The Gulf of California has long been renowned as one of the most productive areas in the world. However, in recent decades, many Mexicans relocated to the Gulf coast to work in the burgeoning fishing and tourism industries, and over time, fish stocks dwindled and collapsed. Regulations were not enforced, so that the fishery sector grew with essentially no controls. As a result, total production dropped, and fishers had to search further and harder to find fish.
Fishing communities in Baja California Sur, like the small village of Cabo Pulmo, were threatened as fewer and fewer fish were landed. Keystone species like sharks, the marine ecosystem’s apex predators, disappeared, and coral reefs became covered in algae and experienced frequent bleaching events. Conflicts erupted over access to ever-more-limited resources.
The citizens of Cabo Pulmo worried about whether any ocean and coastal resources would be left for their children. Ultimately, they decided to take action and work to establish a protected area around Cabo Pulmo’s reef—banning fishing to allow the reef and fish stocks to recover. Using the Mexican General Law for Ecological Equilibrium and Environmental Protection (LGEEPA), the village of Cabo Pulmo, supported by international scientists, lobbied the Mexican government to have the reef legally declared a Natural Protected Area. In 1995, they were successful.
A decade after the protected area was established, scientists were astounded by the results:
[Fish] were so abundant that we could not see each other if we were fifteen meters apart. We saw more sharks in one dive at Cabo Pulmo than in 10 years of diving throughout the Gulf of California!
- Enric Sala, National Geographic Explorer in Residence
Protected from human exploitation, the coral reef of Cabo Pulmo became once again an oasis of rich biodiversity. Fish biomass increased by 460%, similar to that of pristine coral reefs that have never been fished. In addition, whale sharks, manta rays, humpback whales and endangered sea turtle populations rebounded. Today, divers from around the world visit Cabo Pulmo to see the extraordinary marine life there, and local fishers reap the benefits of replenished fish stocks that swim outside the Natural Protected Area. Local incomes have improved substantially.
The success of Cabo Pulmo is recognized worldwide as living proof that good ocean management can restore marine biodiversity and support local economies. The story of Cabo Pulmo National Park demonstrates how local leadership and strong community involvement can successfully use federal laws to protect vital resources. While this process was not easy for the people of Cabo Pulmo, the ecological and economic results of their tenacity have been stunning.
For Cabo Pulmo, the main legal outcomes to date are:
• An official legal framework for Cabo Pulmo National Park was established in June of 1995, when the Mexican government promulgated a decree creating Cabo Pulmo National Park. Today, Cabo Pulmo National Park follows the management plan officially established in 2009.
• New institutions, and new monitoring and enforcement system were established, including designation by the Mexican government of a Park Director in 2007. The local community is very involved in the Park’s monitoring and enforcement system.
• International recognition, including the declaration of Cabo Pulmo in 2004 as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. In 2008, Cabo Pulmo was designated a Ramsar wetland site of international importance.
More details on the history of these legal protections can be found here.