Baja Furies: Longlines, Salt Plants and Hopes for a Brilliant Future Logo
Baja Furies: Longlines, Salt Plants and
Hopes for a Brilliant Future



March 25, 2000, by Gene Kira:

There has been a pretty strong chubasco blowing lately about heavy commercial longlining at the south end of Baja--off Bahia Magdalena and Cabo San Lucas to be exact--and I sincerely hope that the Mexican people and their government will wake up and have the sense to put a stop to this greedy, short-sighted, and economically suicidal practice.

But we should ask ourselves why we American tourist anglers are so fired up to preserve Mexican fish. Altruism and noble conservationist goals aside, one plain and simple reason is that Mexico's fish are about all we have left; we've just about wiped out our own.

Huge bluefin tuna once roamed off Catalina Island. Spotfin croaker were haul seined from the surf at Malibu. Gray whales once calved inside San Diego Bay. Our sardines and anchovy were ground up for fertilizer. Steelhead runs occurred all the way south to the border, and even beyond. The summer luminescent plankton bloom was once so thick on Southern California beaches that the nighttime flash of the breaking surf would light up your hand a hundred yards from the water. Every commercially marketable species has been reduced to the edge of survival. Even the lowly rockcod, hiding in the depths, has been pounded into submission by our own greedy, short-sighted practices.

The commercial fishing industry is one of the last vestiges of early man's hunter-gatherer economy, which was already being replaced by agriculture 8,500 years ago. During the last quarter century, global capital investment in fishing equipment and technology has quadrupled. Yet, the annual catch has actually declined by about 20 percent.

This trend has an obvious and rapidly approaching conclusion. Sooner or later, virtually all fish and seafood bought at the supermarket will be farmed, not caught in the wild. This, of course, happened long ago with the domestication of our other two main sources of consumable animal protein, red meats and poultry.

Because of high market prices around the world, fish domestication is now proceeding with all the speed that science and technology will allow. At present, aquaculture accounts for one-fourth of all fish sold on the marketplace, and the percentage grows daily. Wild-caught market seafood, reduced to a status of economic insignificance, will soon follow the buffalo and the passenger pigeon into the history books.

Tourist anglers, who have watched Baja's California's fishery decline in quality since the early part of this century (the first documented sport fishing expedition into the Sea of Cortez occurred in 1908), are justifiably indignant that Mexico seems to be determined to follow the same course that the United States has in cashing in on its marine resources without much regard for the future.

But, we Americans must be careful not to fall victim to the preservationist mentality that says Baja California should remain economically under-developed, and therefore poor, so that we may enjoy its fishing and other natural resources on our vacations. The poor do not wish to be poor, and we are not morally entitled to ask them to remain so, just so we can catch their fish and take pictures of them. Human lives are at stake.

The recent furor over the proposed ESSA salt plant at Laguna San Ignacio was an example of this preservationist mentality. Opponents of the now apparently defeated salt plant proposal would have the area surrounding the lagoon remain perpetually undeveloped, and they have been reckless in their intellectual dishonestly in claiming that the issue at stake was the survival of the California Gray Whale; when pressed, one of the most outspoken public opponents of the salt plant and the author of some of the most blatant, whale-based propaganda against it, admitted to me personally that "whales are not the issue" at San Ignacio. The truth is that since they acquired legal protection from hunting in 1946, the once endangered Gray Whales have rather briskly rebounded to their pre-industrial numbers, despite the existence of the Scammon's Lagoon salt plant, and all of the development at Guerrero Negro, Puerto Lopez Mateos, and Puerto San Carlos.

Indeed, the furor over the ESSA salt plant was not about whales at all, but about preserving open space. This is a worthy cause in our over-populated world, but I wonder about the human side of the equation. Opponents of the salt plant used two curiously contradictory statistics in their arguments. First, that the proposed San Ignacio salt plant would create only "two-hundred jobs" for the local people. And oxymoronically, that the Guerrero Negro salt plant had caused the development of a full-blown town with a population of several thousand.

Which statement is true?

Anyone who has been to Guerrero Negro lately knows that "option two" is correct. Guerrero Negro is a modern, good-sized town, supported almost entirely by the ESSA salt plant of Scammon's Lagoon. And, contrary to one very misleading description of it as a cluster of tar paper shacks, Guerrero Negro enjoys one of the highest average standards of living in all of Baja California. Company towns may not be Camelot, but the children of Guerrero Negro wear shoes, and they go to school, and they have enough to eat.

The "human equation" becomes strikingly apparent when one visits the many small ejido settlements and ranchos in the desert areas surrounding Guerrero Negro. Within a great radius that extends all the way across Baja California to the Sea of Cortez, there are few children and young adults remaining in these settlements, many of which are little more than wind-blown ghost towns. Where have all the young people gone? To Guerrero Negro, virtually every one. Like young people everywhere, they have followed economic opportunity, leaving behind the "peace and solitude" of the desert that we tourists find so charming, inspirational, and photogenic; to someone who has no way out, the desert is a prison, not a vacation destination.

And so it is with the fish camps at Laguna San Ignacio and along the entire 2,000-mile coastline of Baja California. The gill net fishermen, the longline fishermen, the shrimp trawlers, and purse seiners--all so reviled by us tourist anglers--wreak their havoc upon the sea that supports them, simply because they do not have the equivalent of an ESSA salt plant to give them jobs and an alternative way of life.

But Baja's future may be able to provide these people with an alternative after all, because Baja is different from every other part of the world in some crucial ways.

First, Baja California's magnificent Sea of Cortez is so breathtakingly beautiful and so powerfully rich in marine life that after the commercial fishing onslaught has been turned back at last, there will be sufficient natural assets remaining to support the world's greatest sport fishing fleets, the world's most dynamic ecotourism industry, and the hotels and resorts that own them.

Second, Baja's moment in history seems to be happening right now, with the advent of the runaway prosperity of the millennium and the exponential growth of the internet, both of which will allow that tourist industry to market efficiently to a global audience.

Third, the Sea of Cortez is entirely controlled by a single country, Mexico, which now has an historic opportunity to use its sovereign authority over that body of water and all the life that it contains to provide for a brilliant future. Perhaps, someday, Mexico will create a vast marine park, from San Felipe to Cabo San Lucas, for the rest of the world to marvel at.

All over Baja today, there is a race going on, between the interests of the waning commercial fishing industry, and the rapidly growing tourism industry. Up until now, commercial fisheries have ruled the oceans of the world, but in the Sea of Cortez, natural beauty and the opportunities of the moment are on the side of modern tourism as the most important ally of conservation and an economy that will provide a just and prosperous future for the people of Baja California.

(Related Baja California, Mexico, articles and reports may be found at's main Baja California information page. See weekly fishing news, photos, and reports from the major sportfishing vacation areas of Mexico including the Baja California area in "Mexico Fishing News.")