Saving A Coral Reef

A Grassroots Effort in Baja Pays Off

In a remote area reachable only by a rough road that runs through a cactus-laden desert, Mexico’s Cabo Pulmo Bay appears abruptly from a bluff overlooking Baja’s Sea of Cortez. Here, 65 miles northeast of Cabo San Lucas, lies the only living coral reef system in western North America. Over 200 varieties of tropical fish inhabit eight coral fingers, some of which extend to depths of 90 feet.

Until recently, Pulmo seemed destined to go the way of many of the world’s reefs—devastated by commercial fishing operations that have depleted species and torn up the coral with their anchors. Today, thanks to a remarkable grassroots effort, the protection of Pulmo Reef is considered one of Mexico’s greatest conservation success stories. It’s been spearheaded by a local dive-shop owner, Jose Luis Murrieta, known to everyone as Pepe.

“This is an underwater garden, one of the special places in the world,” says 33-year-old Murrieta, as he helps me suit up for a scuba lesson. “When I came here six years ago, I noticed a lot of damage during my diving. People were spearing fish, and using special guns to stun rare tropical ones to sell to aquariums. Some would even take the corals. Nobody had any permits. I didn’t know what to do—I didn’t even have a phone then—but I started chasing the poachers out.”

In June of 1995, the Mexican government designated Pulmo Reef (including two other bays to the north and south) as one of three National Marine Parks in Baja California. For 18 miles along some 14,000 acres of water, the law said commercial fishing could not take place within five miles of the reef system. Still, the nearest authorities were a three-hour drive away in La Paz. “Unless somebody protested, fishermen did pretty much anything they wanted with impunity,” says Wayne Siepman, the owner of a local resort hotel.

Soliciting financial assistance from other hoteliers in the vicinity, Siepman helped Murrieta set up an organization, Patronato Cabo de Este, in 1996. In March of 1997, coming all the way from the fished-out town of Sinaloa on the Mexican mainland 180 miles away, two shrimp boats with 16 smaller panga skiffs were seen anchored off the reef. “Local fishermen went out and saw they were setting gill nets and longlines,” Murrieta recalls. “We told them to leave, but the next day, they were still there.” It took several hours after Murrieta’s call for the Mexican Navy to arrive; the boats were confiscated, the fishermen escorted to La Paz to face heavy fines.

Photo by Dick Russell

Mexico’s Cabo Pulmo Bay was imply an exploited resource until it was federally protected in 1995, and locals began patrolling the waters.
Photos: Dick Russell (top), Pepe Murrieta (bottom)

Photo by Pepe Murrieta

“We called all the divers around to remove the gill nets from the reef,” says Nancy Hyzer, Murrieta’s mother-in-law, who moved down from Chicago to open a restaurant and help support him. “It was sickening to see what was in those nets.” The illegal operation had already packed about 16 tons of fillets into huge freezers: manta rays, hammerhead sharks, eels, snappers, crabs and much more. Not long thereafter, another vessel was spotted and confiscated with a semi-truck-load of roosterfish taken from Frailes Bay.

These incidents awakened Mexican officials to the need for enforcement on Pulmo Reef. Murrieta was named the first director of the National Marine Park. A full-time enforcement inspector was dispatched to the area. The government’s Profepa environmental agency lacked funds to pay either man. So funding came through a $15,000 outlay from the non-profit Patronato group, in the form of a small boat and two vehicles.

Taking care of the reef has become an extended-family affair. Year-round residents in the village of Cabo Pulmo only number about 40, though about 5,000 tourists annually pass through. Murrieta convinced the local Castro family, which had been setting gill nets for several generations, to give up the practice. The Castros now concentrate on diving instruction, with several teaming up with Murrieta’s Dive Shop.

But protecting the reef has brought threats too, including one Sinaloan fisherman who threatened to kill Murrieta. The potential dangers compelled the first two appointed inspectors to leave for other posts. Still, as Siepman puts it, “Fishermen know they’re in jeopardy here now if they violate the law.” Murrieta adds, “The locals say they’ve never seen schools this big on the reef—more fish every year.” He estimates that 90 percent of the coral is healthy, now that anchorage doesn’t occur.

Diving down with Murrieta among the gardens of yellow, green and rust-colored coral, the varieties of fish are truly wondrous. There are rainbow angelfish and pastel parrotfish and lapis-blue damselfish….silvery jacks and yellow porgies and translucent needlefish. Once-depleted bat rays and manta rays are reported to have returned by the hundreds. A long slithering eel and small polka-dotted pufferfish pass below. With my oxygen gauge dipping into the red, I signal Murrieta and move my flippers slowly back to the surface.

Juan Castro takes our panga round a curve toward Frailes, where a big rock hosts a sizable colony of sea lions basking above the turquoise sea. I dive in again, a number of sea lions join me, and I snorkel among them. “You see now,” says Murrieta, who grew up raising aquariums in Veracruz, “why I feel I must devote my life to preserving this area.”

There remains a long way to go, while a management plan for the entire Sea of Cortez is being drawn up by Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology. Buoys are being placed to mark the marine park’s perimeter. A boat fast enough to chase invaders with their 200-horsepower engines is sorely needed. There are ongoing efforts to minimize future development—preventing land erosion from further devastating the reef. Murrieta talks about starting ecology classes for the students from nearby La Ribera.

But this much is abundantly evident: The protectors of Pulmo Reef are not going away. And the days when its resources were up for the taking are over.