Field Notes from La Paz

October 24, 2011

Day 14. I’m about halfway through my first research trip here in Mexico’s Gulf of California. As an environmental anthropologist, I am interested in how people (scientists, managers, fishermen, and fishing cooperatives) understand and respond to changing conditions in their fisheries. Fisheries management in the Gulf varies a great deal by species and geography. I’ve spent my days so far interviewing fishermen, managers, and fishing cooperative leaders about distinct spots in Baja and the Gulf: La Paz, Loreto, Santa Rosalia, and el Pacifico Norte. The latter spot is one of the few places in region known for its successful fisheries management. The lobster fishery in this spot is the only certified sustainable fishery in this area. Armed with many questions about how things were in this fishery in the past, I had the good fortune to meet with one of the two fishermen still alive from the early days of Punta Abreojos’ fishing cooperative: Don Felix.

To reach Don Felix, we drove from our base of Santa Rosalia, an old mining town on the Gulf, into Baja’s interior. Passing dust tornados in the near distance, we arrived at the cactus-laden ranches from whence Punta Abreojos’ first fishers came. Before permanently settling on the coast, they traveled three days by donkey to reach the lobster-rich waters of the Pacific, and then returned to ranching in San Ignacio. Don Felix told us about the days when lobster were plentiful and labor was scarce, unlike today when many people would like to enter the lucrative lobster and abalone fisheries of the Pacific Norte. He explained that in the 1930s, when the Mexican government granted to fishing cooperatives exclusive access to certain valuable species, their cooperative was issued a large zone, much larger than they have today. In these days, they didn’t guard against outsiders encroaching in their territory, as there was enough to go around and they caught whatever they could sell. It didn’t matter if the lobsters were small or berried, the market could absorb them.

So what instigated the change in management strategies to make it the certified fishery that we see today? Did the community see declines in their stock, did the market demand a certain size of lobster, did the state put certain limits on the fishery? According to Don Felix, these processes intermeshed in the lobster fishery. The number of people entering the fishery increased and more cooperatives formed and were granted their own fishing concessions. As this happened, the fishing concession in Punta Abreojos grew smaller to make room for these new cooperatives. The market also demanded large sizes of lobster and the state imposed a minimum size of lobster. At the same time the community saw the number of lobster diminish so imposed a set of rules for their sustainable capture.

These are several other stories where communities have taken action to create sustainable fisheries in the Gulf. More soon…

For more on the Leslie Lab’s work in Mexico, please see the project website.