Restoring Mexico's Gulf of California

We bring catch shares to troubled fisheries on Baja Peninsula

Nourished by nutrient-rich currents, the unique Gulf of California is home to a stunning array of marine mammals and fish. The Gulf of California region supplies roughly 77% Mexico's seafood.

But the gulf's fisheries are not what they once were. Like in many of the world's most productive fishing grounds, there are too many boats chasing too few fish. Though fishing harder, further from shore and for longer periods than ever before, fishermen are catching less and revenues are diminishing.

That is why Environmental Defense Fund is working to transform Gulf of California fisheries. In collaboration with fishing communities, fisheries managers, academia and other civil society organizations, we seek to implement an innovative approach for managing fisheries, called catch shares, for selected fisheries.

Cradle for sea life and an economic engine

Wedged between Baja California and mainland Mexico, this 932-mile-long body of water supports one of the most diverse marine ecosystems on Earth. Its shallow estuaries and coastal lagoons, mangrove forests and deep ocean trenches harbor six whale species and five of the world's eight sea turtle species. This outstanding diversity is recognized the world over, and every year the region is also visited by tens of thousands of tourists from all over the world who come to dive, sail, snorkel and swim in these waters.

Video: EDF Mexico scoping trip to learn about the Curvina fishery in the Upper Gulf of California:

The gulf is also Mexico's most important fishing grounds. With 900 known species of fish, gulf fisheries are a crucial source of food and jobs for local communities and are woven into coastal cultural traditions. More than three quarters (77%) of the country's seafood, from sardines and herring to shrimp and snapper, comes from the Gulf of California.

Fishermen fish harder but still reel in smaller catches.

Starting in the 1970s, fishing effort dramatically increased. While the number of large industrial fishing boats has stabilized around 2,200 vessels and is even beginning to decline, the number of traditional small skiffs (known as pangas) used by artisanal fishermen continues to increase. An official estimate places their number around 80,000, but the exact number is probably significantly higher.

Illegal and irregular fishing is one of the region's biggest problems: we estimate that some 6 kilograms of unreported catch for every 10 that are legally caught and landed. This not only constitutes a heavy burden on the region's ecosystems, it also represents a serious obstacle for legal, responsible fishermen, who must compete under highly unequal conditions.

Today, most of the large finfish sought for their delicious meat, such as the endangered totoaba, black marlin and swordfish, have been seriously overfished, and fishermen have diversified the effort to include species like sea cucumbers, crabs and clams — even jellyfish — to supply an ever-increasing global demand. The scientific community has been unable to keep up with this shift in effort, and very little is known about the biology and stock status of many of the species that are caught.

Though fishing harder, many fishermen can barely get enough to feed their families. One crab fisherman said that even though he travels twice as far, he needs 150 traps where once he needed 30 to catch the same number of crabs. We see this same phenomenon occurring in other fisheries and other regions. In many places, fishermen have few other options to earn a living, as the arid land around the gulf is ill suited for activities like farming, livestock or touristic development.

A fisherman brings in the catch in Altata, Sinaloa

Photo by: Cristina Villanueva

A fisherman brings in the day's catch in Altata, Sinaloa

A fisherman brings in the day's catch in Altata, Sinaloa

Innovative system offers hope for fishermen

The door opened in 2009 to transform Gulf of California fisheries. Both the Mexican government and fishermen wanted to resolve conflicts and end wasteful, destructive fishing practices. Catch shares, which have renewed ailing fisheries in other parts of the world, offers hope for restoring Mexico's fisheries.

Catch shares give fishermen a financial stake in the fishery and an incentive to become better stewards of this vital resource. Key decision makers from Mexico's national fishing commission to leaders of local fishing cooperatives have indicated their willingness try new solutions to make fisheries healthy and profitable again.

Replicable models

EDF works, directly or through our partners, in 8 fisheries in the Gulf of California region, which include several species in different types of ecosystems. They are mostly small-scale, although we have recently begun work with the industrial Hake fishery.

In the Upper Gulf of California, we have made great advances in the Gulf Curvina fishery, which is undergoing a transition period to management under catch shares. During this period, the fishery, previously known for its chaotic conditions and dramatic yearly price collapses, has greatly improved its conditions. Since 2012, the fishermen have been able to keep their revenue stable, and have increased it in some cases, while fishing roughly half of their historical average.

The complete list of fisheries where we work is this:

  • Gulf Corvina and Geoduck in the Upper Gulf of California
  • Finfish in Puerto Libertad, Sonora
  • Swimming Crab and Penshell Scallops in Bahía Kino, Sonora
  • Lion's Paw Scallop in Guerrero Negro, Baja California Sur
  • Finfish in the Punta Coyote-San Cosme Corridor, Baja California Sur
  • Clams and Oysters in Altata, Sinaloa

We believe that, through examples like these, the word will get out that Catch Shares work, and more and more fishing communities will want to experience their benefits first hand.

Building ground-breaking partnerships

Building on our decade-long work to promote and design catch share programs, EDF has forged ground-breaking partnerships with:

With Catch Shares, I have seen things happen in my community that I never thought possible: dialogue, trust and unity in all my colleagues for a common good: Fishing.

Manuel, Upper Gulf Fisherman

Our La Paz office

Scott Edwards, director of EDF's Latin America and Caribbean Oceans program, heads the La Paz office.