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Story Publication logo July 31, 2013

Seven Species: A Visual Primer on the Sea of Cortez


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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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From left, sea turtle, callo, vaquita, jelly, hammerhead, (sea cucumber and shrimp not shown). Sketches by Dominic Bracco II. Mexico, 2013.

Sea Cucumber
The giant (or brown) sea cucumber (Isostichopus fuscus) isn't much to look at. It's a sort of lumpy brown cylinder that creeps along the ocean and just seems – how do I put it – somewhat fecal in nature.

But don't be fooled. Considered an Asian delicacy, this is a pricey little piece of invertebrate excrement sells for around $90 per pound and inspires strong emotions in many fishing towns (efforts to protect them in the Galapagos Islands in 1995 even sparked something called the "sea cucumber war"). In Mexico, their numbers plummeted so hard they were declared threatened by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. But that's hardly slowed down their removal – divers either get special scientific collection permits or just catch them illegally.

Loggerhead turtles
When explorers fist came to the Sea of Cortez, they would joke that you could walk across the Midriff Islands on the backs of all the sea turtles. They were considered sacred by local indigenous groups but to most Mexicans they were a status symbol, akin to lobster in the US. In fact, we heard one story of a lavish party at a drug lord's house where guests got to pick a live turtle from the swimming pool to take home and cook.

In the 1970s and 80s a turtle bonanza wiped out most of the populations and catching them was banned in the early 1990s. Today, the soporific retiles are slowly coming back, thanks partly to volunteers from local tribes watching the beaches and protecting their nests.

You might call it scampi, cocktail, gumbo, or creole but in the Gulf of California, it's called "pink gold." Shrimping season literally defines fishing in the Sea of Cortez. It's by far the most popular seafood in the hungry United States and more than half of all the shrimp that comes from Mexico comes out of the Sea of Cortez.

Thirty years ago, when the Cortez shrimp fleet was 700, each boat pulled in 50 tons per season. Today, 1,500 boats haul just 10 tons per season. Certainly we're not running out of shrimp anytime soon (they're essentially locusts of the sea) but more boats fishing the same grounds means they will catch huge amounts of accidental fish – called bycatch – while looking for their pink gold.

It's not clear just how much bycatch ends up on the decks of shrimp boats, but by the end of the season it can run close to 90 percent of the total catch. In other words, many shrimp boats more accurately could be called "bycatch boats."

Cannonball jellyfish
If you want the definition of the simple life, spend a day with a jellyfish. They drift with the current, killing whatever blunders into their tentacles. Then they eat it and spit out the waste, since they evolved before the invention of the anus. Some might say that the jellyfish is so efficient, so perfectly fit, that he doesn't need to change (no one knows exactly how old jellies are, but they are likely among the first multi-cellular animals on the planet). Others would say they just aren't worth the trouble of eating – garbage fish. As for the jellies, they don't really care, having neither brains nor the simple nerve clusters that other invertebrates have.

In nature, not a lot of animals eat jellyfish. They don't exactly have much meat on their, well, body sacs. But one of their chief predators is the sea turtle (who often eat plastic bags mistaking them for jellies). The decline in the Gulf's population of sea turtles have made cannonball jellies a fixture in the Gulf, coming in huge blooms. Never ones to miss an opportunity, fishermen have begun scooping them up and selling them for cents to the pound to hungry Asian markets.

Callo (or pen shells)
For many towns in the Midriff Islands, callo fishing is an important staple between shrimp and octopus seasons. Generally they are caught by hand by divers, but indigenous communities also collect them by hand from shoals exposed by low tides. They're not sold much in the United States, but the closest analogy would be scallops, whose meat looks similar.

In the wild, virtually all of the creature is buried in the mud and you must have a seemingly sixth sense as to where they are. Fishermen walk long transects for perhaps eight hours without rest to pull up $20-$100 in callo meat.

To see a callo shell, watch this "Survivorman" clip. This less-than-intrepid explorer was "surviving" on a beach regularly used by the local indigenous people, who told us they kept an eye on him. Despite what he says, he's standing on one of the few sustainable callo fisheries in the Gulf.

Hammerhead shark
Thirty years ago, the Sea of Cortez was rich with all kinds of sharks. Most famous were the hammerheads, which would gather every year in massive aggregations. But, like many sea creatures, they had the misfortune of being valuable to Asian markets. In this case, shark fin soup is practically a requirement for Chinese weddings. Good fins can sell for almost $400 per pound in Hong Kong.

Today, there aren't any active shark ports in the Gulf of California, though a few fishermen still pull them up and sell them. And as for those big hammerhead gatherings? They're completely gone.

Vaquita (or Mexican porpoise)
Vaquita are, strictly speaking, not sold commercially or even caught for sport. In fact, fishermen don't even want to see them in their net. Yet, no single ocean creature so dominates fishing policy in the Upper Gulf of the Sea of Cortez.

Ask fishermen in the Upper Gulf and they generally bristle and grumble about how the government cares more about a stupid animal than its citizens. The vaquita lives in the murky waters of the Upper Gulf and has a habit of wandering into fishing nets. That, coupled with historically small populations, make the vaquita the world's most endangered marine mammal.



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