How a Baja fishing co-op is overcoming the effects of climate change
“Where are the kelp beds?” we wondered, looking outside the cockpit.
The cruising guide stated: “Extensive kelp fields surround the reefs on the south-western portion of the island…” It directed sailors to keep clear of hazards including thick kelp forests. We had no such problem — the warm waters this year prevented the growth of kelp.
With almost religious fervor, we celebrated every degree in rising water temperatures. We look forward to tropical waters were we could swim without thick neoprene rubber. However during our visit to the offshore islands of Baja we learned how warmer water is affecting local fishermen in ways we didn’t expect.
Island fishermen at the tip of Baja’s largest indentation, Vizcaino Bay, harvest many of the same species commercially important at California’s Channel Islands. Abundant lobster, abalone, and sea cucumbers – along with various fish – are managed by cooperative fisheries with well-organized panga fleets, patrol boats to prevent poachers, and village assemblies. These have resulted in prosperous communities in the middle of extremely arid areas.
One community we visited, Isla Natividad, is considered one of the most successful fishing cooperatives in all the 11,000 kilometers of Mexican coastline. The islanders manage their fisheries as a cooperative organization with the help of biologist advisors. They work with top universities from La Paz, Ensenada, and California, including Stanford. They are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council for their artesian lobster fishery, have a decompression chamber for divers, and even sport an amphibious vehicle.
After surfing the legendary wave of Isla Natividad, we went to shore and met researchers from COBI — a Mexican non-profit working on the conservation of marine biodiversity and the establishment of sustainable fisheries by empowering local communities.
Since Isla Natividad is on the fringe of the range of many cold water species, the region is especially vulnerable to changing climate. Warm waters are negatively affecting most species except lobster. Episodes of warmer waters and hypoxia (low oxygen) tend to stress species and kelp forests, reducing the productivity of ecosystems and their populations.
COBI is helping the cooperative understand the effects of climate change and what they can do about it. One innovative solution they are considering is a multi-species aquaculture project. This would be the first one in Mexico, and could help them hedge against the forecasted affects of climate change.
After sailing for days to distant, offshore spots in Mexico, we were not expecting to see island fishermen working independently with biologists and researchers in such an organized fashion. We were impressed with our talk with COBI; and then a subsequent visit to the village in Isla Natividad, where a local family showed us a delicious lobster dinner.
Although we continue to cheer for the warming waters as we head south, the value of cold water is now clearer than ever. Even if the waters in the Vizcaino Peninsula warm and affect fisheries, there’s a good chance the cooperatives will be ready for it, given their preparation. This resourcefulness is a great perspective to remember from this remote, beautiful, windswept part of the world.