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Swimming Against Tide of Overfishing

Can one small Mexican lobster co-op's sustainable practices become a model for success?

December 29, 2002|William Fulbright Foote | William Fulbright Foote is the director of EcoLogic Enterprise Ventures, Inc., a "green" loan fund based in Cambridge, Mass. that finances small-scale producer organizations in Latin America.

PUNTA ABREOJOS, Mexico — Off this pristine beach in Baja California Sur may lie the secret of balance between seafood, which people need to eat, and its environment, which is fast eroding.

The blue waters here are teeming with spiny lobsters and well-tended traps, a testament to the successful efforts of small-scale fishermen who have carved a niche for themselves in the international marketplace while preserving a sensitive environment. The World Wildlife Fund-sponsored Marine Stewardship Council, a global group that certifies sustainable-fishing practices for consumers, is currently reviewing the Baja fishery. If the lobster operation earns the Council's "green" seal of approval next year, it will be the first fishery from a developing country to receive the prized label.

But green seal or no, these are troubled waters. Just a few miles down the beach, and throughout Mexico, overfishing threatens to sink the entire industry. Fish and other seafood -- especially lobster -- have never been in greater demand, with the world's total fishery production today bringing in $131 billion annually. Since 1960, the world catch has increased more than threefold, from 27 million to more than 91 million tons a year. Fishermen worldwide are harvesting marine life faster than it can replenish itself, causing sharp declines in virtually every commercially important species of fish in the sea. Meanwhile, nearly 25% of what is caught gets tossed back into the ocean either dead or dying.

In Mexico, the situation is particularly bleak, and there is compelling evidence pointing to the Mexican government as the primary culprit for the fishing crisis here. In the early 1990s, the administration of President Carlos Salinas aggressively deregulated Mexican commercial fishing without creating an effective system of permits and licensing.

Boats lack license plates. Motors go unregistered. Virtually anyone, anywhere, can become a commercial fisherman. As a result, the vast majority of Mexico's fisheries, which together make this country the world's sixth-largest global fish producer, now operate under free-for-all conditions. Consider also the years of endemic corruption at the federal, state and local levels, and you can begin to see the scope of the industry's severe economic and environmental crisis.

Take the Gulf of California. "It's complete chaos," says Manuel Gardea, a lobster fisherman and abalone diver turned entrepreneur who helped found a whale-watching company called Ecoturismo Kuyima in the town of San Ignacio. "It's crawling with [poachers]. You just can't compete."

Luis Bourillon, a marine biologist in Guaymas, posits that 12,000 to 16,000 small-scale fishing boats operate in the Gulf of California, about half without permits. In fiberglass skiffs, they catch 100 species using gill nets, which trap all marine life. Many nations ban them; Mexico does not. Even more indiscriminate are the shrimp fleets, which use bottom-scraping dragnets that catch 10 pounds of other marine creatures for every pound of shrimp. Almost all of the excess is discarded because there is no market for it. Pressured by a powerful commercial fishing lobby, the federal government and its state-owned oil company subsidize marine-diesel fuel costs by 50% to artificially maintain overbuilt, nonviable fleets.

And yet, Punta Abreojos Cooperative stands in stark contrast with the dominant forces that have contributed to the global fishing crisis. Picture an isolated lobster-fishing village on a singularly beautiful and nearly virgin beach at the conjunction of desert terrain and the Pacific coastline. Founded in the 1930s, about 550 miles south of San Diego, the community-based business rigorously respects area closures, restrictions on fishing gear, minimum legal sizes and protection of pregnant females. With 200 members, the co-op undertakes aggressive surveillance and policing of its entire fishing area (radar systems, radio communications, armed night patrols) to stop poachers who overtax the lobster population and harm its fragile marine habitats.

What makes Punta Abreojos different? It holds an exclusive concession to its fishing territory. In the 1930s, the leftist government of President Lazaro Cardenas allocated exclusive management rights to fishing co-ops along the Pacific coast of Baja California. The government assigned a group of high-value species (lobster, abalone and others) within a restricted fishing territory for each organization.

No one got rich, but geographically isolated communities developed and took care not to over-exploit their precious resources. When necessary, fishermen defended their concessions for economic self-preservation, not necessarily environmental conservation. When fishing legislation changed under Salinas, Punta Abreojos went on the offensive as part of a federation of nine lobster cooperatives in the area.

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