The Fish in Our Foodshed

As overfishing drives fisheries toward collapse across the Sea of Cortez, connecting fishermen directly to their markets may offer them a more sustainable future.

May 1, 2014

FeaturesIssue 6: May/June 2014

IF GAS COSTS $12.50 pesos per liter and Pacific mackerel sells for $16 pesos per kilo, then Gerardo Aguado Hernández needs to stay out on the water for a few more hours. He’s been out since 6 a.m., but the catch hasn’t been good. Only a few dozen of the slim silver fish fill the hold of his boat, piled like dropped matchsticks—maybe half of what he needs just to break even.

It is a scene in primary colors. Blue boat, sapphire sea, orange overalls. As Hernández steers the small boat slowly forward, his son tosses sections of a bright green gillnet into the water. As the net unfurls into the ocean, the gauzy pile between the two men evaporates like cotton candy in water. Styrofoam buoys hold the top line of the net afloat—within a minute or two, the net extends 200 meters behind the boat in a ragged line.

A gillnet hangs in the water like a curtain—like a membrane, impermeable to fish of a certain size. The size of the stitch—the width of the opening between knots of twine—reveals how big a fish you’re hoping to catch. Today, gillnets are mainly used to catch mackerel, mullet, or grouper—there aren’t very many big fish left to take from these waters. “We used to see fishermen come in with big fish, four feet long, all the time. Now, it’s maybe once every six months,” says Hernández.

Today, the only big animals Hernández has to contend with are sea lions, which have proliferated since large shark populations dwindled. “There are fish in the water, but the sea lions won’t let me work,” he says. “They pull the fish right out of the nets.” They’re so bad that if he sees four or five around his boat, he’ll pull up his nets and go in for the day—it’s not worth them breaking his nets. “Fishermen like me are an endangered species,” he jokes. “We’re being hunted by the sea lions.”

But if he’s lucky and the lobos don’t show up, Hernández will leave the net in the water for another half an hour and then turn the boat around to retrace the ragged line, hoisting the water-heavy net back into the boat—hopefully, this time, heavier still with fish. But Hernández isn’t optimistic. Today’s low catch is just one in a string of low catches—one season of struggle among many.


Small fish, such as mackerel, mullet, or grouper, are the majority of what is being caught in the Sea of Cortez today.

THE ESSENTIAL STORY of Bahia de Kino—the story of the many fishing towns strung along the Gulf of California—is the story of its fisheries. Also known as the Sea of Cortez, the Gulf is home to 950 species of finfish, 100 of which are found nowhere else in the world. The world’s most endangered marine mammal, a small porpoise called vaquita, lives in the Upper Gulf, just below the delta where the Colorado River once flowed.

At the turn of the century, the coastline along the Gulf was mostly uninhabited, except for the tenacious Seri Indians, whose population had dwindled to less than 120 survivors. In the 1920s and 30s, fishermen from the Baja coast came across the Gulf to settle in Kino, looking for large predator species for the Southern California market. They primarily targeted the totoaba, a large drumfish native to the northern Gulf; sharks; and sea turtles.

In the 1940s, shrimp trawling emerged; foreign fleets maneuvered up the Gulf with bottom trawlers in their wake, scraping up eight inches of ocean floor to find just one fish. (The bycatch rate for these trawlers continues to hover around 85 percent—that is, for every 100 pounds of seafood caught, 85 of it is left on a boat deck to die.) Virtually all the Gulf’s sandy bottoms have now been dredged by Japanese and Korean trawlers, except for the shallow shoals of the Canal del Infiernillo, which the Seri protect as their own nursery grounds for fish, turtles, and crabs.

“In the 1970s, everything exploded,” says Tad Pfister, a UA researcher and the founder of PANGAS, a consortium of NGOs and nonprofits working with fisheries in the Gulf. “You see this huge expansion of fishing in the Gulf, of people coming to the Gulf.”

