Thirty years ago the Revillagigedo Islands
were one of the richest archipelagos in the Eastern Pacific.
World famous for the abundance of apex predators like hammerhead
sharks, giant pacific mantas, and yellowfin tuna, these islands
have been decimated by over-exploitation. What remains is
“When I got to the islands 25 years ago,” says
McGettigan, founder of Sea Watch and one of the first
people to extensively dive the area, “you would often
be surrounded by several hundred sharks. We would see up to
100 wahoo at a time and often spend 45 minutes underwater
with the same school of tuna swimming by. The schools would
be miles long.”
That was then.
On the three inner islands of Socorro, Benedicto and Roca
• Wahoo populations have been devastated with the
average weight of a fish around 20 lbs and populations down
70-80 % since the 1970s and down about 50% in the last 10
years with the biggest decreases coming in the last 5 years
due to increased sportsfishing.
• Sharks have decreased 50-60% and many that are left
have mouth injuries from hooks and are trailing long fishing
• Yellowfin tuna populations have also dramatically
declined over the past 20 years due mostly to tuna seiners
that work the waters in and around the biosphere as well
as the oceans just south of the Revillagigedo Islands.
• Reef fish like the Blue Jack, Rainbow runners and
Leather Bass have also been heavily impacted by sportsfishing
with populations down 30-40%.
(For sources see 2003 Survey
Report & Fisherman
Uncontrolled commercial and to a lesser degree sportsfishing
is the primary cause of these tragedies. These islands, as
fragile and diverse as the Galapagos Islands, can be greatly
impacted for years by a single longliner. Today, longliners
operate without penalty in the Revillagigedo Islands…even
Mexican government closed the islands to all commercial fishing
THE ST. VALENTINE’S MASSACRE
Since it’s founding in 1993, SeaWatch has been bringing
public attention to the destruction of these islands. A typical
example is SeaWatch’s work following the St. Valentine’s
At 9:00 a.m. on February 14th, 1994 the Unicap III, a Mexican
Department of Fisheries boat, started pulling in their nets
off the south end of San Benedicto. Passengers aboard SeaWatch’s
floating headquarters, the Ambar III, watched helplessly as
their worst fears came true.
Two of the mantas they had been riding the day before were
hopelessly tangled in the nets. These gentle giants had fought
the nets and been torn to pieces. Because of the damage to
the nets, and to the mantas, those on the fishing boat decided
it would be easier to cut their nets loose and throw them
back in the water - entangled mantas, nets and all. When they
left, there were thousands of feet of thin monofilament net
all over the reef, still killing.
When they pulled in their long lines, there was nothing but
reef sharks on the hooks. As these dead or dying sharks came
up over the back of the boat, the lines were cut off above
the hook and the hook and shark were dropped back into the
water, where they immediately sank to the bottom. The underwater
reef was littered with dozens of dead sharks. At that time
they were selective as to which sharks had value and most
sharks were just finned.
In all this killing, not one usable
fish was caught.
In the meantime, another fishing boat, Mero VII, was busy
harpooning the first manta that passed by their boat. The
twenty-foot, one-ton manta was then gaffed with large hooks,
and lifted out of the water, still very much alive, alongside
the boat. Then the men got out in a small boat and proceeded
to use axes to cut the wings off the still-living manta. In
just a few hours over five tons of fish were killed near this
pristine volcanic island, and many more were going to die
in the discarded net. The two boats had nothing to show for
all that carnage, except two, almost useless manta wings.
This world famous spot to ride mantas was forever changed
in just 4 hours - divers from all over the world clamored
to come and ride the gentle giants of San Benedicto. This
senseless act cost millions of tourist dollars in the future.
Within days SeaWatch brought this senseless slaughter the
attention of the Mexican public. The news was run three times
on Guillermo Ortega’s influential Mexican TV news-magazine,
Al Despartar, which is seen by 58 million Latinos. With the
help of free-lance reporter, Armando Figaredo, SeaWatch made
nine more Sea of Cortes specials for Al Despartar. The Manta
slaughter was part of the national CBS Evening News in August
and it became international news on CNN the same month.
Reaction was swift: Miguel Sanchez-Navarro and Mauricio Ruiz,
President of Pronatura, the largest private Mexican ecology
foundation, took the video of the killing of the Mantas directly
to the Mexican President and the Head of Fisheries. Within
two months, the Giant Pacific Manta was put on the endangered
species list. It is now a crime to kill one [in the Revillagigedo
Islands, punishable with a $10,000 fine.
CLOSING THE ISLANDS TO FISHING
Eight years of raising public awareness finally culminated
in March of 2002 when SeaWatch and Miguel Sanchez-Navarro
invited Secretary Santiago Creel, the minister in charge of
the islands, to witness first hand the damage being done by
illegal longliners and drift gill-netters. As a result of this trip
and a lawsuit filed the year before by the Hotel and Sports Fishing Association
of Cabo San Lucas, the entire biosphere was closed
to all fishing as of March, 2002.
Unfortunately, this closure also included sports fishing.
Though these boats had only a small environmental impact on
the reserve, they provided an informal surveillance network.
That network is now gone as they, of course, have followed
the law while the large commercial operators have chosen to
Today, the Revillagigedo Islands Biosphere remains
primarily a park on paper only. While these Islands
will never have the draw of the Galapagos, managed carefully
they could be the one place in all Mexico
that is a breeding ground for tuna and wahoo that could be
brought back to pre-industrial fishing levels.
Unlike many parts of the world’s oceans, the Revillagigedo
Islands fall entirely within the territorial limits of one
country – there is no need for an international cooperation
or legal framework to protect them. All that is needed
is the political will to enforce the laws already on the books.
And a little technology.
Today, SeaWatch, The Billfishfund, Pronatura and several
other groups are actively working with the Mexican authorities
to implement Vessel
Monitoring System (VMS), an automated, satellite-based
program to monitor geographically isolated areas similar to
ones already in use in many countries including the U.S.,
Canada, and Chile.
Though holdouts remain, officials in the highest reaches
of government have proclaimed their support for VMS, including
the minister of Agriculture, Rural Development, and Fisheries,
Javier Usabiaga. In order to see VMS and other reasonable
management plans through to their completion, SeaWatch also
has been helping to organize a coalition
of like-minded interests, including representatives from
the sports fishing and scuba diving companies, government
officials, non-government organizations, leaders in the hotel
industry, and prominent Mexico City businessmen.
This coalition, officially called the Comision Nautico~Recreativa
y de Pesca Deportiva, has formal government backing and will
have a seat at the table as various management plans for the
Sea of Cortes and the Revillagigedo Islands are discussed.
Here are some things you can do to protect one of Mexico's
last wild places include,
• Join the Coalition
Illegal Fishing Activity