Mexico Stands Tough on Island Fisheries Closure Logo
Mexico Stands Tough on Island Fisheries Closure


Photo of Capt. Luis Orozco Inclán, Chief of Section 13, Mexican Navy General Staff in Mexico City.

Capt. Luis Orozco Inclán, Chief of Section 13, Mexican Navy General Staff in Mexico City, points to a large scale chart of the Revillagigedos Biosphere Reserve, as he explains that the Navy will enforce a ban on commercial and sport fishing around the islands.


By Gene Kira, May 7, 2002,, as published in Western Outdoor News:

MEXICO CITY--In a high-level decision scheduled to be announced within a few days, several key agencies of the Mexican federal government agreed last week to close the Revillagigedo Island Biosphere Reserve to sport and commercial fishing.

The agreement confirms and in effect extends to 12 nautical miles a recent change in enforcement policy that closed an inner, 6-mile Nucleus Zone around each of the four islands of the Revillagigedo archipelago--Islas Socorro, Clarion, San Benedicto, and Roca Partida--located about 200 miles south of Cabo San Lucas.

In a statement at Mexican Naval Headquarters, Capt. Luis Orozco, Chief of Staff, Section 13, Navy General Staff said:

"All fishing and hunting is prohibited inside both the Nucleus Zones and the Buffering Zones. The policy of the Navy is that any earlier agreements that may or may not have existed are no longer valid. We will adhere to the provisions of Mexican law at the Revillagigedos and at all other protected areas." Capt. Orozco further stated that according to the law, local residents may fish in the outer, Buffering Zones, from six to twelve nautical miles from the islands. In the Nucleus Zones, within six miles, no fishing at all may occur.

The terms of the island closure had been under intense internal government discussion, and lobbying pressure from San Diego's long-range sport fishing fleet since March 18, when two U.S. boats, the Shogun and the Red Rooster III were boarded by Mexican agents at Roca Partida and cited for fishing illegally within the Biosphere Reserve, which has for decades been a traditional destination of San Diego boats fishing for giant yellowfin tuna and wahoo.

That surprise March 18 action reversed a series of both written and undocumented working arrangements dating from at least as early as September 21, 1995 under which U.S. sport boats had been fishing inside the Biosphere Reserve, even though technically that has been prohibited under Mexican law since 1994.

Protests by the Sportfishing Association of California (SAC) in Mexico City were summarily rebuffed by the Procuraduria Federal de Protección al Ambiente (PROFEPA), Mexico's regulations enforcement agency for specially protected natural resources, on the principle that to grant the requested fishing permits would be a violation of Mexican law. A petition for an amparo, or court injunction against the ban was also denied in federal court.

(In a telephone call received in Mexico City just before press time, SAC President, Bob Fletcher, reported to Western Outdoor News that he had recently returned from a trip to Washington, D.C. and meetings with U.S. Congressman Randy Cunningham (R-Calif.), the State Department, and the Department of Commerce. Fletcher said that SAC was continuing to protest the island closure, and that he had received assurances that appeals were still being made through government channels. He added that a second petition for an amparo was also still pending.)

In Mexico City, it was the Navy, PROFEPA, and the Secretaria de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT), Mexico's secretariat for the environment and natural resources, that pushed the island closure toward a consensus.

In a meeting convened at Mexican Naval Headquarters in Mexico City by Navy Chief of Staff, Admiral Alberto Castro Rosas, at 6:30 p.m. on the evening of April 30, an agreement was reached by the Navy, PROFEPA, and SEMARNAT that the islands would be permanently closed to sport and commercial fishing, according to Mexican law, despite any fishing permits that might have been issued in past seasons by the old Department of Fisheries (PESCA), recently reorganized as CONAPESCA, and regardless of any unwritten working agreements that might have existed with previous administrators.

Present at the April 30 meeting were several high-level officials of the key agencies involved, including: Navy Chief of Staff, Admiral Alberto Castro Rosas; Capt. Luis Orozco, Chief of Staff, Section 13, Navy General Staff; David Gutiérrez Carbonell, Director General for Conservation Management, National Commission for Protected Natural Areas (a division of SEMARNAT), with two key aides; Diana Ponce, Attorney for Natural Resources (PROFEPA); and Luis Fueyo, Director of Enforcement for Marine Resources (PROFEPA).

