In the dead of night, a deep rumbling of machinery signals the crew to begin hauling up the nets once again. As the boat rocks precariously from side to side, bulging nets are lifted overhead and the contents are spilled out onto the deck. Thousands of writhing fish fill the space, octopi climb any surface they can find, and sharks gasp for air, but the fishermen push them aside, uninterested. The majority of what lies here is considered bycatch, or accidentally captured nontarget species. These fishermen are in search of America’s most popular seafood, the reward for one of the most destructive fishing techniques in the world: shrimp.
However, in the wild shrimp fishery in the Gulf of California, there aren’t many shrimp to be found. “This year was much lower [in production] than the years before. The catch has been reduced by about 40 percent,” says Captain Chato perched atop the chair in the wheelhouse of the boat he navigates through waters just off Bahía Kino. His bloodshot eyes strain to see ahead of the bow. He has been awake for 36 hours and counting. “Sometimes,” he says, “I force myself to stand while driving so if I fall asleep, I hit my head against the wheel and immediately awake.”
This rusty-blue boat is using a shrimp harvesting process called bottom trawling, in which a pair of nets outfitted with heavy chains drags along the seafloor, indiscriminately capturing benthic animals. Out on deck, much to the joy of the boisterous flock of birds overhead and determined sea lions trailing the boat, Chato’s crew of six men sweep the deck clean of all the bycatch and are left with several baskets of shrimp. They sit in a circle, quickly de-heading the shrimp, then freeze it bag by bag, as they await the next haul. Nearly all of the product is destined for the plates of consumers in the United States.
This is the nightly agenda of the crews working on the 1,247 shrimp boats in Mexico from September to March every year, with very little time to rest between trips. Chato, who clearly loves fishing, also acknowledges the hardships of the job. “We suffer to fish and spend more time here than with our families. Apart from being fishermen, we are also human,” he says. Chato has three children and has spent more than 30 years of his life working on a shrimp trawler. “Sometimes, the crew is more like family.”
Shrimp is the most valuable fish that Mexico produces, and the industry contributes to the economy by creating more than 10,000 fishing jobs annually, as well as many more indirectly. However, the environmental impact of bottom trawling is immense, primarily due to the high rate of bycatch which totals more than 86 percent by weight in the region. This means that for each pound of shrimp captured, there are nearly nine pounds of other organisms that are thrown back to sea dead or injured.
Sea lions, sea turtles, and well over 200 species of fishes and invertebrates are among those frequently killed by the practice. Many fish populations are heavily impacted because a high number of the individuals that are removed from the ecosystem are juveniles. This has widespread consequences within the marine environment and represents an economic loss for many artisanal fishers who depend on the sea for their livelihoods.
“The shrimp trawlers are the principal murderers of the sea and they kill all of the juveniles. We need limits on the number of boats here. We also need more closures; currently there are very few and they aren’t respected,” says Eduardo Becerra, a small-scale fisherman of Bahía Kino, a Sonoran fishing town. The trawlers frequent Kino Bay as nonresident vessels and are considered unwelcome by many locals.
Some of the problems within this fishery have been addressed, but not enough. Concern about the accidental capture of sea turtles as bycatch prompted importing countries to push for the required use of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) for all Mexican shrimp-trawling vessels. Since 1996, these devices, among other regulations and restrictions, have been required, but a lack of enforcement and a general dislike for TEDs among fishermen allow these policies to be regularly broken.
The power to change current shrimp-harvesting techniques largely remains in the hands of consumers. According to Lorayne Meltzer, co-director of the Prescott College Kino Bay Center for Cultural and Ecological Studies, “The consumer is really the driver behind what is happening in the gulf.” It is their “responsibility is to know the impacts of their choices and become educated about where their food comes from.” Alternative technologies to harvest shrimp more sustainably exist, such as small-scale net fishing outside the vaquita’s range and shrimp pots, which are small wire cages used to trap shrimp, but these methods don’t meet the product’s high demand. Shrimp aquaculture, despite its growing popularity, maintains its own array of significant social and environmental impacts.
The most sustainable option “would be the employment of shrimp pots, which would mean a drastically reduced supply on the global market of shrimp and a drastically increased price,” says Meltzer. “If that were to happen, the consumer might make the choice to buy that more expensive product, just like they would buy organically raised beef because it comes with less of an impact on the environment. Right now, the only real choice to impact or reduce trawling is to not buy shrimp or reduce your consumption.”
To the east, the first hint of orange light illuminates the edges of the waves and reveals the line between sea and sky. The tired crew finishes sorting shrimp as the sun rises, then drops their anchor to the now-barren seabed. With luck, they will find time to rest between chores until resuming work tonight. The marine creatures who eluded the trawler’s nets are left to explore their altered home; whether they stay swimming in the sea is up to us to decide. ✜
Prescott College Kino Bay Center for Cultural and Ecological Studies. 151 Calle Cádiz y Puerto Vallarta. Bahía de Kino, Sonora. 928.350.2236. Prescott.edu.
Maria Johnson is an artist, conservationist, and lover of the desert and sea. She teaches at Prescott College’s Kino Bay Center for Cultural and Ecological Studies.