[Ocean Oasis Conservation] Imágen Satelital de la Península de Baja California y el golfo de California See Spanish version
[The Northern Gulf]
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The Preservation of the Alto Golfo

From the mid-fifties it has become well known that the Upper Sea of Cortés (known in Spanish as the Alto Golfo) and the delta of the Colorado River are important sites for the reproduction and breeding of many species of birds and fish. This very productive region, however, has been under heavy fishing pressure. In 1975, the totoaba fish (Totoaba macdonaldi) was facing extinction through over-harvesting. This problem forced the Federal Government to decree a moratorium for totoaba harvest in the Sea of Cortés.

Other problems, however, kept mounting. In the mid-eighties marine mammalogists started showing a strong concern on the population status of the vaquita porpoise (Phocoena sinus), which is endemic to the Upper Gulf. The vaquita is indeed a very rare marine mammal. Described in 1958, only a few specimens have been studied. The occurrence of vaquita specimens as by-catch in gill nets in the Upper Gulf started to signal an alert on Mexican and international conservation groups.

In the early nineties, the population of vaquita was estimated in less than five hundred. The vaquita was classified as endangered, and the International Whaling Commission labeled it as one of the marine mammals with the highest conservation priority in the world. It was then that the Mexican Federal Government created, through the Secretary of Fisheries, the "Technical Committee for the Protection of the Totoaba and the Vaquita" (Comité Técnico para la Preservación de la Totoaba y la Vaquita), with the purpose of evaluating and studying the issue, and recommending adequate measures for the conservation of both endangered species. Dr. Bernardo Villa, one of the Mexican biologists who had dedicated the most time to studying the fauna of the Sea of Cortés was named President of the Committee, which enjoyed the participation of leading Mexican biologists and conservationists. Dr. Samuel Ocaña, formerly governor of Sonora and a devoted conservationist, was appointed technical secretary of the group. After a few sessions, it became evident that serious disagreements existed between the members of the committee. While some members favored immediate action to protect the Upper Gulf of California from the devastating effects of overfishing, others were of the opinion that regulating fisheries in any way would harm the local economy.

In June, 1992, an international meeting was organized in San Diego by the University of California Mexico-US Program to discuss two conservation issues of great relevance for marine mammals: the problem of dolphin by-catch in Mexican tuna fisheries, and the totoaba-vaquita extinction threat. The meeting was called by Arturo Gómez Pompa, a professor at UC Riverside, and also at that time special advisor on environmental matters for the President of Mexico. Thus, the problem of overfishing in the Sea of Cortés started to show in the international arena, harming Mexico's reputation on conservation and natural resource management.

In 1992, a severe crisis struck the fishermen of El Golfo de Santa Clara and Puerto Peñasco, in Sonora, and of San Felipe, in Baja California. Their shrimp catches had fallen precipitously (Arvizu 1987), and the fishermen blamed the federal authorities in general, and the Secretary of Fisheries in particular, for failing to enforce fishing bans to allow the recovery of the resource. The idea started to grow among the fishermen that the sea had to rest and its fisheries had to recover.

In the summer of 1992, the Technical Committee met in Hermosillo, Sonora. In this meeting, both the Director General of Natural Resources (Dirección General de Aprovechamiento Ecológico de los Recursos Naturales) of Mexico's National Institute of Ecology, Exequiel Ezcurra, and Arturo Gómez Pompa, expressed their support to the idea of establishing a natural protected area in the Upper Gulf. Most members of the Committee showed sympathy for the proposal, but the representatives of the National Institute of Fisheries expressed their complete opposition. As a result, it was decided to request that the Centro Ecológico de Sonora (CES) and the Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo de los Recursos Naturales de Sonora (CIDESON) conduct a feasibility study for a Biosphere Reserve.

Towards the end of 1992, the study was ready. The next step was to reach the approval and the consensus of the fishing communities in El Golfo de Santa Clara, Puerto Peñasco, and San Felipe, as well as the ejido communities in the delta of the Colorado River itself. The first months of 1993 were employed in discussing with these communities the costs and benefits of a protected area. Gradually, the people in the area started first to accept and later to support the idea. In March, 1993, Sven Olof Lindblad, owner of Lindblad Special Expeditions, donated a week of his boat the "Sea Bird" for conservation projects. In collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund, the National Institute of Ecology from Mexico's Federal Government used the opportunity to invite businessmen, scientists, conservationists, social leaders from the small fisheries, and traditional authorities from the indigenous peoples around the Sea of Cortés, and to bring all these sectors together to discuss the issues around the sustainable management of the region. As a result of this cruise, a joint declaration was issued, signed by all the sectors invited, urging the Federal Government to protect the habitat of the vaquita by declaring a marine reserve in the Upper Gulf. Finally, the project was presented to the Secretary of Social Development in the Federal Government, Luis Donaldo Colosio, who was a native of Northern Sonora and showed great interest in the idea. With the support of Colosio, the project moved forward.

On June 10th, 1993, in an event at Cerro Prieto, a volcanic mountain in the Gran Desierto near Puerto Peñasco, the President of Mexico decreed the establishment of the Biosphere Reserve of the Upper Gulf of California and Delta of the Colorado River (Reserva de la Biosfera del Alto golfo de California y Delta del Río Colorado, see DOF 1993). The project had wide support from both the local population and conservation groups. Important decision makers attended the ceremony, including many cabinet members from the Mexican Federal Government, the Governors of Sonora, Baja California, and Arizona, the US Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, and the traditional governor of the Tohono O'Odham people, whose lands extend on both sides of the Mexico-US border.

The objectives of the establishment of this reserve were the conservation of endangered species both from the Sea of Cortés and the Colorado estuary, including the vaquita, the totoaba, the desert pupfish, and the Yuma clapper rail. The establishment of the reserve was also intended to protect the ecological processes of reproduction and breeding of many species in the zone. Perhaps more importantly, this was the first marine reserve established in Mexico. In spite of the opposition of the Fisheries authorities, it opened the way for new marine protected areas in the Sea of Cortés, in the Mexican Pacific Ocean, and in the other coasts of Mexico. Specifically, it opened the door for the discussion on the possibility of protecting the waters surrounding each of the islands in the Sea of Cortés. Although this measure has not yet been achieved, the Upper Gulf debate made these discussions an ongoing process.

Continue to Midriff Islands: Isla Tiburón

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.

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