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Another sperm whale caught in a net. Mexico has been called a whale santuary, but as one Mexican said it really is a whale cemetry.

This sperm whale dying and her baby already dead in a drift gillnet. 14 whales have been found in nets in 2003 and we are seeing only a small % of the whales that die in nets each year.

"Mortandad de mamíferos marinos en el área de Guaymas debido a la interacción con las pesquerías"

Mexico has banned all harvest on Sea Turtles since the 28th of May, 1990, yet the populations continue to dramatically decrease due to continued illegal and incidental take by longlines and drift gillnets. Turtles will never come back until gillnets are gone and longlines are restricted within 50 miles of the shoreline.

This turtle was caught in a longline found 35 miles off Cabo.
100s of turtles die daily in large and small boat longlines

Turtle caught on a longline: Profepa reported that in one 12 day trip a longliner off Mag. Bay caught 69 turtles. Photo by Norbert Wu.

These Giant Pacific Mantas are regularly killed in the Sea of Cortes for their low value meat often used to bait shark nets, yet they are worth thousands daily to local dive shops.

Turtles, once common even along the shore in La Paz are now endangered.

The Bluue fin caught outside Benedicto Island illegally fishing in the Revillagigedo marine reserve in March 2002. There is a fleet of about 50 longliners, many operating without permits, fishing inside marine protected areas, targeting marlin and other fish reserved for sports fishing.

For three days this baby whale shark was playing with divers around Las Animas Island. When a local fishing panga saw it they killed it using rebar harpoons. Whale sharks like Giant Mantas are worth many $1000s of dollars daily to dive operators, yet many are killed since there is no law against it.

As regular stocks of commercial fish were depleted in the mid 80s, 1000s of pangas were converted to longliners and stated targeting illegal sailfish and dorado along the coastlines of Sonora, Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima. According to newspaper reports in 1999 they were landing over 20 tons of Dorado every day in Sonora and 200 tons of sailfish each month in Manzanillo. Now these species once protected for sports fishing are almost gone.

Dr Russel Nelson says, “The introduction of fish traps in the reef fish fishery of the Sea of Cortes would likely be final stage in a serial depletion which would leave the ecosystem with little appeal to tourism and little to offer in terms of sustainable fish production for domestic consumption. “Russ Nelson on the Sea of Cortes”


SeaWatch Report
The Problem: Destruction of the Sea of Cortes
"Owned by All Mexicans and Managed by None"

The Sea of Cortes, one of the most unique and diverse seas in the world, is on the brink of collapse. At one time, this stretch of water produced more protein per cubic meter than any other sea in the world. Today, its fish stocks have been decimated.

Fish populations in the Sea of Cortes have decreased by more than 90% since the 1960s with the advent of new commercial fishing methods & technology. The reduction of fish stocks in the Sea of Cortes has followed a similar trajectory as almost all of the world's oceans. As the recent Myers-Worm study showed, the biomass of large predators (i.e. tuna and billfish) are typically reduced by 80% within 15 years of the start of commercial exploitation. The Sea of Cortes is no different - only 5-10% of it's original large fish stocks remain.

The Sea of Cortes is the only major body of water in the world entirely under the control of one government, a fisherman working in its waters can fish for anything he wants, using any method (gear type) he wants, at any time of year, and catch as much as he wants.

What Happened

Industrialized fishing for shrimp started in the 1940's and longlining was done by the Japanese after the war. But the big changes started in the 1970s with the introduction of the outboard motor, the now-famous fiberglass panga and worst of all: the inshore monofilament gillnet. Fish stocks were immediately and drastically affected, with large decreases in yellowtail sierra mackeral and roosterfish seen almost overnight. The world famous roosterfish tournament held yearly at the hotel at Punta Area de la Ventana near La Paz was out of business within four years. The hotel closed shortly thereafter. In the 1980's it was estimated that there were up to 20,000 pangas or small fishing boats in the Sea of Cortes. In the early 1980's came the drift gillnet used by small, medium and large sized boats. The huge runs of white sea bass and thresher shark on the Pacific side as well as the sharks in the Sea of Cortes were drastically depleted because of these nets byi the late 1980s. At this same time the sardines in the Guaymas basin were being decimated at the rate of over 1 billion pounds per year, most going to reducion for use in chicken feed. As the catches in the basin decreased, a new fleet of refrigerated seiners were built so the juvenile sardines could be chased to their feeding grounds in the Midriff Island. The sardine fishery and most large predators dependent on the sardines for food were gone by the early 1990s. In the late 1990s with most species in major decline the longline fleet started in Ensenada. There was a push to bring the 160-boat longline fleet from Hawaii to California and Mexico. With the help of Jim Cook, one of the biggest longliners in Hawaii and also past President of the Western Pacific Fisheries Management council (major conflict of interest) the Mexican fleet quietly increased to about 50 boats. Those with licenses were required to fish outside 50 miles from the coast. The swordfish populations outside were depleted, so they asked pesca to give them shark permits to fish inside 50 miles. Their real interest was in the large Striped Marlin populations from the entire EPO that congregate around the baja to breed and are illegal to commercially fish. Two longliners caught 11,743 striped marlin in 9 months.

As the commercial fish populations continued to decline, panga longliners also emerged along the mainland coast near Manzanillo and quickly spread up the coast to Guaymas . Though these species were reserved for sportsfisherman, the panga longliners targeted sailfish and dorado under the guise of catching shark. By the late 1990's newspaper reports estimated that the commercial take of dorado was many tons each day and sailfish were being landed at the rate of 150 to 200 tons each month. Both species are very scarce now in the Sea of Cortes. Now in 2003 the last of the fish - the reef fish- are threatened by indiscriminate gillnets that take about half to one ton of reef fish per panga daily. The southern gulf islands continue to be systematically depleted and there has also been a proliferation of fish traps.

The Economics of Overfishing

A group of six fishermen on a five day trip from Los Angeles will spend $1,800 on airfare with Aero California, $350 a day on a boat, $250 a day on hotels, $50 a day on food, and $40 a day on tips. The total spent for a five day trip is over $5,000. However, if there are no fish, these fishermen will not come. Kozy Boren, an American fisherman, recently told SeaWatch that after forty years of coming to La Paz he was considering taking his business to Costa Rica because of the lack of fish here. This summer he has not been able to catch enough fish to feed the people on his boat. In the three months that he is in La Paz each year, he spends over $100,000 in Baja.

The Marisula seamount, or "El Bajo" used to be the number one place in the world to see hammerhead sharks in the early 1980's. At that time, the dive business in La Paz was booming. But commercial fishing pressure has now reduced the population from over 500 hammerhead sharks in 1981 to less than 18 in 1998. (Peter Klimley study). Costa Rica saw the economic potential and protected their hammerhead sharks. Cocos Island, off Costa Rica, is now the number one place in the world to see schooling hammerhead sharks. Consequently, divers account for over $5,000,000 spent in Costa Rica each year. The Cortes Club, a La Paz dive shop, estimates that the ability to advertise that a diver would see a Giant Pacific Manta while in La Paz alone would be worth $3,300 a day in extra business.

In Loreto Marine Park sportsfishing charters say business is off 40% to 50% from last year alone. Even the commercial fishermen are feeling the effects. They report that the money they make with their catches now can't pay for the gas to catch them.

Although representing less than 5% of the total Mexican waters,
the Sea of Cortes in 1993 produced about 75% of Mexico's yearly 1,500,000 metric ton fish catch. It is still producing about 60% of Mexico's catch, but the product mix has changed and 2nd and 3rd class fish comprise most of the catch. In the markets today not only are there fewer fish but they are smaller and younger than even just a few years ago.

