By Gene Kira, May 27, 2002, as published in Western Outdoor News:
With the dust and smoke from its recent Revillagigedos Islands fisheries closure still hanging in the air, some eyes were already turning last week to the opposite end of Baja California as Mexico's next battleground in the fight against commercial fishing abuses.
It looks like the next big "fishing contest" is now looming at the very northernmost end of the Sea of Cortez in the Alto Golfo de California y Delta del Rio Colorado Reserva de la Biosphera.
This 3,600 square-mile Alto Golfo Biosphere Reserve, extending north from San Felipe, enjoys the same legal status as the Revillagigedo Islands. In addition, it has the double-whammy advantage of being home to two officially endangered species--the vaquita dolphin and the giant totoaba. And now, it also has the full attention of the same Mexican Navy that provided the muscle for the closure of the Revillagigedos.
This was made clear, two Fridays ago, when I visited San Felipe for another totoaba release by Conal David True's team of biologists from the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California at Ensenada.
Our regular boat, Tony Reyes' San Felipe panga mothership the Jose Andres, was not available because it was fishing at the Midriff Islands, and guess who came to the rescue? Amazingly, the Navy sent two Azteca class patrol boats--the Colima and the Arizpe--all the way from Guaymas. These were 110-foot, armed ships that created quite a sight as they tied up to little ol' San Felipe's commercial pier and took on our load of TV cameras, VIPs--and 1,600 baby totoaba.
Sailors helped transfer young totoaba to tanks aboard the Navy patrol boats Colima and Arizpe.
As we pulled away from the pier and headed north into the Alto Golfo Biosphere Reserve, I thought of our precious load of totoaba and what role they and the vaquita dolphin will play in the coming fight.
On one side of the battle are the cooperativas, trawlers, and pangas that work inside the reserve for fin fish and shrimp. Many of these boats work with "borrowed" permits, no permits at all, or with questionable permits issued by Mexico's federal Department of Fisheries (CONAPESCA). Tons of endangered totoaba--and a tragic number of the world's approximately 500 remaining vaquita dolphin--are killed by these boats each year.
Allied against these forces are a growing number of influential officials in Mexico City, conservation groups, tourism associations, the Navy, and an energized PROFEPA, the enforcement agency responsible for endangered species and specially protected areas--such as totoaba, vaquita dolphin, and the Alto Golfo Biosphere Reserve.
In a series of moves reminiscent of what happened at the Revillagigedos, the laws governing the Alto Golfo reserve are now being closely examined, and evidence is being gathered to show that the commercial fishing going on there is illegal and should be stopped. Once again, it will probably be PROFEPA--backed by the Navy--that does the actual stopping.
The coming battle over the Alto Golfo reserve is part of a larger trend in Baja California and Mexico. There are firefights flaring up all over:
-In Mexico City on June 4, a contingent of Baja Sur officials has been invited to testify before Congress to explain why and how gill nets were banned from East Cape through Baja Sur Tourism Chief Bobby Van Wormer Jr.'s popular revolt.
-In San Carlos-Guaymas, additional PROFEPA inspectors may soon be assigned, in response to fierce local lobbying efforts.
-In Morelos on June 6, President Fox will meet with conservation representatives specifically to discuss measures for protecting Mexico's natural resources.
-At Bahia Magdalena, a small group of panga fishermen has been quietly discussing ways to stop the foreign-controlled seiners that are wiping out the bay's sardine population (keep an eye on this one, amigos).
But, it looks like the next big campaign will be in the Alto Golfo Biosphere Reserve, where the endangered totoaba and vaquita dolphin will provide a legal basis for PROFEPA to move in.
The opposing forces are gathering. Let the battle begin.
Western Outdoor News Baja Editor, Gene Kira releases juvenile totoaba from the Navy patrol boat Arizpe about 14 miles north of San Felipe, Baja California, Mexico.