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From shark fishing to ocean conservation: a sustainable transformation in Baja California Sur

Written by Mariana Vélez Godoy, Tourism Coordinator, ORGCAS

It’s 6 a.m., and the sun is rising on the horizon. Alberto* prepares for his day by gathering his tools — knife, sharpener, rope, boots, glasses, and, most importantly, he says, motivation — to help him weather the seven hours he'll spend at sea that day.

Alberto was born in Agua Amarga, a community in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is a small-scale coastal fisherman, an activity that his brothers, uncles, and grandparents have carried out for generations.

“My teacher said that I wouldn't want to go to university because I was always leaving school to fish,” Alberto says. “I recently saw him and told him that I was still doing what I love.”

Sardine fishing © Porfiria Gómez

Fishing is an essential part of the local culture in Baja California Sur, the southern tip of a peninsula that extends down Mexico’s northwest coast. The two bodies of water that surround it — the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California — are home to one of the richest biodiversity hotspots on the planet. Near Cerralvo Island, where Alberto works, a variety of species — from sardines to top predators such as sharks—make up the ocean food chain, which local fishers and coastal communities depend on.

A bull shark © Maru Brito

A school of reef fish around Cerralvo Island © Maru Brito

Shark meat is consumed throughout the country, and fins are exported to the Asian market. Shark fishing continues to be a common and legal practice there, except for a shark fishing ban between July and August when sharks are breeding.

Fishermen from Agua Amarga fishing for shark © Paulina Castelio

The rest of the year, shark fishers go out on the ocean almost daily, and it’s a job that’s never done alone.

“You separate into teams: one team fishes for sardine, and with that sardine, others go for bigger fish,” Alberto says.

Those bigger fish will then be set up as bait in the fishers’ buoys to lure sharks.

Pancho, fisher from the Shark Project, with ORGCAS © Paulina Castelio

“It is an exciting job in the sense that everything is a mystery,” Alberto says. “It is a strong feeling you get when fishing a shark — the adrenaline rises when you grab the rope and feel the weight.”

Despite wanting to pass on artisanal fishing as a legacy, many fishers hope that their children have options other than shark fishing — a practice that is becoming less and less sustainable economically. On most days spent shark fishing, time and fuel costs exceed income because no sharks are caught or because the sharks are too small.

“Sometimes you have to navigate many miles offshore with swell, cold wind, and many hours of sun,” Alberto says. “It can be a difficult and dangerous job.”

Some local shark species are endangered or threatened, impacted by rising ocean temperatures and industrial fishing. For example, hammerhead sharks are one of the populations most affected by overfishing and high demand for their fins in the Asian market.

With sharks at risk, so are the livelihoods of the artisanal fishers who depend on them.

“I would like to do something else for a living,” Alberto says. “One of the options we thought about is tourism. Here is a good place to do it.”

This is why, in 2021, ORGCAS, a marine conservation organisation based in Baja California Sur, approached Alberto and some of his fellow fishers from the Agua Amarga community in hopes of leveraging their deep knowledge and relationship with the ocean to find ways to protect sharks and increase local communities’ connections with nature.

Together, they created the Shark Project, in which they help local shark fishers build new livelihoods that are economically sustainable, value the fishers’ knowledge, and reduce pressure on ecosystems. ORGCAS chose to work with shark fishers because they have a deep understanding of how sharks are key species for the ocean's balance. One of the project’s main goals is to raise awareness of the fact that a shark is worth more alive than dead.

Alternatives to shark fishing might include citizen science, conservation tourism, or only targeting sustainable fish. Alberto participates in all three of these. The project provides fishers with the resources needed to make the transition, conducts scientific research, and creates spaces for exchange and education.

A day of environmental education at the local school © Martina Cocquio

Since the project began, the nine fishers directly involved in the project have received job training and work permits and have undertaken more than 200 expeditions for activities other than shark fishing. Collectively, they’ve raised enough alternative income to purchase two new boats for the Shark Project.

“Being with ORGCAS provides that little window of hope that one day we can stop fishing for sharks and dedicate ourselves to other things,” Alberto says.

Two years later, many fishers say that their perception of marine wildlife has changed after witnessing tourists’ reactions when learning about life at sea.

For example, only a few years ago — before there was tourism — most fishers were afraid of orcas and would move away from them. Now, when fishers know that there are orcas nearby, they respectfully come closer so that tourists can watch them and fulfil their dream of meeting these special animals.

“For me, tourism is a picnic day, like going for a walk with people so they can enjoy an experience that marks your life,” Alberto says.

A jumping mobula around Cerralvo Island © Porfiria Gomez

Sea lions resting at the surface © Porfiria Gómez

The alternative livelihoods pursued through the Shark Project have created a sustainable source of income for the fishers and their families comparable to what they earned in shark fishing. In a good season, a team of four to nine fishers can earn up to $300 USD per day working in conservation tourism, which is about the same as what they would have earned on a good day fishing for sharks.

However, there are challenges. During the last busy season, the growing number of tourists and boats — well beyond those that are part of the Shark Project — generated harmful pressures on the marine ecosystem. As shark tourism is not regulated in the area, there is a lack of control over the activities at sea, which brought a wave of harassment of marine species, as well as other bad practices by newly arriving tourism operators.

For these reasons and others, mass tourism — on a scale much greater than the tourism hosted by fishers who are part of the Shark Project — represents a significant threat to the area, especially because current laws that regulate marine activities are complicated and not easily enforced.

The fishers’ new boat for tourism activities © Paulina Castelio

Alberto and other fishers came together to evaluate the different protection options for their region and to request that the government take the coastal communities' uses and customs into account when shaping new protections.

“We are getting organised. We want to be able to have a say in what we want for our area and do something before there’s nothing else to protect,” Alberto says.

The fishers and ORGCAS support the creation of the nearly 20 million-hectare Dos Mares Biosphere Reserve in the waters surrounding Baja California Sur, which would limit the entry of industrial fishing, regulate tourism, and provide a large area for local activities to occur. The reserve would also help advance a global conservation initiative that seeks to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030, known as 30x30.

Alberto says he longs for a day when he will once again see a large school of sharks, like in his old shark fishing days. Only this time, he’ll be on a boat with tourists, introducing them to the magic of the place he calls home.

Some of the ORGCAS, an all-female marine conservation organisation based in Baja California Sur © Paulina Castelio
Some of the ORGCAS, an all-female marine conservation organisation based in Baja California Sur © Paulina Castelio

*Name changed to protect the fisher’s identity.

This story is provided by the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy whose aim is to work with partners to advance the global 30x30 goal, in collaboration with artisanal fishers and local communities for the benefit of future generations.

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