Possibly the first efforts to protect the islands of the Sea of Cortés started in 1951 with the publication of Lewis Wayne Walker's popular paper on the sea birds of Isla Rasa in the National Geographic. Walker was at that time a researcher at the San Diego Natural History Museum, and later became Associate Director at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. He was very knowledgeable on the natural history of the region, and possessed first-hand field experience in Baja California and the islands of the Sea of Cortés, especially on Isla Rasa. He wrote many popular articles on the natural history of the region, and through these publications he popularized the plight of Isla Rasa (Walker 1951, 1965).
Kenneth Bechtel (the same philantropist that organized later in the 1970s the flying-boat expedition with Lindbergh) was at that time a trustee of the Audubon Society. In the early 1950s he donated $5,000 for the preservation of Rasa. This started Walker's research on Isla Rasa, which was later supported with a grant from the Belvedere Scientific Fund (also related to the Bechtel family). This financial support also reached Dr. Bernardo Villa's laboratory at the Institute of Biology in Mexico's National Autonomous University (UNAM). The funds were used to maintain a biologist and a field station on the island.
The results of these investigations soon reached the Direction of Forestry and Wildlife in the Mexican Federal Government, which in the late 1950s was headed by Dr. Enrique Beltrán, an eminent Mexican conservationist. Beltrán's own interest on the issueand the public notoriety that Isla Rasa had achieved through popular publications and through the field trips of many biologistshelped to prepare the way for the first Federal Decree protecting the insular ecosystems of the Sea of Cortés. In 1964 the official governmental register (Diario Oficial de la Federación) published a decree declaring Isla Rasa a nature reserve and a refuge of migratory birds (DOF 1964).
The work at Rasa was later supported with donations from the Roy Chapman Andrews Fund at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. This and other funds helped maintain the presence of researchers and students from Bernardo Villa's laboratory on Isla Rasa . Many of these students later became leading conservationists in the Sea of Cortés. Villa's work in the early 1980s effectively combined research with conservation. One of his young students at that time, Dr. Enriqueta Velarde, decided to extend the idea to other islands of the Sea of Cortés. With the scientific support of George Lindsay and Daniel Anderson from UC Davis, and the financial and conservationist support of Spencer Beebe from The Nature Conservancy, Enriqueta Velarde, at that time at the Institute of Biology of UNAM, launched the first conservation project for the islands. The project produced, among many other applied results, the book Islas del golfo de California, printed by UNAM and the Mexican Federal Government, which was extremely influential in bringing attention to the islands and their conservation problems.
Many of the participants of this early team are now crucial players in the conservation of the Sea of Cortés. The team included, among others, Alfredo Zavala, now Baja California regional director for the reserve of the Islands of the Sea of Cortés; Jesús Ramírez Ruíz, who later eradicated introduced rodents from Isla Rasa; together with María Elena Martínez, Luis Bourillón, and Antonio Cantú, (see Bourillón et al. 1988). In many ways, it can be said that the conservation work at Isla Rasa was the catalyst that started other conservation work in the Sea of Cortés.
Chronologically, however, Isla Tiburón was the first island of the Sea of Cortés to receive official status as a protected area, through a decree published a year before that of Isla Rasa. The largest island of the Sea of Cortés, Tiburón occupies 120,800 ha. In pre-Hispanic times Tiburón was an important part of the territory of the Seri (or Cun Ca'ac, in their own language) Indians (Felger and Moser 1985). Because of this, the island is not only an important natural site, but also harbors important historic, archaelogic, and cultural elements. Although in the 20th Century the Seri have not actually lived in the island, they have always used it as their main fishing camp and have always considered it part of their tribal land.
On March 15, 1963, Tiburón was decreed a Wildlife Refuge and Nature Reserve by President Adolfo López Mateos (DOF 1963). This first decree was issued as a result of an initiative by Enrique Beltrán. The ruling, however, was based on biological and ecological grounds, and failed to take into consideration the needs and demands of the Cun Ca'ac People. Seven years later, in 1970, the Secretary of the Agrarian Reform gave the Seri formal possession of 88,800 ha of Tiburón Island as part of a total of 91,322 ha of ejido land allotment that the tribe received. This was the first recognition by the Federal Government of the Seri's right to their ancestral land. On February 11, 1975, a decree was issued by President Luis Echeverría, restoring Tiburón Island to the Seri People as part of their communal property. Although this decree was issued as part of a series of governmental actions to empower native peoples within their traditional lands, it also had conservationist implications. The decree established that the coastal waters of the island could be used only by the Seri, and by their Fishing Cooperative, the Sociedad Cooperativa de la Producción Pesquera (INE 1993), and declared it off-limits for other fishermen.
Text adapted from the conservation chapter of the book Island Biogeography in the Sea of Cortés, a forthcoming volume edited by Ted Case, Martin Cody, and Exequiel Ezcurra. The chapter was authored by Luis Bourillon, Antonio Cantú, Exequiel Ezcurra, María Elena Martínez, and Alejandro Robles.
Photograph of terns on Isla Tiburon by Bradford Hollingsworth
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