How a Small Town in Mexico Saved a Love-stuck Fish — and Its Economy | Oceana
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October 18, 2016

How a Small Town in Mexico Saved a Love-stuck Fish — and Its Economy

Corvina fishermen in the Upper Gulf of Mexico pause before offloading their catch. Largely ignored by the government, a handful of communities in Mexico are taking fisheries conservation into their own hands.
Silvia Yee / EDF


If you head out to sea at the right time of year in the Upper Gulf of California — which separates Baja California and mainland Mexico — you’ll hear the ocean purring like a well-fed cat. The pungent smell of fish offers a clue about source of the noise. Out of sight in the murky water below, hundreds of thousands of love-struck corvina are serenading potential partners with their trademark croak.

Each spring, over a million Gulf corvina — nearly every adult of the species — gather to spawn below the now-dry Colorado River Delta. These silvery fish, which grow up 70 centimeters (28 inches) long, draw hundreds of fishers who listen for the male’s characteristic rattle before casting their nets.

The louder the sea, the better the catch. But until recently, a free-for-all fishery meant that the Upper Gulf was in danger of going silent.   

Love in the time of corvina

“Very quickly, fishermen figured out that if you drop a net into a spawning aggregation and pick it up 10 minutes later, you can haul up literally a ton of fish,” said Pedro Zapata, Oceana’s senior science and strategy advisor.

At the start of the season, Zapata said, the fish fetched a good price. But as the weeks progressed a market glut sent prices plummeting. By the end, top-quality fish were selling for “less money than people would get for recycled plastic.”

In 2011, Mexico’s Fisheries Commission set a catch quota for corvina that cut annual landings in half — an announcement that came as an unwelcome surprise to Upper Gulf communities. Sensing opportunity in the mounting conflict, several NGOs in the region worked with fishers to set a scientific quota on corvina and fairly portion out shares of the catch.

The town of El Golfo de Santa Clara, which catches around 80 percent of corvina, went a step further. They partnered with buyers in local markets and in Mexico City to agree to a price floor under the condition that the town would not fish above its quota. The deal paid off handsomely: In one year, the average price of corvina in El Golfo de Santa Clara rose by 67 percent.

At the time, Zapata was part of a team helping El Golfo de Santa Clara negotiate with the Mexico City buyers. “They realized they could influence the market,” he explained. “The fact dawned on the fishers that they needed to fish smarter, not harder.”

Neglect and forget

Octopus in Yucatan. Abalone in Baja California. Lobster in Quinta Roo. Scattered across Mexico, a handful of examples prove that small cooperatives that fish smarter, not harder, can have a big impact — even when they have limited legal power to create or change national policy.

“A lot of people and organizations who work in the developing world say, ‘Hey, we should do what they do in Mexico,’” said Margot Stiles, Oceana’s Chief of Strategy. “But within Mexico, it’s very isolated. It would be great if, in addition to taking these successes to other countries, they were expanded in Mexico itself.”

Mexico is the world’s 17th most prolific fishing nation, with a fisheries GDP of nearly $1.4 billion. But so far, Mexico’s three most valuable fisheries —tuna, shrimp and sardines — have received the lion’s share of management attention and investment dollars, while smaller fisheries have languished.

Poor coastal communities have borne the brunt of this lack of attention and investment. Outside of the more prosperous Gulf of California, the rate of extreme poverty in seaside towns and villages averages 15 percent. This number climbs as high as 30 percent along the coasts of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas.

These communities rely on small, multi-species fisheries. But Mexico’s fisheries have been on a downward spiral since the 1990s. More than half of the country’s fish stocks are depleted. The remainder are fully exploited.

“Mexico shares a lot of the same problems of overfishing that we see in the US,” Stiles said. “But they have fewer resources dedicated to the science and management that’s needed to rebuild these fisheries.” Many fishers work on a seasonal or informal basis, Stiles noted, compounding the difficulty of knowing who fishes and how many fish they catch. “There’s definitely a broader need to increase government involvement in fishing,” she added.

A 2011 study estimated that rebuilding Mexico’s over-exploited fisheries could bring in another $250 million each year in landings — a 16 percent increase. For the poorest communities, even modest gains in landings can have an outsize impact on income and food security.

According to Stiles, it’s going to take a lot of hard work to help the rest of Mexico catch up with communities like El Golfo de Santa Clara. But there are plenty of examples to lead the way. “I think we have a bunch of reasons for optimism in Mexico,” Stiles said. “And that’s because of all the local successes that have already happened.”