Preview Three gray fish swim in front of a large coral head.

Cabo Pulmo Protected Area



The Gulf of California was long renowned as one of the most productive marine areas in the world, but overfishing in recent decades has severely degraded the area’s marine resources. Seeking jobs in the Gulf’s burgeoning fishing and tourism industries, waves of Mexicans relocated to the Gulf’s coast. Over time, fish stocks dwindled and collapsed. Regulations were not enforced due to government corruption and inefficiency. While the fishery sector grew in quasi-open access conditions, total production dropped and fishers had to search further and harder to find fish.

Fishing communities in Baja California Sur, like 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 over access to ever-more-limited resources reduced social stability.

Citizens of Cabo Pulmo worried about the future and what resources would be left for their children. They decided to take action to protect the resources they had – their idea was to establish a protected area around Cabo Pulmo’s reef, inside of which fishing would be banned. This would allow the reef and fish stocks to recover. Using the existing 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. 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

Protected from human exploitation, the coral reef of Cabo Pulmo transformed into an oasis of rich biodiversity. Fish biomass increased by 460%, bringing the reef to a level of biomass 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 fishermen reap the benefits of replenished fish stocks near the Natural Protected Area.

The impressive success of Cabo Pulmo is recognized worldwide. The main reason for this is the reef ecosystem’s incredible recovery of biomass. Cabo Pulmo is living proof that good ocean management can restore marine resources.

The main legal outcomes to date are:

  • An official legal framework for Cabo Pulmo National Park. In June of 1995, 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; new monitoring and enforcement system. The Mexican government designated a Park Director in 2007. The local community is very involved in the Park’s monitoring and enforcement system.
  • International recognition. Ten years after its official creation, Cabo Pulmo was recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and in 2008 received the designation of a Ramsar wetland site of international importance.

The story of Cabo Pulmo National Park demonstrates that local citizens with strong community involvement and leadership can successfully use federal laws to protect their resources and communities. While this was not easy for the people of Cabo Pulmo, the ecological and economic results of their tenacity have been stunning.

Legal framework supporting the initiative

Eager to have Cabo Pulmo legally recognized as a Natural Protected Area (NPA), citizens of Cabo Pulmo lobbied the Mexican government to employ the legal framework for NPAs as established by the General Law for Ecological Equilibrium and Environmental Protection (LGEEPA).

(A) Description of the Natural Protected Areas framework in the LGEEPA

The LGEEPA was enacted in 1996 as an effort to improve protection of the environment in response to rising environmental concerns. It organizes the general legal framework for NPAs in articles 44 to 77bis. The LGEEPA’s Regulation provides more details on its implementation.

Definition – Article 3 of the LGEEPA defines NPAs as areas of the national territory where the environment has not been significantly altered by human activities, and areas where the environment requires restoration and preservation efforts. The principal purposes of NPAs are to ensure sustainable development, preserve or restore the rich biodiversity of specific ecosystems, and ensure the social and economic development of populations dependent on NPA resources.

Institutions – The LGEEPA gives authority to the Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) to create, supervise and manage NPAs. The LGEEPA additionally created a National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (CONANP) to serve as a consultation and support structure for SEMARNAT. Under the LGEEPA, these institutions oversee the management and administration of NPAs while favoring the process of decentralization through the participation of states, municipalities, fisheries-centric and agriculture-centric communities, indigenous people and social organizations. SEMARNAT, through CONANP, designates a Director to oversee the day-to-day administration and management of an NPA. This Director is chosen based on his/her knowledge of the local area and of the ecosystem targeted by the NPA.

It is important to note that fishery management in Mexico is administered by a separate part of the federal government: the Department of Fisheries (CONAPESCA), which is housed under the Secretariat of agriculture and livestock (SAGARPA). Because one federal department is responsible for fisheries policy and a different federal department is responsible for NPAs, the two (fisheries and NPAs) are not managed in tandem even though they are inextricably linked. (For more information click here or here)

Rules – The LGEEPA designates, in article 65, the Management Plan as the main organizational tool of an NPA. Each NPA must have a Management Plan that details specific rules regarding (1) how natural resources will be monitored, managed, and restored; (2) which activities – exploitation of natural resources, tourism, scientific research, environmental education, etc. – can or cannot be performed in defined zones; and (3) how the Management Plan will be evaluated (LGEEPA article 66, and its Regulation).

The LGEEPA includes guidelines and procedures for determining the content of a Management Plan. One important requirement of the Plan is a zoning determination, and the LGEEPA offers a classification of different “zones” that require specific levels of protection. Core zones are designated to preserve biodiversity. In these zones, all activities that alter the ecosystem can be banned. Buffer zones are dedicated to activities that can benefit the local community without harming the ecosystem, such as fishing for local consumption. Zoning of the NPA is determined in the Management Plan.