This explosion was in part in response to market forces—to a global population demanding more fish. “It was also a result of government privatization,” says Marcela Vásquez-León, an associate professor of anthropology at the UA. “As the ejidos, communal agricultural lands, were being privatized, a lot of people lost their land. You have a huge number of people from the agricultural sector that are all of a sudden without jobs. You saw a huge migration to the coastal areas. A lot of people who were not fishermen started fishing.”

What they lacked in knowledge, they compensated for with technology—larger boats, better motors, bigger nets. Some boats were fitted with electronic sensors to detect where schools of fish were aggregating.

The problem with this influx of people who were not fishermen into Gulf waters was that local fishermen had been enacting much of fisheries management work themselves. If your livelihood depends on the sea’s yield—if you want your children’s livelihood to also depend on it—then you don’t fish during spawning season or dive for sea turtles when they are hibernating in the winter. You don’t go after pregnant female crabs or juvenile fish before they have the chance to reproduce. You know that to abstain now is to invest in more, later.

The forty to fifty thousand fishermen in the Sea of Cortez haul in roughly 60 percent of all fish commercially caught in Mexico. According to the Anuario Estadistico de Pesca, Mexico’s federal fishing report, the amount of fish caught increased from 77,000 tons in 1950 to 254,000 tons in 1970. By 1981, Mexican fishermen reported 1.36 million tons in total catch.

“By the 1980s, you see a collapse in a lot of the primary fisheries,” says Pfister. In 1975, after a near collapse in the totoaba fishery, the Mexican government banned totoaba fishing. By the end of the decade, sharks had all but disappeared from Gulf waters. Game fish, like tuna, dwindled, as did manta ray. Instead, smaller species like corvina, Pacific mackerel, and bottom flatfish became mainstays of the small-scale fishing economy; as those stocks dwindled, fishermen turned to striped mullet, triggerfish, and leopard grouper. The market kept demanding fish, so fishermen kept fishing down the food chain, seeking smaller species to replace the bigger ones that were disappearing. (Which is, to state the obvious, counterproductive to fishery health, as big fish need to eat little fish in order to become big fish.)

Today, Mexico’s annual catch rate is more like 1.7 million tons. Three quarters of what is caught in the Sea of Cortez ends up on American tables, which amounts to as much as 170,000 tons of seafood.

Fishery collapse comes in many forms. “There can be commercial collapse, where it’s no longer viable commercially,” says Pfister. “There can be complete species collapse, like vaquita, totoaba, or sea turtle, where the population has gotten so low that reproduction can’t keep up with mortality. Then there is ecological collapse, where you see the widespread effects of actions like overfishing in the overall ecological condition … And that’s what we’re seeing. Today, there is a total collapse of fisheries in the Gulf.”

Jesus León keeps an eye on the comings and goings in Old Kino from behind the counter of his small fishing supply store.

Jesus León keeps an eye on the comings and goings in Old Kino from behind the counter of his small fishing supply store.


JESÚS LEÓN sells rubber boats and rubber overalls, motor oil and WD-40. He’s known as the historian of Old Kino—the storefront of his fishing supply store faces the main drag down to the docks, so, day in and day out, he stands behind his counter and watches the comings and goings of this small town.

Unlike the so-called New Kino, a beachside stretch of clean-lined vacation homes—many owned by weekenders from Hermosillo—Old Kino is hodgepodge, one thing on top of another. It is people in the streets, fish carts on the corners, and hammocks strung at the loading docks. The taco joints fill up on weekends, but it’s quiet on Monday morning—most of the men are out on their fishing boats.

“Before, there wasn’t so much abuse of the fisheries,” León says. He’s been fishing in Kino for 45 years; 20 or 30 years ago, he says, people respected the limits of the ocean. “It’s such a shame. They’ll take the lobsters and just scrape the eggs right off them.” They don’t respect the vedas, he says—the seasonal closures mandated by the Mexican government during spawning season, which is when female fish lay eggs.

Sure, he says, the sea lions are a problem for fishermen. “But the worst sea lions of all are the humans.”