The Department of Fisheries Commissioner of both CONAPESCA and its predecessor agency, PESCA, Dr. Jeronimo Ramos Saenz Pardo, did not appear personally at the meeting, but instead sent his Executive Secretary, Felipe Flores, who said that Ramos would arrive within 15 minutes. In fact, Ramos did not appear, and thus avoided having to discuss the propriety of the fishing permits he had issued through his former agency, PESCA.

The failure of Ramos to attend a high-level meeting called to discuss fisheries matters within his direct area of responsibility underscored CONAPESCA's relative isolation within the federal government. Sources at other agencies involved in the April 30 meeting said a joint letter would be released within a few days--even if Ramos' participation was not forthcoming--announcing the closure of the Revillagigedos to sport and commercial fishing and the effective rescission of any exisiting fishing permits that might be outstanding. (Biosphere Reserve boat entry permits allowing non-fishing activities are still valid.)

Ramos himself could not be reached after the April 30 meeting, but his Executive Secretary, Felipe Flores, contacted by telephone in Mexico City, seemed to confirm at least tacit concurrence with the island closure. Flores stated that CONAPESCA's official position was that Mexican law should be observed. He said that his only official comments during the April 30 meeting were that all decisions would have to be confirmed by his absent boss, Ramos. But he asserted that CONAPESCA, and its parent agency SAGARPA, had no jurisdiction over the islands, and would abide by the decisions of the other agencies.

Flores stated that CONAPESCA would work toward three goals: 1) making sure the law prevails. 2) making sure of proper conservation at the unique Revillagigedo archipelago. 3) working in all possible ways towards sustainable management of the area's natural resources.

Flores stated that CONAPESCA's concern was that in the past, there has been no clear declaration of the law to foreigners and Mexicans at the Revillagigedos, and no clear effort to create a management plan.

When asked why CONAPESCA's Commissioner, Ramos, as head of its antecedent agency, PESCA, had issued and signed fishing permits for the islands that may have been contrary to laws governing the Biosphere Reserve, Flores said (in unofficial translation): "Well, I do not know about those permits, but if he signed those permits, he would know why he did it, and he would be responsible for discussing that."

At press time, the offices of the Navy and SEMARNAT were coordinating a draft document to be transmitted within a few days to the U.S. Embassy in response to a protest from Congressman Cunningham that the U.S. boats had an agreement allowing them to fish to within 500 meters of the Revillagigedo Islands. The text of the Navy and SEMARNAT documents was classified as a confidential internal government document and would therefore not be available for quotation, even after its transmission to the U.S. Embassy. However, sources in Mexico City told Western Outdoor News that the letters in preparation would most probably be signed by the highest authorities, possibly by the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of Natural Resources themselves, and would contain essentially the same rejection of all protests as earlier returned by PROFEPA, i.e., that to allow fishing inside the Biosphere Reserve would be a violation of Mexican law.

Sources at PROFEPA, SEMARNAT, and the Navy all indicated that the history of illegal fishing at the Revillagigedos Archipelago would no longer be tolerated, and the possibility of legal action against any persons guilty of permitting it was being studied. At press time, the three agencies were coordinating a news release that will announce the new policies concerning the islands. In Mexico City, sources speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that new denuncias, or complaints, were being considered at the federal level, in addition to others that have already been filed or are in preparation by private parties.

Just prior to the April 30 meeting at Naval Headquarters, the Navy's Capt. Orozco said his agency had already made the policy decision to enforce the Revillagigedo Biosphere regulations, and in fact, had positioned new physical assets at the islands several weeks earlier for that purpose, including a frigate, a helicopter, and two speed boats stationed at Isla Socorro. In addition, increased radar surveillance was being considered at Isla Socorro, where a permanent detachment of about 60 Navy personnel is stationed, and at Isla Clarion, which has a detachment of about 20 personnel, Capt. Orozco said.