Creation of an NPA

  1. The process starts with a preliminary study carried out by SEMARNAT, alone or in conjunction with other institutions such as universities and research centers. The preliminary study evaluates an area’s biological features, its economic resources, its traditional uses, the social conditions of local communities, and the cultural and historical characteristics of the area. The study includes a proposed management plan that addresses zoning, administration, operation, and financing.
  2. This preliminary study is made available for public consultation for 30 days. During this time, SEMARNAT also solicits the opinion of state and local governments, government agencies with jurisdiction, public and private social organizations, indigenous peoples, universities, research centers, and other institutions having an interest in the establishment, administration, and monitoring of the area.
  3. If, following these consultations, SEMARNAT decides to establish a protected area, a decree is promulgated. The decree establishes the NPA and contains information on the area’s precise geographic location and boundaries. It describes the activities that can and cannot take place in the area, and those that require authorization. In addition, the decree provides guidelines for the establishment of the Management Plan.
  4. After the decree, SEMARNAT has one year to create a detailed Management Plan with participating interested parties. Every 5 years, the management plan must be evaluated and revised as necessary.

(B) Legal development of Cabo Pulmo’s NPA

In the 1990s, scientific studies conducted in Cabo Pulmo clearly indicated a need to conserve the fragile reef ecosystem. Around the same time, the citizens of Cabo Pulmo began lobbying the federal government to receive formal protection for their reef, and began reporting illegal activities and organizing meetings to discuss conservation and voluntary enforcement strategies. After years of lobbying and scientific monitoring, the Mexican government decided to officially protect the Cabo Pulmo area.

National Park recognition – On June 6, 1995, Cabo Pulmo was decreed an NPA. In 2000, it was recognized as a National Park, a specific category of NPA. It took several years to create a Management Plan due to a lack of budget and political will, as well as the reorganization of several relevant governmental institutions and legal frameworks. The Park’s Management Plan was officially published on November 13, 2009. It identified needs and set priorities to ensure the short-, medium-, and long-term conservation of biodiversity and the sustainable use of natural resources in Cabo Pulmo National Park.

Park Director Designations – In 1997, before a federal government budget was available, Jose Luis Pepe Murrieta was appointed as the volunteer Park Director. In 2004, CONANP designated Carlos Narro as the first official Park Director.

International Recognition – In 2004, UNESCO designated Cabo Pulmo National Park as a World Heritage site. On February 2, 2008, the Park was made a wetland of particular importance by the Ramsar Convention (CONANP information document can be found here, or see site no. 10 here).

Legal outcomes

Three legal structures significantly support and enhance the conservation initiative in Cabo Pulmo: (A) a legally-recognized Management Plan, (B) an efficient monitoring and enforcement system, and (C) international recognition of Cabo Pulmo National Park.

(A) Cabo Pulmo Management Plan

In 2009, after the citizens of Cabo Pulmo had practiced voluntary conservation measures for years, the Park’s official Management Plan was published. The Plan formally established a clear set of rules to aid conservation. Those rules prohibit, restrict, and/or organize activities that have an impact on the ecosystem within the Park.

The Plan starts by describing and characterizing the entire area. It includes scientific details on the Park’s marine ecosystems, and describes the social and economic characteristics of Cabo Pulmo’s population – a population that transitioned from an economy based on fishing to one based on eco-tourism. It then identifies and analyzes various problems in the Park, such as overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction.

The two main foci of the Plan are (1) planning and (2) zoning. The planning section orchestrates the various conservation, restoration, protection, inspection and administrative management activities in the Park. It also addresses the importance of preserving and transmitting relevant knowledge and culture. The zoning section of the Plan identifies different types of zones inside the protected area. The most protected zones are beaches and areas with a high presence of corals, or that provide habitat for many species. Such areas enjoy special protection, including prohibitions on commercial, subsistence and recreational fishing; construction of private or public buildings; and anchoring. Throughout the Park, activities such as kayaking and scuba diving are allowed only in certain areas at certain times. Tourism companies are also regulated by the Management Plan.

(B) Institutions, monitoring and enforcement

Cabo Pulmo community members organize patrols in the area and inform newcomers about regulations inside the Park. Community members, including women and children, also voluntarily undertake other crucial management tasks such as beach cleaning and sea turtle protection.

(C) International recognition and support

Cabo Pulmo National Park received increased legal protection once it was recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and as a wetland of particular importance by the Ramsar Convention. Such international recognition can be used by Park supporters to fight against threats (like industrial tourism complexes), and also serve to recognize the work done by the local community to protect and preserve Cabo Pulmo’s natural resources and beauty.

The region around Cabo Pulmo is attractive to the tourism industry, and multiple mega-resort projects have been presented to the Mexican government for approval in recent years. These projects have the potential to be devastating for the fragile ecosystems in the region. In several cases, the Mexican government failed to faithfully execute its legal obligation to assess the projects’ potential environmental impacts under the LGEEPA.

The Cabo Cortes tourism complex is a good example of this kind of potentially-devastating project: spread over 3,800 hectares next to Cabo Pulmo, the proposed complex included 30,000 hotel rooms, two golf courses, a marina with 490 moorings, a system of canals and artificial lakes, and a desalination plant. The water withdrawals required to support the mega-complex could have threatened the survival of local communities. Moreover, herbicides, pesticides, sewage, and wastewater runoff could have caused significant damage to the reef by, for example, stimulating algal growth that can smother corals. 