“All the fish are diminishing here, and they know production is going down, but they still have to take it out,” he says. “Everyone works just to make money. It is in critical condition. We are fishing too much.”

At the end of the day, two fishermen work together to pull a heavy gillnet out of the water.

At the end of the day, two fishermen work together to pull a heavy gillnet out of the water.

Overfishing is exacerbated by the fact that “at least 50 percent of the fleet is illegal,” says Pfister. “When the fleet is illegal, you don’t know who, want, when, where, or how.” Those questions—who’s fishing, what they’re fishing, when they’re doing it, and how they’re catching it—are the core of what constitutes a fishery management plan, which is required for all fisheries by the Mexican government. (“Do they have them?” says Pfister. “No. But they’re supposed to.”)

There are two basic ways to manage who takes what out of Gulf waters. The first is to regulate fishermen themselves, by allowing only those fishermen who have permits onto the water; by closing certain fisheries, like crab or flounder, during known spawning seasons; and by restricting what type of gear fishermen can use to catch certain kinds of fish in order to reduce bycatch rates. The second way is to regulate the waters themselves, by establishing Marine Protected Areas—a sort of aquatic National Park, although access varies by type—or fishery refuges, which severely limit fishing or outright prohibit it, either to restore fishery health or to protect endangered species. (The primary funder of the latter strategy was a former Arizonan—Sam Walton III, who, through the Walton Foundation, pioneered Marine Protected Areas by purchasing coastal lands that were linked to offshore fisheries.)

“Mexico has a good structure, legally, as far as what is required to fish and regulation,” Pfister says. “But there’s no enforcement, or spotty enforcement. Some of the enforcement agencies don’t have any money. They’ll say, ‘We only have two boats, we don’t have any money to buy gas.’”

Given such limited enforcement, given the tremendous worldwide demand for fish, and given that fishermen have almost no other way to make a living besides taking as much fish out of the ocean as they possibly can, “The primary issue in the Gulf is overfishing,” Pfister says. “Period.”

A solitary sea snail is snared in a bottom cage; once it fills up, after a day or two, fishermen will come to collect their catch.

A solitary sea snail is snared in a bottom cage; once it fills up, after a day or two, fishermen will come to collect their catch.

VENUSTIANO RENTERIA MAYORQUIN is preparing to send 27 tons of Pacific mackerel—enough to fill a semitrailer truck—to Colombia. The Kino fishermen he contracts with haven’t yet caught 27 tons of Pacific mackerel, the region’s most popular export, so much of the order is on ice, waiting in his walk-in freezer.

Mayorquin says that he’ll pay fishermen 16 pesos per kilo that they bring in—about $1.23 in U.S. dollars. He might sell the mackerel to a market in Hermosillo for 60 pesos per kilo, and it might in turn sell the fish to an international buyer for an even higher price. “It goes through a lot of hands,” he says.

In 2000, as a response to overfishing, the Mexican government issued a law called Ordenamiento Pesquero, which effectively stopped new permits from being issued in an attempt to “normalize” fishing activity. What that means in practice is that permits are now simply sold (and resold) to the highest bidder. Demand is high, so prices are, too—who holds the permit holds the power. And, more often that not, that person is not a fishermen.

Mayorquin is what’s known as a permissionario, which roughly translates to marketing agent. Permissionarios are the middlemen between those who catch fish and those who buy it. Most permissionarios hold their own fishing permits, usually for multiple boats, and simply contract fishermen to catch whatever it is they think they can sell.

Permissionarios are not fishermen; they don’t know about the biology of fish. They just buy and sell,” says Vásquez-León, who works primarily in the Upper Gulf, near Puerto Peñasco. “So they would go tell local fishermen, ‘You have to go out and get lobster.’ The fishermen would say, ‘No. You’re going to find gravid [pregnant] females, so we shouldn’t catch lobster right now.’ And they’d say, ‘We don’t care. If you’re not going to do it, we’re going to bring fishermen from the south of Mexico.’”

