“The Aquarium of the World” at Risk

The best marine conservation success story in Mexico is Cabo Pulmo, a small no-take marine reserve in the Gulf of California. As reported in the May issue of National Geographic Magazine (in Spanish), 15 years ago Cabo Pulmo was no different from any other reef in the Gulf of California: most fish were small, and the large groupers and manta rays that populated the stories of the old timers seemed just a dream. But in 1995 the reefs and surrounding waters were protected, and people stopped fishing there. In these 15 years, the Cabo Pulmo reefs have experienced the most extraordinary recovery ever reported by marine science.

Now Cabo Pulmo harbors large groupers and snappers, sharks, manta rays, marlin, tuna, and five of the world’s seven endangered species of sea turtles. While the rest of the Gulf of California remained depleted (or got worse), the biomass of fish in Cabo Pulmo increased by more than 3 tonnes per hectare – an unparalleled recovery. Only a handful of uninhabited, unfished coral reefs in the Pacific have so many fish. When fish came back, divers came in to see what the Gulf of California was like before human exploitation – which Jacques Cousteau once called “the aquarium of the world.” Now fishermen have improved their catches around the limits of the marine reserve, because the now abundant fish spill over and help replenish adjacent fishing grounds. Because of all that, the local community can live off their natural capital by keeping fish alive in the water, and enjoy a standard of living much superior to most other coastal areas in Mexico.

However, Cabo Pulmo is now under serious threat. In March, Mexico’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources approved a proposal to develop a mega-resort called “Cabo Cortés.” This development would include 15 large hotels with over 30,000 hotel rooms, three to five golf courses, a 490-slip marina, desalination and water treatment plants, a private jet strip, and other infrastructure, adjacent to and directly north of Cabo Pulmo. Scientists and conservationists believe that the influx of mass tourism and population growth will put unsustainable pressure on the protected reefs – through changes in water quality, turbidity, pollution, fertilizers and chemicals used on the golf courses, and illegal fishing. According to experts in the region, the environmental impact assessment provided by the developers does not fulfill rigorous scientific requirements.

Cabo Pulmo is the jewel of the Gulf of California, and one of the few ocean stories Mexico can be proud of. It is an ecological and economic success, and it has fostered social progress in the community. It is a bright spot to be repeated elsewhere in Mexico. The Mexican government should reconsider its decision to allow building that mega-resort. Mexico already has many mega-developments (many of which have become economic and environmental disasters), but how many Cabo Pulmos do they have?

 

Changing Planet

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Marine ecologist Dr. Enric Sala is a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence who combines science, exploration and media to help restore marine life. Sala’s scientific publications are used for conservation efforts such as the creation of marine protected areas. 2005 Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellow, 2006 Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation, 2008 Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum.