The first people to see it called it the “Vermillion Sea.” Jacques Cousteau called it “the world’s aquarium.” A vast and lush underwater paradise surrounded by arid desert and thick mangrove, the Sea of Cortez has captivated explorers from Francisco de Ulloa to John Steinbeck. With half a million tons of seafood taken per year, 6,000 catalogued species, and perhaps 6,000 yet to be found, few places on Earth boast such diversity of life.

It’s an area of sublime plenty—or, at least, it was. The Sea of Cortez today looks nothing like it did when Steinbeck or Cousteau wandered its shores. In many ways, the aquarium of the world is now a glimpse of the world’s future. Industrial fishing operations have decimated the sea’s bounty, collapsing population after population. Tuna, red snapper, shark, and dozens of other once-plentiful fish are all but gone to hungry US, Japanese and now Chinese markets. The vaquita, a small endemic dolphin, is now the rarest marine mammal on Earth. The biggest fleets are the shrimpers, killing at least four pounds of throwaway fish for every pound of shrimp.

And although the tuna fleets have long since gone, the communities surrounding the Vermillion Sea still draw their daily living from its waters. Yet with global markets sucking the remaining resources and a devastating drug war pushing in from the east, life along the Sea of Cortez is more tenuous than ever. As people come to grips with ever-shrinking resources and struggle to preserve some of the plenty of years gone by, we have a rare snapshot of the future of the world’s oceans.

Dominic Bracco II's picture
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Photographer Dominic Bracco II explores the effects of global economics on local communities. Clients include The New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and...
Erik Vance's picture
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Erik Vance is a science writer based in California and Mexico City. He graduated with honors from Principia College in Illinois in 1999 with a degree in biology. After working on a number of research...