Capt. Orozco indicated that the Navy would abide by its policy decision, with or without the concurrence of CONAPESCA, and the Navy's mission at the Revillagigedos was unambiguous. He added that the Navy had recently boarded and detained illegal commercial boats at the islands. All sport and commercial boats found fishing illegally at the islands will be impounded, usually in Manzanillo, while legal proceedings are initiated by local authorities, he said.

Capt. Orozco brushed off the widely-touted value of the U.S. sport fishing fleet in helping to monitor illegal commercial boats in the area. A veteran of over 40 deployments to the Revillagigedos since 1976, he said, "In all the years that the SAC fleet has been fishing, it has never made a single denuncia."

However, Capt. Orozco acknowledged the difficulty of monitoring the sprawling and very remote Revillagigedos archipelago and said the Navy would be willing to discuss receiving assistance from official and private sources for spotting illegal fishing boats.

In fact, although the Navy has recently impounded at least three commercial boats fishing illegally inside the Biosphere Reserve, at press time, Western Outdoor News had received several recent unconfirmed reports of private yachts continuing to fish there, including some boats that had checked in as required with the Navy detachment at Isla Socorro and had declared their intentions to fish, reportedly with no objections from Navy personnel.

Another recent unconfirmed report included information on two commercial long-liners working within one-quarter mile of Isla San Benedicto, and a commercial seiner also working the island.

On Monday evening, a group of investigators, including representatives of the International Game Fish Association, the Mexican advisory Council of Fishing and Aquaculture, the Mexican Billfish Foundation, and news media including Western Outdoor News, was scheduled to leave the Mexican mainland for Socorro Island to confirm the actual extent of Navy enforcement at the archipelago.

The debated legality of permits issued to sport fishing boats for the Revillagigedo Islands Biosphere Reserve was discussed last week in Mexico City during interviews with several top officials of the key agencies involved, including Lic. José Campillo García, Attorney General of PROFEPA, and Victor M. del Angel G., second in command at SEMARNAT.

Luis Fuyeo Mac Donald, PROFEPA's top enforcement official for marine resources, explained the laws governing the islands as like a three-layer cake.

The foundation of the cake, Fueyo said, is the law dealing with general regulations on the environment and natural resources: Ley General del Equilibrio Ecológico y la Protección al Ambiente (LGEEPA), which states that Biosphere Reserves may have two types of zones, inner, Nucleus Zones, and outer, Buffer Zones. Article 49, Paragraph III of this law states that in the Nucleus Zones of any Biosphere Reserve, the exploitation and utilization of wild flora and fauna species is "expressly prohibited." (In addition, Article 48 of this law states that even within the outer, Buffer Zones of any Biosphere Reserve, wildlife may be harvested or used only by local inhabitants under controled conditions.)

The next layer of law is the Presidential Degree that officially established the Revillagigedo Biosphere Reserve in 1994. This decree defined the sizes of the Revillagigedo Nucleus and Buffer Zones. The Nucleus Zones extend about 6 nautical miles outwards from each island, and the Buffer Zones extend another 6 miles, to the outer edge of the Biosphere Reserve, 12 miles out from each island.

Thus, the Revillagigedo Island Biosphere Reserve is not a single contiguous area, but is actually four separate areas, including the islands themselves, and about 12 nautical miles of ocean outwards from each island. The underlying laws are clear that no fishing may occur, except possibly by local inhabitants in the outer Buffer Zones, 6 to 12 miles from the islands. Inside of 6 miles, no fishing at all may occur.

The final layer of law governing the islands does not exist at this time. This would be a Management Plan that was called for in the 1994 Presidential Degree, but never completed by the Mexican government.

However, in 1997, a preliminary Management Plan was drafted under the auspices of the old Secretaria del Medio Ambiente, Recursos Naturales y Pesca (SEMARNAP), which has since been reorganized. Although it was never approved, it is partially upon this unpublished document that the San Diego long-range fleet has based its claim to fishing at the islands.

