Saving Sharks in Baja California?

In El Portugues, a small fishing camp in Mexico’s Baja California Sur, moustachioed fishermen with tobacco-colored skin glide to shore in 21-foot panga boats and unload their modest catch of small sharks and devil rays. It seems innocuous enough, given that most of the sharks, skates and rays (a class known as elasmobranches) are beingharvested via small-scale, non-industrialized methods. But according to a two-year survey led by Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research in Sarasota, Florida, there are 147 fishing camps along the Gulf of California supporting 4,000 to 5,500 active pangas targeting elasmobranches.

Traditional fishermen continue to haul in alarming numbers of juvenile sharks, like these hammerheads, that are too young to reproduce, worrying scientists.© Lemanya Oceanica

The result: 20 million sharks and their relatives are killed in the Gulf of California each year. Worldwide, about 100 million sharks and rays are killed annually.

Eighty percent of the sharks caught in the Gulf region are immature juveniles, and many others are pregnant females. This has decimated the population, since sharks grow slowly and have very few offspring. In turn, traditional fishermen are threatening their own livelihoods.

In response, the conservation group Iemanya Oceanica has launched a grassroots program, Pescadores Y Tiburones ("Fishermen and Sharks"), from its La Paz field base.The program seeks to make allies of the panga fishermen by hiring them for research excursions to help catch, tag, sample and release sharks and manta rays so they "feel a sense of ownership in their communities and get involved," says Laleh Mohajerani, Iemanya’s executive director. The fishermen are also maintaining catch logbooks on species caught. "We have to first know how many of these fish there are and locate their reproduction areas before we can begin responsible fishing practices," says Jorge Ramérez Gonzãlez, Iemanya’s fisheries coordinator.

Pescadores y Tiburones has also started educational workshops that cover elasmobranch biology and management issues, and an environmental education curriculum for children is under development. Student scholarships are offered to keep teenagers in school so they have career options other than fishing. Traditionally, many children drop out of school to join the family fishing business.

Lemanya also hosts workshops to help fishing families develop alternative ways to earn a living, for at least part of the year. Families can get training in business administration and assistance in applying for grants and low-interest loans. One fishing family, for example, is starting a traditional Mexican restaurant to serve tourists. And some grant-funded fishermen are planning to convert their panga boats into catch-and-release sportfishing charter businesses, with Iemanya supplying marketing support.

"We want to encourage these communities to be a part of eco-tourist growth instead of continuing to overfish sharks," says Mohajerani.