In a market-based system, Vásquez-León says, “when the buyers and the sellers are the ones making the decisions as to how the fishery is going to be used, then you really have problems.”

She says that fishermen should be the ones making those decisions. And fishermen, when asked, say that they want stronger enforcement of existing regulations. When just one person exploits a common resource, it de-incentivizes everyone else to follow the rules.

“The attitude is, ‘If I don’t take it, someone else will,’” says Leopold Encinas, a lifelong Kino fisherman. Encinas started fishing in 1978, although he stopped in 2009 when he was hired by a nonprofit conservation agency called Communidad y Biodiversidad, or COBI, to inventory fish stocks.

“If I’m fishing and I see a lobster, and I know it’s a female and might be spawning, I know I should leave it. But if I leave it, then someone else will just take it,” he says.

As fish stocks plummet, the dilemma becomes even more acute. If your catch has been bad Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and you come across a big school of fish on Thursday, even if you know you should leave it, “You have to pay for gas. You have to earn a little bit of money. And someone else might come along. So you’re going to take it,” Encinas says. “We fishermen live day to day. What I earn today, I spend today. This is the mentality, so it’s hard to get us to think about the future.”

While some communities in the Gulf have organized fishing cooperatives to prevent precisely this phenomenon, Kino remains mostly unorganized. The fishing grounds are large, which means they’re hard to control—even if local fishermen designated a reserve, outsiders might come in and simply scoop up the fish they’d been trying to protect.

There are many organizations working against this trend—working to organize and empower fishermen in the Gulf to see that they do have the ability to change the way things work. Encinas is one of eight fishermen in Kino working with COBI to inventory fish and wildlife. “We want to raise awareness about how conservation can benefit everyone. If we don’t leave species to reproduce, then we’ll run out soon,” Encinas says. “But we can still do something, because there is still fish here today.”


Pulling fish from the nets at the end of a long day.

AT JORGE’S RESTAURANT, located on the north end of New Kino, open windows pour sea air onto tables. Jorge Luis Ramírez has been serving fish pan fried or simmered in garlic sauce for 15 years. “There’s less fish, so it’s more expensive to buy,” he says of how the market has changed. His customers—mainly from Hermosillo, some from the United States —don’t much ask about the sustainability of the fish he’s serving, he says. Either they know the answer, or they’re on vacation.

At Jorge’s, you can order your lenguado grilled or covered in onions, but you can’t know exactly what kind of lenguado you’re eating—the word translates into English as California halibut, foureye flounder, dappled flounder, or fantailed sole. This is not an ambiguity in translation—“Lenguado is a catch-all term for any flat-bottom fish,” says Lorayne Meltzer, the co-director of the Prescott College Kino Bay Center for Cultural and Ecological Studies. “The market doesn’t distinguish. That’s exactly why we need truth in labeling. What are you really eating?”

Meltzer says it’s up to consumers to demand these answers. “Where did this fish come from? How was it caught? What, really, is it? What’s the species, and was it produced through aquaculture or was it wild caught?” she says. “If people cared enough to say, we will pay more for fish that we know is sustainably caught, if there is demand, it might spread like [sustainably produced] chicken or vegetables did.”

How, exactly, consumers can demand sustainably caught seafood is a trickier question to answer. The chain of custody for seafood is notoriously hard to follow. Fishermen don’t know who buys their fish, once it leaves the docks; permissionarios often don’t either, as they sell fish to large import-export businesses—the two largest operating in the Gulf are Selecta Fish and Ocean Gardens Products—which then consolidate fish from oceans across the world to fulfill an order from Red Lobster or Safeway.

Because of how the supply chain works, “Even if a fishery decided, ‘O.K., we’re going to get our act together,’ it’s impossible for any individual fishery to market sustainably caught shrimp,” says Meltzer. “It would disappear into the larger market.”

Which doesn’t much help a consumer standing at a fish counter. Partly as a response to this confusion, in 1999 the Monterey Bay Aquarium started publishing a Seafood Watch guide, which uses scientific data to categorize seafood species in three categories: Best Choice, Good Alternative, or Avoid. Now considered the authoritative consumer advisory list for sustainable seafood, Seafood Watch also publishes regional guides, like a Gulf of California Seafood Report. They are available as apps for iPhone or Android.