Contrary to the provisions of the underlying LGEEPA law and the 1994 Presidential Decree that created the Biosphere Reserve, the unpublished Management Plan opened the possibility of both sport and commercial fishing to within 500 meters of the islands, subject to fishing and environmental controls. The draft Management Plan did not address the critical question of how its conflict with the underlying law would be resolved, and regardless, that question has remained moot, since the plan was never published anyway.

However, the Sportfishing Association of California (SAC) has argued that it obtained an unwritten, verbal agreement from the Mexican government, based on the philosophy of the unpublished Management Plan, which allowed its boats to fish not only within the Nucleus Zones, but also as close as 500 meters of the islands.

In addition, Western Outdoor News has obtained and provided to the advisory Council of Fishing and Aquaculture copies of several Biosphere Reserve entry permits granted to sport fishing boats that seem to support or document SAC's claim to the 500-meter provision.

These include the following permits:

A. Secretaria de Medio Ambiente Recursos Naturales y Pesca (SEMARNAP), File Number 111095-214-03-1061, September 21, 1965, signed by Julia Carabias Lillo and Carlos Camacho Gaos; self-contradictory, authorizes sport fishing trips to the Biosphere Reserve, but cites laws prohibiting fishing anywhere inside it.

B. SEMARNAP, File Number 160896-213-03-2936, August 16, 1996, signed by Dr. Jeronimo Ramos Saenz Pardo, prohibits fishing less than one-quarter mile of the islands, but does not say specifically that fishing is allowed outside that limit. Cites laws prohibiting fishing anywhere inside the Biosphere Reserve.

C. SEMARNAP, File Number 010897-213-03-2375, August 1, 1997, signed by Dr. Jeronimo Ramos Saenz Pardo and Javier de la Maza Elvira, prohibits fishing less than 500 meters of the islands, but does not say specifically that fishing is allowed outside that limit. Cites laws prohibiting fishing anywhere inside the Biosphere Reserve.

D. SEMARNAP, File Number 170798-213-03-2622, October 13, 1998, signed by Dr. Jeronimo Ramos Saenz Pardo and Javier de la Maza Elvira, explicity authorizes fishing more than 500 meters from the islands. Effective period of permit is three years, from October 13, 1998 to September 30, 2001. Cites laws prohibiting fishing anywhere inside the Biosphere Reserve.

A fifth permit, obtained for the most recent 2001-2002 season, was issued not by SEMARNAP, but by the Consejo Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas, and does not authorize fishing within the Biosphere Reserve. Only this permit seems to comply fully, clearly, and consistently with Mexican law.

While the 1995 permit (paragraph A) is ambiguous to the degree that no conclusive determination can probably be made, the 1996 (paragraph B), 1997 (paragraph C), and especially the 1998 (paragraph C) permit all at least imply that they allow fishing to within either one-quarter mile or 500 meters of the islands. The 1998 permit seems to say so explicity. Even so, these permits would be considered invalid in Mexico at this time, since the law prohibits fishing anywhere within the Biosphere Reserve, except possibly by island inhabitants within Buffer Zones only. Moreover, all of the permits mentioning the quarter-mile or 500-meter limits have expired.

As the law is now being interpreted by the key agencies involved, even including CONAPESCA, the only possibility of reintroducing any form of sport or commercial fishing in Mexican waters at the Revillagigedos would seem to be the highly unlikely abrogation of the Biosphere Reserve decree itself, or the equally unlikely rewriting of the underlying ecological law, LGEEPA. The mere creation a fishing-inclusive Management Plan, such as the one abandoned in 1997, would no longer pass legal scrutiny.

Mexican officials noted that some owners of boats carrying both Biosphere Reserve entry permits and separate Mexican fishing permits may feel that the two taken together allow them to enter the Biosphere Reserve and fish. This is untrue, they say. Under Mexican law, the Biosphere Reserve entry permits allow entry only, and the fishing permits are valid only in unrestricted waters, not inside the Biosphere Reserve. Any boat caught fishing inside the Biosphere Reserve will be subject to penalties, they said.

The Navy's Capt. Orozco said, "This is a newly-elected democratic government, very strict to the law. The Navy abides by the law. It was never made clear to us before that this is the law. Now, we know. Regardless of whatever may have been done in the past by questionable officials, we are now enforcing the law."

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