Is Our Treasure
Sustaining Communities on the Baja Peninsula
The conservation of a treasured coral reef nourishes fish populations and a growing ecotourism industry.
Judith Castro Treasures her Baja Home
Cabo Pulmo is only 60 miles north of the Baja Peninsula’s main tourism center, Los Cabos, but it feels worlds apart. In Cabo Pulmo there are no bustling streets, no fancy restaurants and certainly no vendors selling tchotchkes to tourists. A bumpy dirt road leads the way into this tiny village, which is surrounded by a pristine desert landscape that falls into a deep blue ocean.
Those azure waters are hiding a beautiful treasure — the only coral reef in the Gulf of California. A dip underwater can reveal colorful angel fish, enormous schools of jacks, giant rays and even hammerhead sharks. And the residents of Cabo Pulmo are working hard to ensure that their treasure remains intact long into the future.
But the story of Cabo Pulmo could have been much different. Judith Castro, her family and the Cabo Pulmo community were instrumental in a decision that changed the course of this region for the better.
Discovering a Treasure
Judith Castro is the president of the local conservation group Amigos para la Conservación de Cabo Pulmo. Her family has been in Cabo Pulmo, which began as a fishing community, since her grandfather’s generation. By the time she was a child, the community was already beginning to feel the effects of overfishing.
“Many times he returned after a week at sea without any fish…there was a lot of investment and nothing gained,” Judith said. “The economic situation was very difficult actually. I suffered a lot waiting on the beach for my dad and to see him return tired, thirsty, hungry and without any fish.
“At the same time, researchers from the University of Baja California Sur began to explain to us the value of the reef, the garden that we considered ours. After 10 years we decided to bet on change and decided to stop fishing and conserve the Cabo Pulmo reef.”
In 1995, the area officially became Cabo Pulmo National Park (CPNP). Unlike all other protected areas in the Gulf of California, the entirety of CPNP is a “no-take” area, meaning no fishing of any kind is allowed. And the decision has paid off: fish biomass in CPNP increased an amazing 463 percent between 1999 and 2009.
Thriving Reef, Thriving Community
The transition from a fishing community to one focused on ecotourism was not easy, but the community members are now seeing great economic and social benefits.
“It was a long process, and the most difficult years were those where there were no economic alternatives,” Judith said. “Providing diving and snorkeling services took about six years. But then we started to see that we could have a better quality of life and preserve the environment. We can get thousands of dollars taking tourists to see the fish that once drew 100 pesos.”
Indeed, each morning Cabo Pulmo comes to life with colorful swim fins and life vests lining the dive and snorkel shops. Mario Castro Lucero, Judith’s brother and owner of Cabo Pulmo Divers, has at least 500 clients a year.
Judith is now sharing lessons learned in Cabo Pulmo with other people working to protect the Gulf of California. She was one of 13 mentors who participated in a three-year program led by The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Fondo Mexicano para la Conservación de la Naturaleza and the Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas to increase the capacity of park managers and other key stakeholders to manage the region’s marine protected areas.
“Gosh, this is one of the greatest gifts life has given to me, to be a mentor, because I learned so much, including the tools to help my community achieve its dream and also to share with the rest of the surrounding communities,” Judith said.
These training programs are part of the Conservancy’s overall strategy in the region, the Baja Marine Initiative (BMI), which has a goal of protecting 10 million hectares in the next decade, more than doubling the existing conservation and fisheries management areas in the Gulf of California. By creating the enabling conditions and mobilizing political will and large scale funding, the BMI will dramatically expand the scope, scale and pace of conservation action in the region.
The program not only gave Judith the opportunity to share and learn with other conservation-minded individuals, but it gave her the confidence to stand up against the very real threat of development in Cabo Pulmo.
“I discovered that I needed that strength the course was giving me to defend Cabo Pulmo,” Judith said.
The Future of Cabo Pulmo
The residents of Cabo Pulmo are serious about maintaining their precious natural resources — even the youngest residents.
“The reef conservation, for me personally and emotionally has been the best thing that happened to my family,” Judith says. “Every night when I go to bed my son says ‘mom let us take care of sharks, mom let us take care of the fish.’ He’s only five and he is already thinking about how to continue to maintain the park, on how to continue to preserve the reef.”