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Bite-Back September 2007

The Sea of Cortez, described by Jaques Cousteau as "the aquarium of the world" and once one of the ultimate destinations for divers, is now entering the final phase in the collapse of its marine life. The Sea of Cortez has always been a free for all for fishermen and has become an environmental tragedy brought about by a combination of greed, corruption and government indifference. Twenty-five years ago this sea was the most prolific in the world, home to sperm whales and giant pacific mantas, shoals of hammerheads as well as thresher and whale sharks. Bountiful coral reefs, massive sardine shoals and striped marlin, dorado and turtles were all common. Yet a succession of destructive fishing practices has managed to remove around 90% of its fish life in that short time, with even itís sea lion colonies a thing of the past, and it continues unabated today.

The arrival in the 1970s of the inshore monofilament gillnet kicked of this decline. A highly effective, but totally indiscriminate means of fishing, the gillnet reduced yellowtail mackerel and roosterfish numbers so quickly that within four years of its arrival the famous La Paz roosterfish fishing competition had to be abandoned. By the 1980s there were reckoned to be 20,000 pangas (small fishing boats) using them there.

Then in the 1980ís the drift gillnet arrived and the destruction accelerated. Soon the huge runs of sea bass were gone and by the 1990s, with millions of tons of sardines being caught every year, most of which were ground down for chicken feed, the sardine population collapsed, along with the larger fish that relied on them. Gillnets kill everything that gets tangled in them and these vast drifting nets also took out mantas, sperm whales, turtles and sharks in great quantities. That saw the end of the whale shark rearing grounds and the seamounts of La Paz, famous for its huge hammerhead shoals, were soon draped in abandoned nets.

In the 1990ís the long lining fleets arrived, chasing the remaining swordfish populations. As billfish numbers reduced they wangled permission to go into the 50 mile limit Ďto target sharksí. Quite by chance they also hauled up huge numbers of sailfish and dorado while they were there.

As more fisherman began to chase less fish a new method arrived, the hookah diver. Able to stay underwater for hours, they could reach the still abundant shoals of smaller reef fish. Having positioned a gillnet they herded the fish towards it, ensuring that they got nearly everything from that section of reef. By this method a single panga could get 600-1000 kilos of fish in a day and soon the reefs of the Loretto Marine Park started to look very empty indeed.

But still some of the bigger reef fish, like groupers and parrot fish, would get away, that is until the latest idea took hold. They are known as Ďpistolerosí and are hookah divers who work at night armed with spearguns. In the beginning they were landing over 1200 kilos in a single night, with 80% of their catch being parrot fish. By now we are in the final phase and the latest method, proliferating all along the coast, and simply designed to catch any strays the others missed, are fish traps. When they get lost, as they frequently do, they go on working, as do gill nets, for years. As fish are attracted in by the ones already caught, they themselves then become the bait. In the 1990s the Mexican President declared a large area as the Loretto Marine Park, a totally meaningless gesture that didnít even give pause to the fishermen. Then some years ago the United Nations declared the Sea of Cortez a Protected World Heritage Site. Perhaps they just donít understand the meaning of the word protected because that made no difference either.

However nature has miraculous powers of recovery and it isnít too late. Given proper protection it could recover if it happened soon enough and the will was there. The Mexican government is looking at the problem now and three simple measures could start that recovery. Ban gillnets and hookah fishing, strictly enforce the fifty mile limit and force the larger boats to fit vessel monitoring systems, a tried, tested and cheap way of knowing exactly where they are.

Urge the Mexican President Felipe Calderon to move quickly on felipe.calderon@presidencia.gob.mx and copy it to the Environment Secretary Juan Quesada on c.secretario@semarnat.gob.mx and Belinda Cedillo on bcedillot@conapesca.sagarpa.mx

John Nightingale