The ripple effect of overfishing is enormous. Whereas wise management could ensure that the once bountiful Sea of Cortes supported hundreds of communities, instead, a few greedy fisherman are squandering not only what little remains of an important Mexican natural heritage, but also the economic future of generations of millions of Mexican families.

The Solutions

Mexico is not the first country to face these challenges. Fortunately, there are proven and cost-effective solutions:

1.) VMS. Vessel Monitoring Systems allow authorities to know where all the large boats are at all times, which will help enforce established fishing laws. Already in use in Chile, Western Europe, Canada, and the U.S., vast areas of ocean can be monitored at a cost of only $1 a day per boat. See SeaWatch's VMS position paper to learn more.

2.) A Responsible Shark NORMA. Under the guise of shark permits, commercial fisherman are intruding on the 50 mile no commercial fishing zone from the coast to catch the few remaining dorado, marlin, and other sportsfish. The new Shark NORMA (regulation) must remove this loophole and enforce the 50 mile limit. See SeaWatch's Shark NORMA position paper.

3.) Remove the Gillnets. Gillnets inaugurated the start of the destruction of the Sea of Cortes in the 1970's and they are about to herald its demise. Cheap, indiscriminate, and extremely effective, a single gillnets can remove virtually all sea life from a stretch of reef in a few hours. There are thousands of gillnets currently in use. See SeaWatch's gillnet position paper. or see the video.

What you can do:

1.) Become a member by joining SeaWatch today.

2.) Become a member of The SeaWatch Leadership Circle by supporting a SeaWatch Project

3.) If you represent an NGO, association, or local business, join the Coalition for the Sea of Cortes.

4.) If you've seen something illegal, click here to report an illegal fishing activity.

Species by Species Report

Interviews with fisherman, as well as reports from long term Baja residents, show the extent of the destruction:

Click to enlarge

  Figure1: This survey was taken in 1993 by Sea Watch. It parallels closely the Myers/Worm report just released in mid 2003. (click to enlarge)


Striped Marlin: down by 50-60% over the last 15 years
The average size in Cabo San Lucas is down from 160 to 110 pounds (Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission just admitted that striped marlin are being fished at twice their sustainable rate. This admission came only after they split the striped marlin into a northern and a southern population)

Tuotova: Nearly Extinct

Turtles: Endangered

Shrimp: Down dramatically. Now they weigh the whole shrimp instead of just the tails to preserve the illusion that catches remain high.

Sardines: One billion pounds a year were taken; now all Guaymas canneries are gone.

Grouper: Commercially extinct.

Yellowtail: Down dramatically. Loreto was the yellow tail capital of the world, two seiners destroyed them in two weeks.

Thresher Sharks: Extinct

Pacific Manta: Dramatically reduced

Whale Sharks: Divers haven't seen them in large numbers for five years in the Sea of Cortes.

What's Killing the Sea

For more on the killing of whales- "Tesoros sin Protection" (Spanish only.)

The great shark massacre of the midriff Islands didn’t happen according to Pesca. “Midriff Island Shark fishery”.

Less than 10% of the large ocean predators remain

The destruction of the sea of Cortes is as much a social catastrophe as an environmental one!

The real destruction started with the introduction of monofilament and drift gillnets in the late 1970s.

Divers diving with hammerhead sharks, now account for over $5,000,000 spent in Costa Rica each year. All that that dive business used to come to Mexico in the early 1980s before Mexico killed it’s hammerhead sharks.

In an experimental 9 month yellowfin tuna longline fishery authorized by the INP (Institute National de Pesca) from September 1997- May 1998, two longliners, the “Ivana 21” and the “Yuqui I” fishing out of Magdalena Bay with a fishing effort of 471,952 hooks caught 11,743 striped marlin as bycatch (78% of the total catch)

The Cortes Club, a La Paz dive shop, estimates one Giant Pacific Manta in La Paz alone is worth $3,300 a day in extra business

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