But the information available to consumers to make that choice is often limited. What do you do if your Seafood Watch app tells you the choice between a California halibut caught with a set gillnet and one caught with a hand line is the difference between a Best Choice and a Good Alternative—and the menu simply says “halibut”?

The Tucson-based Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans, known as CEDO, is one organization that’s working to fix that. “One of the visions I have is to connect the local Upper Gulf markets to the Tucson community and create a partnership between our two communities for sustainable resources,” says Peggy Turk Boyer, CEDO’s executive director.

For the past several years, Boyer has been working with a dozen environmental groups, including COBI, to redefine the term “sustainable” as it relates to fisheries in the Gulf, setting benchmarks for the three levels that fisheries must navigate as they move toward sustainability. Because “there are very few fisheries in the world that are truly sustainable,” says Boyer, the point of the classification system is to help consumers identify—and support—communities and fisheries that are taking tangible steps to protect and build their region’s fish stocks, even if they haven’t yet arrived.

Indeed, if a fishery is managed according to market forces, logic dictates that if you change the market, you change the fishery.

For all the dire predictions, the ocean is still—for the time being—a resilient resource. Other communities in the Gulf have shown that if treated well—if managed and protected—the ocean can bounce back. On the tip of the Baja Peninsula, in Cabo Pulmo, “in the 80s and 90s, the fishery was totally fished out. It was kind of barren,” says Pfister. “The local community said, ‘We gotta do something. Because it’s gone.’ So they completely closed it off to fishing. Now it’s insane. There are groupers and snappers and now you’re seeing large sharks. We’ve seen a rebound.”

“What’s important is to show fishermen and consumers that they have the power to make that change,” says Meltzer.

Download the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app for iPhone or Android, or download the guide online at

Prescott College Kino Bay Center for Cultural and Ecological Studies. 151 Calle Cádiz y Puerto Vallarta. Bahía de Kino, Sonora. 928.350.2236.

CEDO Intercultural. Puerto Peñasco, Sonora. 520.320.5473.


Drinking the Colorado River


Reconnecting the Colorado River with the delta could lead to the return of fish, and in turn, fisheries.

Travel back a century and you’d find a different Gulf of California. Head north, to the Colorado River Delta, and you’d see a place teeming with life—with birds, marine mammals, and fish. With its seasonal floods, which flushed important waterborne nutrients into the Gulf, the Colorado River Delta was once an important spawning ground for many fish species, including corvina, shrimp, and totoaba.

But when in 1922 the Colorado River Compact divided river flow among seven states in the United States, whatever river flow remained was diverted at a dam north of the Mexican border, and the delta dried up. Without water, the thriving marine ecosystem sank into silty soil; without fish, fishermen sought sustenance elsewhere.

The last time the river and the delta were connected was in 1998, when surplus snowmelt from the Rockies made it into Mexico. What that rare event showed was that even a little water had a huge impact on estuary ecosystems. “The amount of water that is needed to enhance habitat in the delta is about one percent of annual river flow,” said Francisco Zamora, the director of the Sonoran Institute’s Colorado River Delta program. “It’s a very small amount of water.”

In March, as part of a landmark agreement between the United States and Mexico, the Sonoran Institute helped oversee the release of 34 billion gallons of water over eight weeks at the Morelos Dam, near Yuma—a one time “pulse flow” event—with the hope of improving ecological conditions along the river and, eventually, reconnecting it to the sea.

“There is no doubt that if you put more water in the river, it will benefit the fisheries,” says Zamora. “The key unknown is how much water you need. This release will help us to better refine that.”

The Sonoran Institute is working to raise money to secure water rights to keep an annual flow to maintain water in the river and delta, says the Sonoran Institute’s Seth Cothrun. “A healthy delta would make a huge difference to the economy of both countries.” ✜

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