Marine reserves success story: Cabo Pulmo, Mexico

Posted by Gemma Freeman — 30 August 2011 at 2:30pm - Comments
A sea lion swims near Greenpeace divers with the banner "Marine Reserves Now" in
All rights reserved. Credit: © Greenpeace / Alex Hofford
A sea lion swims near Greenpeace divers with the banner "Marine Reserves Now" in the Gulf of California

Greenpeace Mexico oceans campaigner Alejandro Olivera, reveals how the thriving 20-year old marine reserve at Cabo Pulmo, which has seen fish increase by 463 per cent in ten years to become the world's most successful, is now under threat from massive local development...

Twenty years ago, fishermen near Cabo Pulmo - the northern-most and one of the most important coral reefs in the east Pacific, a few hours from Los Cabos - noticed that they had to go further from the coast to catch fish and that annual catches - and profits - were declining. So they decided to trade in their fishing nets for scuba diving gear.

The local communities supported the shift from fishing to eco-tourism and the area became the best-enforced no-take areas (meaning fish aren’t removed from a designated area of water) in the Gulf of California, nicknamed the 'world’s aquarium' by Jacques Cousteau because of its unique range of marine biodiversity. (You may remember Greenpeace’s 2006 ship expedition to the Gulf of California.) The people of Cabo Pulmo still believe that showing a fish to a tourist is more profitable than fishing it.

Once the Cabo Pulmo reef area was declared off-limits to fishing, an amazing recovery began. Marine life around the reef began to flourish and the area was designated a national marine reserve by the Mexican government, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and named a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar convention.

Mexican scientists recently released the results of a research project (pdf), showing that the increase in fish populations in Cabo Pulmo in the last decade is the largest increase ever measured in a marine reserve! This increase is likely due to a combination of social and ecological factors, such as strong community support for the protection of these waters and effective enforcement. In a period of 10 years, fish biomass increased 463 per cent.

What’s even more incredible is that you can see the results of this change in Cabo Pulmo first-hand. I've dived in the Caribbean, in the Gulf of Mexico and in the east Pacific, and Cabo Pulmo is the most amazing diving location I’ve experienced.

I've never seen so many large groups on a dive, let alone all swimming together. During my last dive in Cabo Pulmo, I suddenly felt a cloud above me and when I looked up a huge school of jacks began to surround me, and we had to rise through them to reach the water’s surface. It is strange that the fish in Cabo Pulmo are so used to the presence of divers that you can get very close to them, as if they were domesticated. It was marvellous.

Unfortunately, this underwater paradise - which has recovered and is thriving - is now under threat. Earlier this year, the Mexican government approved a huge coastal development project next to Cabo Pulmo marine reserve named Cabo Cortes. A Spanish development company is hoping to build a new city in this semi-desert area that will have more than 27,000 rooms, two golf courses and a marina that can hold 490 yachts - a resort nearly on the scale of Cancún.

Greenpeace Spain and Greenpeace Mexico have been campaigning to protect this gem in the World’s Aquarium. So far, construction of the Cabo Cortes project has not started and we will not let it happen, as the Cabo Pulmo marine reserve has brought significant economic benefits to the region. Community-managed marine reserves are a real solution and a better alternative to unsustainable coastal development, which could lead to fisheries collapse in the Gulf of California and beyond.

If we want ample fish and healthy oceans tomorrow, we need more marine reserves like the one in Cabo Pulmo today. Greenpeace is campaigning globally to change fishing practices and create a global network of marine reserves covering 40% of the world's oceans. These are necessary steps to restore our oceans - which provide food and jobs for millions - to health as the overfishing crisis continues.

Greenpeace México oceans campaigner Alejandro Olivera onboard the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise during last year's expedition to the Arctic, who works in our Mexico office, D.F.

Find out more about Greenpeace UK's work on marine reserves:

>> Fashion and fish? Selfridges' Project Ocean is a powerful partnership
>> Guest blog: Britain's Secret Seas - by Frank Pope
>> And then there were none: John West changes its tuna to drop FADs
>> Common Fisheries Policy reform: glimmer of light in a sea of darkness
>> Projecting change for our oceans in South Korea
>> African Voices UK video: speaking out against EU ocean plundering

About Gemma Freeman

Web Producer at Greenpeace UK, writer, photographer, blogger, surfer, snowboarder, cyclist, vegetarian and geek.

Follow Greenpeace UK