Three community leaders from Barra de Potosí, disembark from their first plane ride for an 8 day learning and planning expedition in Baja California Sur. Photo: Melissa Luna / Whales of Guerrero 2018
Did you detect a rumble coming from the direction of Baja California Sur last week? Well, that was the sound of five minds getting blown during an 8-day, 2500 km expedition around the peninsula with three leaders from Barra de Potosi.
Six years ago, I visited Baja with an inkling of an idea for how to support Guerrero communities in restoring their ocean. There, I met communities and conservation leaders who gave me the vision, inspiration and concrete steps I needed.
I’ve shared videos with the community, but there is nothing so powerful as sticking your face into the ocean to see a bottomless school of jurel spiraling out farther than you can see in every direction. Or listening to fellow fishermen tell their own stories of despair, followed by decision, action, planning, organization, unity and finally, progress.
This was a planning trip. I brought Arturo, Layo and Omar–three fishermen from Barra de Potosi–on an advance mission so they could plan the itinerary for a larger community expedition next winter.
Our first stop was Cabo Pulmo. In 1997, the community decided to stop fishing their decimated reef and focus on ecotourism. Twenty-one years later, Cabo Pulmo is world famous for its diving, as the reef has recovered by over 400%!
My heart aches for the imperiled ocean every day. Cabo Pulmo heals me. The diversity and density of life there–bullsharks, reef sharks, rays, morays, parrotfish, pargo, grouper, Moorish idols, snappers, cabrilla and skipjacks–reminds me what’s possible when we let nature heal itself.
The community there shows what’s possible for our village as well. The boats are a little bigger, the trucks are a little nicer, the houses have solar panels and there’s no garbage on the streets. This social and economic well-being is the result of ecological health.
The morning after our arrival, we paid our eye popping 900 pesos per person to go snorkeling and plunged in. Knowing that visitors willingly pay that sum was inspiring for the guys. The guides are strict. Everyone wears a life jacket so they can’t get down and break the reefs. They report our plans to CONANP to limit use at each location. It only took one dive for Layo, who is the secretary of Barra’s fishing coop, to pop up with dishpan eyes in the middle of a school of jurel to tell me, “I get it now! I see it! I believe you! This is what we have to do!”
We spent the rest of the day meeting with community leaders to hear their stories and advice. We captured messages of encouragement from each to share back home in Barra de Potosi.
Our next stop was Laguna San Ignacio, where friendly gray whales approach boats to be kissed and petted. My first visit there 12 years ago was lifechanging. It made me realize what can happen when we give whales all the space they need and let them decide how it’s going to go.
Kuyima camp hosted us in their simple, meticulous cabanas, and gave us behind the scenes tours of their town, including the oyster farms and fisheries, community-run scholarship programs, medical and retirement programs and coop organization structure. The lagoon was closed to whale watching during our trip, as the season has ended and the guides choose to give the whales that linger their space.
In San Ignacio, fishermen and tour guides live well, knowing that future generations have secure futures. Whale tours are booked up two years in advance, and oyster farming is going extremely well! Next year, we will visit during whale season to see their operation in full throttle. Kuyima will also introduce us to Punta Abreojos, an impressive fishing community just up the road.
Back on the Sea of Cortez side, we met up with Amy Hudson Weaver, from Niparaja, to visit Agua Verde. A new community-run no-take zone is showing promise. The community is working together to measure, monitor and protect it. They fish the surrounding area, and have just decided to expand their fishing refuge for the next several years. Being with those fishermen and the people from Niparaja melted something inside all of us. We slept on cots under the stars that night, but no one got much sleep because we were talking all night about what could be possible for Barra, and how to make it happen.
We spent our final days in La Paz. La Paz was an important place to visit because it is a city, with city-sized problems as well as a fishing sanctuary. A group of fishermen and their families are cultivating a growing scallop farm. The scallops are huge! And they fetch a high price. The fishing coop of El Manglito is managing the fishery with great care. They only take one of every three scallops they spot. Many people are working elsewhere until the farm can support reliable incomes for the community without depleting the fishery.
NOS was our host conservation organization in La Paz, and I was excited to spend time with director Liliana Gutierrez. Since meeting her a few years ago, I have carried many of her methods back to Guerrero, including having meetings in circles, where all have equal say, and using check ins and check outs.
Following our trip, Arturo, Layo and Omar are on fire with motivation and excitement. They will spend the week meeting with the immediate and extended coops, families and community members, and will host a village-wide meeting this coming Saturday. At that meeting, we will show a short video featuring the “Yes you can” messages from leaders of the places we visited. Arturo, Layo and Omar will talk about what they saw, and we will invite the community to choose their delegates for the 2019 expedition.
Barra de Potosi can become another success story like Cabo Pulmo or San Ignacio. But the village will need support, for permits, training programs, planning sessions, and experts to help them design a marine management plan that will work for everyone. I am dedicating myself to being their connector and space holder.
After an incredibly difficult fundraising year, this week was transformative. I have never been so hopeful that we will be able to be able to reverse the cycle of degradation and bring the communities of Costa Grande, Guerrero back to health.
As Arturo, Layo and Omar keep saying, it’s not going to be easy, but it’s also not nearly as hard as they thought it would be, to work together to save the sea.
Cabo Pulmo. Photo: Melissa Luna / Whales of Guerrero 2018 Cabo Pulmo is a pretty simple village. But everything is just a little bit nicer there, and you can’t find litter anywhere! Diving into Cabo Pulmo’s sea
Photo: Luis Castro / Whales of Guerrero 2018It took three minutes of snorkeling with skipjack for Layo Martinez to begin looking at ocean management in a whole new way. Photo: Katherina Audley / Whales of Guerrero 2018The renowned skipjack of Cabo Pulmo
Photo: Katherina Audley / Whales of Guerrero 2018 Arturo Mellin (left), Layo Martinez (right), Judith Castro (at table) and Katherina Audley (forefront) discussing how Cabo Pulmo got conservation right. Photo: Katherina Audley / Whales of Guerrero 2018Fond farewell between the Whales of Guerrero team and Judith Castro, one of Cabo Pulmo’s founding family members. Photo: Melissa Luna / Whales of Guerrero 2018Omar Zarate investigates the cultivated oysters in San Ignacio. A profitable and ecologically friendly secondary form of income for the community.Kuyima, a profoundly inspirational group of ecotourism and fishing leaders show us their meticulously organized operation.The women of San Ignacio Lagoon make a good living from their gorgeous artesanias. Everywhere we went, we met men and women of all ages to get a complete perspective.A mural of Pachico Mayoral, the founder of whale watching in San Ignacio Lagoon and original whale whisperer. Pictured here on the side of the community center.Kuyima hosted us and fed us and got us so excited about the future we can create for Barra de Potosí.The fishing community of Agua Verde weighs and measures every catch. Even their bad catches outnumber and outweigh our very best. The fishermen are the ones who do the survey work on how their no-take zone is progressing, and they are the ones who after five years, decided to expand it and keep it going for another five years.The fishermen of Agua Verde share their story about how they work together to restore their oceans through citizen science and monitored, protected fishing sanctuariesWe slept on cots under a million shooting stars in Agua Verde. But no one really slept because we were all so excited about the future of Barra de Potosí.Liliana Gutierrez of NOS taught us what the key components are for a successful, functional community. She makes it all seem possible!The expedition team – Layo Martinez, Arturo Mellin and Omar Zarate, from the village, Katherina Audley from Whales of Guerrero Research Project, and Melissa Luna from Playa Viva