Log from the Sea of Cortez

Angela Kemsley

Desolate. Boring. Barren. At first glance these words seem the perfect descriptor of the long, flat drive along Mexican Highway 40 through the Sonoran Desert. Despite the multitude of countries and towns I have visited as a field ecologist, I found myself nervous for this little jaunt across the border. I had spent months poring over the literature, reading anything I could get my hands on about these small artisanal fishing villages we were about to visit, but still I did not know what to expect. Would I be welcome? Would this trip prove as worthwhile as I hoped?

It is fitting that the first portion of my trip began in the desert. Desolate, boring, and barren are often the first three words that come to mind when one thinks about the desert. In fact, after working in Anza Borrego Desert State Park for a few years, I can tell you that many San Diegans do not realize San Diego even has a desert! However, for those in the know, the desert is a place of life and wonder. Go for a hike, look under a rock, examine the cavernous hillsides and you will soon see that the desert is a far cry from desolate, boring, and barren. While not our final destination, it is appropriate that my first experiences with this trip were that of a place that is much more than it seems.

My first exposure to the Upper Gulf of California was in John Steinbeck’s work Log from the Sea of Cortez published in 1951. In many ways life in the small artisanal fishing villages along the Upper Gulf coast has changed little over the past 65 years. Since the early 20th century these small towns have relied on the fishing industry as their primary source of income. While tourism is starting to take hold and provide a viable economic alternative, the fishing industry remains a centerpiece of life in the Upper Gulf of California.

Residents of these villages take small boats called pangas out into the gulf to fish for shrimp, totoaba, corvina, and other fin fish. The most popular tool used among these artisanal fishermen is the gillnet. However, despite being incredibly effective, these gillnets have an awful ecological price. Gill nets are what is known as non-discriminatory, which means they will catch not just the target species, but pretty much anything that is unfortunate enough to cross their paths.

One of the most lucrative fisheries in the Upper Gulf is that of the totoaba, a large fish of the drum family. Driven to the brink of extinction, the Mexican government was prompted to place a ban on the totoaba fishery. Despite the ban, totoaba is the subject of a rampant black market in China and Hong Kong as the swim bladder may be sold for up to $8500/kg.

To make matters worse, the non-discriminatory gillnets used in the illegal totoaba fishery often catch a tiny, cute little porpoise called the vaquita. The world’s smallest cetacean, the vaquita population has plummeted to around 60 individuals. Researchers estimate that the vaquita is likely to be extinct in two to three years.

So what can we do? We do not want to let the vaquita and other native species go extinct, but we still want the fishermen to be able to feed their families. This is a long researched and debated dilemma with no obvious solution. Scientists and policy-makers struggle...and when scientists and policy-makers need help who do we turn to? Students!

As a Master’s Student through the Advanced Inquiry Program at Miami University, partnered with San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG), I had the unique opportunity to do a Graduate Research Internship with Samantha Young, one of the superstars of SDZG’s Conservation Education team. I joined Samantha on her Ridge to Reef program, an innovative project that is leading the fight to end extinction in Northern Mexico.

Samantha has partnered with the talented team at CEDO Intercultural, a bi-national conservation non-profit operating out of Arizona and northern Mexico. Identifying a need to save the unique native animals of Northern Mexico, including the vaquita and other aquatic animals of the Gulf of California, CEDO decided to mobilize the students in the area.

With the help of SDZG, CEDO ran a contest for teams of middle and high school students from the three main fishing villages of the Upper Gulf of California: San Felipe, El Golfo de Santa Clara, and Puerto Peñasco. Each group of approximately ten students were asked to identify a conservation issue related to the fisheries of the Upper Gulf of California, research it in the literature, create a conservation plan based on their findings, and produce a creative, professional display.

The culmination of all the students’ hard work was the Certamen Ambiental, the awards ceremony of the year! Thirteen teams gathered early Saturday morning in the courtyard of the white, mission-style headquarters located right on the beach in Puerto Peñasco. The students busied themselves for the next few hours setting up their displays and readying themselves for the day full of awards, cultural presentations, and political panels.

As usual, these young leaders amazed me. There were projects related to pollution, overfishing, and poaching. There was a display on aquaponics and another on drones. There was a display built of PVC pipe featuring a gillnet and the best looking lobster I have ever seen. There were projects with pie charts full of original data and a couple featuring community interviews conducted by the students. There were even iPads and TV screens in which the students could showcase their interviews and work.

Every team present received a swag bag full of goodies from both CEDO and SDZG featuring animal fact sheets, stickers, stuffed animals, and of course, a centennial water bottle! The two winning teams even received a complimentary overnight trip to the San Diego Zoo.

The fun was not limited just to the awards, as the event featured local dance teams, items for sale by local artisans, speeches by several local representatives including the mayor himself, an original play by a local school group, and even a reading of the original work “Memorias de una Totoaba” by local high school student, Dulce Elena Martinez Barerra.

The event hosted over 300 students, families, and members of the public all of whom left with smiles, a feeling of ownership over the conservation of the natural areas around their homes, and a sense of empowerment that they really could make a difference.

In the end this trip turned out to be even more than I had hoped for. One could hardly call a single moment of our trip boring. When I was not interacting with the school groups I was conversing with Samantha, one of the SDZG experts pioneering the fields of conservation education and socio-ecological field work. When I was not sitting in on stakeholder interviews I was learning from the staff of CEDO, one of the many strategic partnerships that SDZG has forged through their more than 140 conservation projects in over 35 countries throughout the world.

The main take-away from this experience is that San Diego Zoo Global really is leading the fight to end extinction. I have seen firsthand that their conservation projects really do work and really are helping to save species and enrich the lives of local community members. Most importantly, perhaps, I came away with a sense that I, myself, can really make a difference in the fight to end extinction. I can be a hero for wildlife and so can you. It’s not just a mantra, it is the truth. The success of projects like Ridge to Reef and the excitement seen on each and every one of the students’ faces at the Certamen Ambiental proves it.