The local population, aided by local and international non-governmental organizations, brought several petitions to the government and appealed to international organizations. In November 2011, the Mexican government invited the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, along with the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands Secretariat and IUCN to join a technical advisory mission to the park and meetings with stakeholders and community members. The federal government, in 2012, finally retracted its authorization of Cabo Cortes. UNESCO and the Ramsar Convention’s recognition of Cabo Pulmo National Park played a crucial role in bringing the issue to international attention and exerting pressure on the government to withdraw its authorization of the project.

More recently, the Secretariat of the North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC) – an international body established under the North American Free Trade Agreement among Canada, Mexico and the United States – also received a petition, and has called for an investigation into the lack of enforcement of Mexican and Ramsar Convention regulations during the evaluation of mega-resort projects.


Trigger for action, barriers and keys to success

The impressive success of Cabo Pulmo’s NPA is recognized worldwide, due in large part to the incredible recovery of biomass within the protected area. Cabo Pulmo clearly demonstrates that careful ocean management can resuscitate an ailing marine ecosystem. This success, however, did not come without hurdles. Federal enforcement and financial aid that existed on paper were nowhere to be found in reality.

Critical to Cabo Pulmo National Park’s success was a deep commitment from the people of Cabo Pulmo. Community members (about 100 people) gave up short term benefits in hopes of a better future. With scarce external financial assistance, local citizens took it upon themselves to enforce Park rules by patrolling the NPA and informing newcomers about regulations inside the Park. Community members, including women and children, also voluntarily undertook crucial management tasks such as beach cleaning and sea turtle protection.

Cabo Pulmo National Park is the smallest protected area in the region, but has the largest percentage of area designated as a no-take zone – 35% of the Park is officially defined as a core (no-take) zone. In reality, local families have created and enforced a no-take zone throughout the entire Park. 

“The success of CPNP is greatly due to local leadership, effective self-enforcement by local stakeholders, and the general support of the broader community.”  


Biological, economic and social outcomes

In 2009, a decade after Cabo Pulmo National Park was created, scientists wrote that their “research indicated that the fish biomass increased by 460% at Cabo Pulmo – to a level similar to remote pristine coral reefs that have never been fished.” The biomass of top predators had increased by 1070% between 1999 and 2009, with a 30% annual increase of predatory fish.

Fish species richness increased significantly after the NPA was created: in 1999, researchers found an average of 15 species per given area (“transect”); in 2009, they found 25 species per transect. This stands in sharp contrast to the decrease in species richness in no-take core zones in other NPAs, which had an average of 22 species per transect in 1999 and only 18 species per transect in 2009. In open access areas, those numbers were 20 (in 1999) and 17 (in 2009).  In 2009, the average biomass in Cabo Pulmo was more than five times greater than the average biomass in open access areas in the Gulf of California. In addition, whale sharks, manta rays, humpback whales, and endangered sea turtle populations rebounded in the area. 

“[T]he absolute increase in fish biomass at [Cabo Pulmo National Park] within a decade is the largest measured in a marine reserve worldwide, and it is likely due to a combination of social (strong community leadership, social cohesion, effective enforcement) and ecological factors. The recovery of fish biomass inside [the Park] has resulted in significant economic benefits, indicating that community-managed marine reserves are a viable solution to unsustainable coastal development and fisheries collapse in the Gulf of California and elsewhere.” 

The marine life and biodiversity in the NPA attracts many tourists, and the economy in Cabo Pulmo has transitioned from fisheries-based to eco-tourism-based. New businesses in the area include SCUBA diving companies and kayak rental and tour companies. A study found small-scale tourism operations run by local people generated $538,000 in 2006 and are growing. Compared to Mexico’s per capita gross national income of $8,240 in 2006, Cabo Pulmo’s $18,000 per capita income – earned by 30 people working in 5 small businesses – is significant.

Next steps

Cabo Pulmo is recognized world-wide as a clear ocean conservation success story, and the Mexican legal framework for establishing NPAs and the specific rules for Cabo Pulmo are powerful tools. A lack of budget, political will and cooperation between governmental bodies, however, continue to constitute serious threats to the NPA. Increasing the Park’s budget, building new facilities, investing in technical and scientific equipment, acquiring boats and hiring more employees in the Park could improve the implementation and enforcement of the Management Plan. The Government should also work to improve cooperation between the department responsible for NPAs, SEMARNAT, and the department responsible for fisheries, CONAPESCA, to ensure efficient enforcement of environmental regulations. 

The fact that it took more than ten years to create the Management Plan for Cabo Pulmo, instead of the one year that is legally required, is a clear indication of the lack of political will concerning NPAs. Furthermore, government authorization of mega-resorts in the region suggests ongoing lack of political interest in protecting the NPA. The government must show more dedication and adherence to the environmental legal framework in place, and must be transparent in its implementation of environmental regulations.