In Cabo Pulmo, Mexico, the local fishermen are the guardians of the 12,000-acre marine reserve they fought to have established in 1995.
In San Diego, 800 miles to the north, recreational fishermen are the chief complaining party as the state Department of Fish and Game considers creating a 4,500-acre reserve off La Jolla. The rancor is a fully expected consequence of a general reconsideration of the Marine Life Protection Act that could culminate in December. That's when Fish and Game Commission members are scheduled to announce their selections among several proposed boundary scenarios. Some of the reserves proposed in this review are located where there is no marine life of substance to protect. Well-played, fishing interests.
An economist, anthropologist and sociologist could collaborate on a book-length treatise about why American and Mexican fishermen have such polar-opposite views about the value of marine reserves. It gets to the heart of the difference in attitudes between developed and developing countries. It is of a piece with the current narrative about how divided Americans are at the outset of the 21st century as we reassess what we think counts as rights, who gets those rights and what's a reasonable price to pay for them.
But Octavio Aburto-Oropeza, a marine ecologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego is able to frame the issue simply. First, though, some background:
Cabo Pulmo, a neighbor of tourist destination Cabo San Lucas on the tip of Baja, was itself a fishing Mecca for most of the 20th century. What it was known for would change every few decades: It was great for shark fishing until the sharks went away; it was great for dynamite fishing until the shoreline ecosystems couldn't take it anymore; for a while it was great for spearfishing until the day it wasn't because there were no fish left to spear.
There were the people who fished Cabo Pulmo who came via airplane looking for trophy fish and then there were the locals who fished so they could have something to eat that night. The latter were the people who lobbied for creation of the reserve.
Aburto-Oropeza, who has studied the marine ecosystems of Baja California for more than a decade, notes that it wasn't easy-going for the locals at first. It takes about five years for the marine life within a reserve to return to something close to the numbers nature intended and more like a decade for the reserve to become so productive that fishing just beyond its boundaries improves as anglers catch the spillover from the oasis.
Now, though, the payoff has taken place. Diving, rather than fishing, is the main tourism draw of Cabo Pulmo. Since there are no other reserves on the cape, Cabo Pulmo is the only game in town and dive boat operators from miles away take their fares there. On a monetized basis, the seafloor within the reserve is worth significantly more than it was 20 years ago because the amount of biomass there is 200 times larger than it was 20 years ago. There's just a greater amount of valuable stuff in there now.
For Mexican fishermen at Cabo Pulmo, their lives were at stake and they took action. In San Diego, fishermen see their livelihoods at stake and they're taking an opposite action. They're similar plights but not really. In Cabo Pulmo, the supply problem is, shall we say, more acute. The fishermen there realized that if their catch was nil at the end of the day, they would not be able to go to Vons to pick up swordfish from Singapore or farm-raised salmon from Washington on their way home. They wouldn't even be able to pick up a bag of tilapia - the government cheese of the oceans - even though it was likely farmed, filleted, flash frozen and flown from a coastal fishing operation not far from where they lived.
They would just go without the protein. In San Diego, we can count our blessings that even though we're entering an era where things just always be tougher financially, most of us won't starve because there's nothing left to catch in our waters.
The fury of local sport and commercial fishing interests is understandable to an extent. The fertile waters of the La Jolla kelp forest have been a treasure chest that has produced and produced and produced, even though some of its jewels, like abalone, have been picked clean. Restoring what's left seems frightening. It forces local anglers to pick their poison, between enduring a few rebuilding seasons with no income or instead gradually rendering their favorite fishing spots worthless through their own practices. Their declining catches suggest they're already on the way toward that. The threat of foreclosure tends to discourage taking the long view, though, so for many, the latter scenario remains more appealing.
But the stakeholders determining the fate of local marine life include people not yet born who are therefore unable to attend public hearings. For these people who will live with the consequences of actions taken now, it is imperative that reserves are established in areas where they can do good. It's worth it for the local economy for legislators to try to help local fishing interests get through the painful transition years. It's not worth it to let fishermen do what they've been doing. The MPAs are an intervention meant to discourage one kind of destructive dependency. We'll be better for it. Look at the good it did for Cabo Pulmo.
Monroe is editor of UCSD's Scripps Institution of Oceanography Explorations online magazine.