Traditionally environmentalists and fishermen have not gotten along. In Mexico, the former tends to close fishing grounds and the latter sometimes burns government trucks in anger. Over the past couple decades, however, a sea change has crept into marine conservation. Rather than blaming fishermen for wonton destruction of our oceans, scientists and conservationists have come to see that fishermen are an intrinsic part of the ecosystem.
This has not been easy. In order to protect the endangered Mexican porpoise (or vaquita), half of the fishermen in the Upper Gulf of the Sea of Cortez have been either bought out or barred from fishing these waters. The remaining fishermen now have more successful catches but hate the people who forced their competitors to leave.
“They associate science with NGOs,” says Catalina Lopez, a scientist who has dedicated herself to understanding fishing communities in the region. “And they associate NGOs with closure.”
Without the fishermen’s cooperation, conservation can’t happen. And in a country like Mexico, no one can force people to cooperate. Lopez, along with most of the other environmentalists we met have come to this final conclusion — the fishermen and the waters they work cannot be separated. And to save one, you must save the other.
It was with this in mind that Dominic and I approached our work in the Upper Gulf. For my part, that meant honestly weighing the plight of the fishermen against the plight of the animals in crisis — especially the vaquita. For Dominic, it meant looking for the places where man and ocean touch. The quiet moment in front of a vast, quiet sea. A nap taken in the searing sun. Even overlaying nature and fisherman in a double exposure.
The heroes, villains, and ultimate solutions in the Upper Gulf are not clear. But if we look hard enough, the way forward may soon be.