By Sandra Dibble
The nutrient-rich waters off the town of Bahia de los Angeles in the Gulf of California are known as a home for protected and endangered marine species, including whale sharks, fin whales, California sea lions and five species of sea turtle.
After a six-year campaign, conservationists are celebrating Tuesday's designation by Mexican President Felipe Calderón of the marine region as a naturally protected area, the Bahia de los Angeles Biosphere Reserve.
Encompassing more than 950,000 acres – less than half the size of Yellowstone National Park – the reserve includes the bay of Bahia de los Angeles, the Ballenas and Salsipuedes canals, as well as beaches and coastal wetland areas.
“This is like a gift that we're receiving,” said Fermín Smith, a former fisherman who has championed conservation efforts in the region and operates a small family-operated ecotourism business in the reserve. “But we're just starting; it's just the first step.”
A launching area to the central Sea of Cortes, as the Gulf of California is also known, the town of Bahia de los Angeles has long been prized by the conservation and scientific communities. Its sweeping vistas make it one of the most beautiful spots in this sparsely populated desert region.
But overfishing has made it increasingly difficult for residents to support themselves. As development pressures have been mounting around the Gulf of California, proponents say the reserve will help ensure that the growth of low-impact tourism can be a key to the region's future.
“We believe that Bahia de los Angeles can be something different,” said Ernesto Enkerlin, director of Mexico's National Commission for Protected Areas. “This is the beginning of the real thing, which is ensuring that conservation benefits local communities.”
The effort to win the special designation dates to 2001 with a proposal by Pronatura Noroeste, a regional arm of Mexico's oldest and largest environmental organization.
“We couldn't just cross our arms and wait for more fisheries to collapse and more marine resources to disappear,” said Gustavo Danemann, director of the marine conservation and sustainable fishing programs for Pronatura Noroeste.
With the designation official, the next step is coming up with a management plan that guides activities in the area, including fishing and tourism. Under the rules of a biosphere reserve, the community of 600 year-round residents must be consulted before any actions are taken.
The effort to win the designation started in Bahia de los Angeles with the persuasion of local residents to support the proposal. Outside backing for the the effort came from scientists, environmental groups and funders from both sides of the border, including two key supporters in San Diego: Wildcoast and the International Community Foundation.
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