Sept. 15, 2003, by Gene Kira, as published in Western Outdoors Magazine:
There are so many intertwining threads in this tale, perhaps it would be best to begin with a quotation--of the final, dying thoughts of South American revolutionary Simón Bolívar in Gabriel García Márquez’ haunting novel, The General In His Labyrinth:
“‘Damn it,’ he sighed. ‘How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!’...He saw...the final brilliance of life that would never, through all eternity, be repeated again.”
In the now half-completed, six-year term of Mexican President Vicente Fox, it seems that an opportunity for marine conservation has also been lost, in a one-term season of power that--according to federal law--will never be repeated again.
Fox ascended to the presidency on the conservative PAN party ticket, oxymoronically on a platform of radical reform, which unseated the 71-year, one-party suzerainty of the entrenched PRI. But instead of effecting reforms, Fox ran into a storm of partisan opposition and found himself wandering deeper and deeper into a political labyrinth from which it is now increasingly clear he will not emerge.
If the PAN once held onto hopes that there was any light at the end of its constantly narrowing political tunnel, these were dashed in the recent midterm elections, in which it suffered disastrous losses, and Fox was relegated to the unenviable status of a lame-duck president with three years still left in office.
What went wrong?
The issue of marine conservation and sportfishing in Mexico in particular serves as perhaps an illuminating paradigm for some of the underlying reasons that Fox’s presidency will be remembered as a noble vintage, but one doomed to vinegary failure before the cork was even pulled.
Perhaps as a bargaining chip in the political dealmaking that preceded Fox’s election, or perhaps as a result of other dealmaking immediately thereafter, CONAPESCA, the Mexican Department of Fisheries under the Fox regime, was left in the hands of the otherwise displaced PRI’s policies, as personified by Secretary of Agriculture Javier Usabiaga and Fisheries Chief Jeronimo Ramos.
Under the PRI, Mexico had for many decades maintained a policy of all-out, scorched-earth, virtually unregulated commercial fishing whose only constraint was the inevitable lack of fish, as species after species was reduced below the level of profitability. Under Fox, it must be said, whatever political bargains that may have been struck during the election process have been dutifully honored; CONAPESCA has, for all practical purposes, continued to function just as its predecessor, PESCA, did under the PRI regime.
Under pressure from the worldwide community of nations to promote “sustainable use” of his country’s natural resources, Fox has attempted repeatedly to present an image of progressive concern for conservation. But--in the arena of marine conservation especially--his protestations have rung hollow.
One of the clearest examples of this duplicity on Mexico’s marine conservation issues is the Fox administration’s ludicrously transparent maneuvering on Shark Norma 029. This legislation was proposed in 2002 by the Department of Fisheries, ostensibly as a means of researching safer methods for commercial shark fishing, but--as was standard practice under the PRI--the real purpose of Shark Norma 029 was to allow increased commercial fishing for all species, using permits issued for commercial shark fishing or scientific shark research.
Shark Norma 029 was quietly published in Mexico’s official gazette, Diario Oficial, with only the briefest period allowed for public discussion before it would become law. But unexpectedly, this clumsy attempt at backdoor legislation caught the attention of a very conservation-minded coalition in the state of Baja California Sur, and an explosive campaign of national television programs, paid newspaper advertisements, and street-savvy leadership from politicians such as state tourism coordinator, Bobby Van Wormer Jr., resulted in Shark Norma 029’s hasty cancellation, just prior to the international APEC 2002 economic summit held in Cabo San Lucas. By ordering the cancellation of Shark Norma 029, Fox thus narrowly avoided nasty street demonstrations, as heads of state and economic ministers from 21 nations met under the gaze of international television cameras.
But CONAPESCA’s plan was only postponed, not stopped. This year, a new, virtually identical shark norma has been introduced, and this time, the government has encouraged an open-ended series of discussions, to be held all over the country, in order to investigate every possible aspect of the proposed legislation and get input from every conceivable government agency, fishermen, foreign and domestic NGOs, academics, the tourism industry, virtually anybody who has anything to say at all. And while the talks are conducted and the conservationists are encouraged to vent their wrath, of course, the commercial fishing continues--apace and unregulated--right to the end of Fox’s term of office, and then it’s someone else’s problem. Brilliant.
If there is any remaining fisheries issue that may cause the present PAN administration further inconvenience before Fox mounts his horse and rides off into oblivion three years from now, it is the hot-button subject of “whales.” People love whales. This is a public relations nightmare waiting to happen, due to the fact that Mexico’s uncontrolled commercial drift nets kill lots of whales, and there are lots and lots of whales around Baja California and the Sea of Cortez.
In a maneuver analogous to his recision of Shark Norma 029, Fox traveled to South Africa in September 2002 and addressed the United Nation’s World Summit on Sustainable Development, in Johannesburg.
Perhaps deferring to pressure from commercial fishing interests and his PRI protégés at CONAPESCA, Fox made absolutely no reference to Mexico’s fisheries problems during his speech, but perhaps bowing to pressure from a galaxy of outraged NGOs, he certainly did mention whales. In his only direct reference to marine conservation, Fox said:
“My government has decreed its Exclusive Maritime Economic Zone a Refuge for Whales and Dolphins, converting our country into the most extensive sanctuary in the world for these marvelous marine mammals, protecting them from commercial exploitation and any other activity that may threaten them.”
For the Fox administration, this cynical untruth may prove to be its saddest fisheries policy failure and intentional self-deception of all, as continued drift net fishing, even well within the Sea of Cortez, causes so many whale deaths that as many as four or five dying whales--their limbs trapped and strangled by nets--were spotted within a three-week period recently, just between La Paz and San Carlos.
In perhaps the most telling parts of his speech in Johannesburg, Fox made oblique references to Mexico’s primary political imperative of feeding its impoverished masses, and therein lurk the deepest ramifications of this fisheries labyrinth. How, without the political support necessary for fundamental reforms, can any government preserve something for tomorrow that must--with no immediate alternatives available--serve as dinner for tonight?
For Vicente Fox, and the lost dreams of reform that the PAN once presented to those impoverished masses, time is running out, perhaps has already run out. Each passing day, it appears more clear that Mexico’s distressed fisheries will get no protection under this lame-duck administration.
Despite this unfortunate turn of events, there is still hope for a brighter future, based on an increasingly enlightened electorate, spreading disgust with the state of Mexico’s depleted fisheries, and the rising star of big-ticket, high-end tourism as an industry capable of helping to feed those impoverished masses. After the 2006 elections, perhaps, reforms will finally be made by such dedicated tourism-conservation leaders as Baja California Sur’s Governor Leonel Cota Montaño of the PRD, and his state Coordinator of Tourism, Maribel Collins Sánchez.
But sadly--during Vicente Fox’s final three years in office--it seems there will be no escape from the labyrinth.
(Related Mexico articles and reports may be found at Mexfish.com'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.")