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Story Publication logo July 24, 2013

Mexico: Emptying the World’s Aquarium


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The Sea of Cortez is—or was—a vast and lush underwater paradise. Industrial fishing operations are...

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A hookah diver with a bag of callo de hacha, a mollusk native to the Sea of Cortez. Image by Dominic Bracco II. Sea of Cortez, 2013.

Like most local fishermen in Kino, a sleepy Sonoran town about halfway down the eastern side of the Sea of Cortez, Ernesto Acuña Salazar had been working small boats off the coast since he was a teenager. A handsome, stocky twenty-four-year-old, Salazar specialized in hookah diving — a practice similar to scuba diving, except that divers breathe through a long tube leading to a compressor at the surface rather than carry a tank on their back.

One day almost four years ago, Salazar put on his gear and entered the water in search of callo de hacha, a long shallow-water mussel whose succulent meat tastes like scallop. In recent decades, most of the callo beds along the coast have vanished, plundered by hookah divers. But Salazar was aiming for a recently discovered, pristine bed at 130 feet — about ninety feet deeper than usual. Water this deep is treacherous, and dive tables recommend staying down no longer than twenty-five minutes. But fishermen like Salazar regularly spend an hour at that depth and then another hour or more slowly decompressing as they rise to the surface.

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