2003-11-08 04:00:00 PDT Guasimas, Mexico -- Mike McGettigan, an American sportfisherman and diver, has been drawn to the rugged beauty and marine-rich waters of the Gulf of California for 30 years.
"I've watched it go from the richest sea I've ever swam in to the deadest sea I've ever swam in," said McGettigan, who founded the environmental watchdog group Sea Watch in 1994 to help focus attention on the waters, also known as the Sea of Cortez.
Destructive fishing practices, poor resource management, unclear regulations and official corruption have turned him into a born-again conservationist.
The sea, which has long enchanted such writers as John Steinbeck and Edward Abbey, is home to 875 fish species and 30 species of marine mammals. Nearly half the world's cetaceans, including whales and porpoises, migrate to the gulf to give birth in its warm, plankton-rich waters. Baja California towns such as Cabo San Lucas, La Paz and Loreto thrive on tourists, many of whom are Californians.
But in recent years, Mexican commercial fishermen searching for sailfish, tuna, marlin, billfish and dorado (mahi-mahi) have decimated marine life with "longlines" that can stretch up to 50 miles and hold thousands of baited hooks.
And smaller boats use gill nets -- large nylon webs that are banned by the European Union and the United States. Gill nets are legal in Mexico with a special permit, and longlines are legal to buy, sell and own but illegal to use.
Overfishing has affected not only the marine environment but the local economy -- an estimated 150,000 families earn their livelihood from the Sea of Cortez. "If it weren't for the (maquiladora export) factories, there would be no work for young people because there aren't any fish," said 79-year-old Hilario Amarillas, founder of a Yaqui Indian fishing cooperative in Guasimas, a village on the gulf's northeastern coast.
Some critics blame former President Carlos Salinas, who deregulated Mexican commercial fishing in 1992 without creating an effective system of licensing and permits. At least 12,000 unregulated fishing boats ply the Sea of Cortez, according to federal officials.
Faced with the prospect of a dying sea, an unlikely alliance of American conservationists, Mexican marine biologists, local residents and sport fishermen have pressured the Mexican government to enforce the nation's law against unlicensed boats and longlines that entrap sharks, sea turtles, sea lions, manta rays and porpoises along with the legal catch. There is no penalty for an "incidental" catch in Mexican law.
John Brakey, executive director of the U.S.-Mexico Friends of the Sea of Cortez, estimates that 6,000 shrimp fishermen use 13,000 gill nets. Most use small, flat-bottomed boats called pangas, and only one-third are legally registered, he says.
Carlos Villavicencia, a marine biologist at the Autonomous University of Southern Baja California in La Paz, estimates that the shark population in the Sea of Cortez has declined between 70 and 80 percent in the past two decades.
Wallace J. Nichols, a turtle researcher and co-director of WILDCOAST, a California-based conservation team, says some 40,000 turtles are killed annually by nets or poachers. Moreover, the Vaquita porpoise, which is endemic to the Gulf of California, has dwindled to less than 600, according to Lorenzo Rojas, coordinator of Mexico's Conservation Program at the National Ecology Institute. The world's smallest porpoise, it is on the World Conservation Union's most critically endangered list.
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