By Gene Kira, April 22, 2002, as published in Western Outdoor News:
Roberto "Bobby" Van Wormer Jr., Director of Tourism for the state of Baja California Sur, has my vote to be the next president of Mexico, or at the very least, the next head of PESCA.
Bobby, amigo, I don't care whatever screw-ups you might commit later in life. You will forever be my hero, for what happened in La Paz last week.
Gill nets are now illegal in the East Cape fishing and tourism area. The fantastic near shore fishing there is now protected.
In a series of very heated, grassroots meetings conducted at Rancho Leonero, La Ribera, and finally, the federal Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (SAGARPA/PESCA) office in downtown La Paz, approximately one kilometer's worth of gill net permits were revoked, and East Cape--from El Cardonal south to Los Frailes--is now clean of them.
That isn't even the big news. The real miracle is that, for once, darned near everyone in East Cape cooperated to make this happen. It was a group victory. We had not only Bobby Van Wormer Jr. and his father and brothers leading the revolt, but state congressmen, mayors, sport fishing pangueros, legitimate hand line pangueros, and nearly every hotel in the area all working together to get the damn nets out. This thing had support from not only the Van Wormers, but Chuy Valdez, Martin Verdugo, John Ireland, and many others, all joining forces.
If you know anything about East Cape politics, you know this is about as amazing as Jimmy Smith giving up beer, cigarettes, and talking, all on the same afternoon. I'm telling you, it was a major, world class miracle. And it worked.
The important thing to understand here is that--until last week--those nets were perfectly legal. The SAGARPA/PESCA office in La Paz issued permits for them. I get reports every week from people who think they see illegal gill netting along Baja's beaches. Sorry, amigos, most of those nets have permits, issued against all sanity and reason, by SAGARPA/PESCA with the full blessing of Mexico City.
I have always felt that what will eventually save the Sea of Cortez is not bumper stickers, but money, yes, filthy old money, and that's exactly what happened at East Cape. Here, more than anywhere else in Baja, the local people depend on sport fishing for a living. In Cabo San Lucas, only about seven percent of all visitors go fishing on any given day. I don't know what the exact figure is for East Cape, but I wouldn't be surprised if it pushes ten times that on some days. East Cape has remained faithful to the sport fishing business model that founded modern tourism in Baja.
It was the local peoples' dependence on tourist dollars that caused this grassroots revolt against SAGARPA/PESCA's policy of allowing gill nets right in front of the hotels. And it was tourist dollars contributed by all the hotels that brought TV crews from Mexico City to publicize the revolt and bring tremendous political pressure to bear. SAGARPA/PESCA couldn't stand the heat. With about 100 very irate people jamming its office, and everything on national TV, it caved in at 10 a.m., April 16, 2002, which should go down as a historic day in Baja. I say, let's make it a permanent holiday--April 16th No Gill Net Day. Or, something like that.
Will this very promising turn of events, so pregnant with possibilities, make a long-term difference? It's too early to tell. But it's fantastic nevertheless, and it deserves everyone's support.
Last week, at the height of the euphoria, I heard some negative comments like "Hey, how come it's only East Cape?" and "Oh great, now all the gill netters are going to come to Loreto," or "How come Bobby Van Wormer Jr. only takes care of the beaches in front of his family's hotels?"
No! No! No! That's the old way! That kind of thinking doesn't work! Everyone in Baja Sur needs to commit to the movement, the way John Ireland of Rancho Leonero did. Before the permits were revoked, John personally pulled nets in front of his hotel and dared SAGARPA/PESCA to put him in jail for it. Said John, "I'm going to pull their nets. I'm going to force the issue. I gave notice that I'm the one responsible. I'll go to jail if I have to." Ooooooo, John! You da man!
Politics is the "art of the possible," and Bobby Jr. did as much as possible, in the only place where it was possible, in the geographic center of his political power base. That took a lot of leadership and political cojones. Now, Bobby's got his sights set on the rest of Baja Sur. He's organizing more local movements to demand that gill nets be cleared out of the entire state. This can happen if everybody works together. It is ridiculous for a few marginalized gill net fishermen from a bygone era to jeopardize the livelihoods of thousands of people in the tourism industry.
Will the people of Baja Sur make a move? If they don't, they have only themselves to blame. Loreto, is the next logical place where this needs to happen. If the people join together and do something, the blatant gill nets inside the Loreto Marine Park will be gone.
And, as Bobby Jr. says, that could be the start of a movement that just might sweep all of Mexico.
(Related East Cape articles and reports may be found at Mexfish.com's main East Cape information page. See weekly fishing news, photos, and reports from the major sportfishing vacation areas of Mexico including the East Cape area in "Mexico Fishing News.")