, separating Baja California from mainland Mexico.

It is a key breeding ground for the rest of the Gulf, also known as the Sea of Cortez. While better known as a wintering ground for whales, it's most endangered resident is the vaquita, the world's smallest porpoise and a species on the brink of extinction. With fewer than 600 1.5-yard (meter) -long Vaquitas remaining, "this is our last chance to save this species," said Mexico's Environment Secretary Victor Lichtinger.

That's where the estimated 500 shrimp boats come in: Their huge trawler nets scrape the bottom of the Gulf clean of marine life, dredging up dozens of species on which vaquitas depend. They keep a few commercially valuable species and throw the rest away to die.

Gill nets used by about 1,000 small-scale fishers — who are still allowed in the reserve — kill between 30 to 80 vaquitas a year, environmentalists estimate.

"Trawling the ocean floor has just completely destroyed this ecosystem," said Peggy Turk, director of the Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans in Puerto Penasco, which sits just outside the reserve.

Like many of Mexico's national parks, the area, which makes up 6 percent of the gulf, had little protection in practice, environmentalists say. "One thing that's a shock to everybody is the government is actually enforcing this stuff," said Turk. "They've never done it before."

Even on land, few signs mark the reserve. Even days after the crackdown, federal inspectors said the motor on their skiff had broken and they could not go out on the waters to check permits.

Fishers say that new regulations, which limit the size of nets allowed in the reserve, threaten their livelihoods. Most sell the shrimp to U.S. companies.

While they lifted their one-day blockade Sunday when angry motorists began yelling at them, fishers have threatened to force their way back into the reserve, currently guarded by the Mexican navy. "They can't come in here and take away the work we've been doing for 50, 60, 70 years from one day to the next," said Alberto Rocha, a Puerto Penasco fisher who owns two shrimp vessels that depend on the reserve.

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