In July 1996, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo established as law the Parque Nacional Bahia de Loreto (Bay of Loreto National Marine Park). The creation of this new national park was an amazing feat considering the idea for this protected marine area merged the considerable efforts of the community of Loreto, B.C.S, and the local conservation organization, Grupo Ecologista Antares A.C. (GEA).
Under jurisdiction of the Mexican government, the new park is regulated by a local branch of SEMARNAP--Secretaria de Medio Ambiente, Recursos Naturales y Pesca (Natural Resource and Fishery Agency). The Bay of Loreto Park is the third such protected marine bioregion in the Gulf of California, joining ranks with the Upper Gulf /Lower Colorado Biosphere Reserve to the north and the Cabo Pulmo Reserve to the south. The new park itself is fairly small, covering approximately 1,283 miles (roughly 1/2 million acres) in the Sea of Cortés. The five islands lying within the designated Bay of Loreto Park boundaries include Islas Coronado, Carmen, Danzante, Montserrat and Santa Catalina.
As with all the islands in the Gulf of California, these are biosphere reserves. They fall under the protection of the Sea of Cortés Islands Migratory Bird and Wildlife Refuge. The Bay of Loreto Park has already significantly influenced this seaside community, which continues to depend on the islands and waters of the Gulf for its livelihood. The park's exceptional creation has generated positive feedback from various agencies within the United States and other countries that are anxious to monitor and emulate its potential success—a success “that all of those involved in its evolution feel fairly certain it can attain,” says Sean Hennessey of The Nature Conservancy (TNC). According to Sea of Cortés Program Director Serge Dedina (also of TNC), “The park was created in response to the large-scale destruction of the local marine resources by national and foreign industrial fishing trawlers.”
The primary mission of the Parque Nacional is to balance the needs of Loreto's people with the protection and sustainability of the biological resources found inside its boundaries. Until the boundaries of the Bay of Loreto were established by law, there were no restrictions on the industrial fishing vessels and shrimp trawlers plying its waters daily. Industrial fishing is now illegal within park boundaries and restrictions on small-scale fishing boats are following close behind. Dedina adds, “Since the Bay of Loreto was created in 1996, there has been a 98% decrease in the number of shrimp trawlers working within the park. Those that do come in are in serious danger of being cited and detained.” That statistic alone proves that the fledgling park system has become effective in enforcing its conservation policies in the mere two-and-a-half years since its inception. The park staff is now concentrating fully on repairing the damage that years of negligence have wrought, making way for the once-rich fishery of the Bay of Loreto to rebound to its original abundance.
To facilitate this, SEMARNAP and its national park staff have focused on creating an atmosphere that encourages input from all of the parties interested in the park and the long-term health of its marine bioregions. These parties include everyone from local artisans to wealthy American sportfishermen, ecotourists to marine researchers.
RESEARCH AND FUNDING|
The outside organizations most involved in offering their knowledge and monetary backing are TNC and Conservation International. Additional research and support is provided by the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California Sur (UABCS) in La Paz, the National Institute of Fisheries and ISLA—an island conservation group also based in La Paz. Baja Life Magazine has dedicated itself to the cause by publishing several articles describing the vital work being done in Loreto and is funding a new eco web-site at www.baja
life.com/ecowatch to monitor progress.
In July 1998, TNC initiated a three-year, $250,000 commitment funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Packard Foundation, the Homeland Foundation, Orvis, the Japanese government, and the Vagabundos del Mar Travel Club. By recently including the Bay of Loreto National Marine Park in its “Parks In Peril” program, TNC has freed the opportunity to offer even more financial support. This increased funding from the conservancy has now provided a boat, a park vehicle, informational signs for the islands, a park visitor center, computer training for park staff, a Junior Ranger Program for local children, and conservation training for all those working in the park system.
The recent TNC funding of an on-the-water PROFEPA officer is a huge accomplishment as well. PROFEPA is the Mexican Federal Attorney General’s Office of Protection, run under the same government wing as SEMARNAP. PROFEPA agent Joaquin Arce has been given a small office located in the Bay of Loreto Park building, a boat, fuel and an increase to his very low government salary. Arce's full-time presence now allows the park to monitor all activities taking place inside its boundaries. Similar to U.S. park rangers, PROFEPA agents have the ability to detain, write citations and arrest those people and marine vessels breaking park regulations. Before Arce was hired, there was only one PROFEPA officer assigned to monitor marine areas on both sides of the peninsula. Meagerly funded and under-supported, this single official had been unable to stem the tide of illegal fishing. Recently in Puerto Escondido, two illegal shrimp trawlers were detained at the dock. Arrested while attempting to drop their nets off the coast of Isla Montserrat, they will no longer be able to fish within the park's boundaries.
All this publicity has paved the way for Bay of Loreto National Park to become a fully functioning agency and the first of its kind in Mexico. Park officials have recently expanded the amount of paid park staff to five – a far cry from the original one employee it began with. It is hoped that this augmented staff can accomplish the huge amount of work that lies ahead.
Since the beginning, TNC has been the largest non-governmental organization to provide financial support of this work. This past year, TNC recruited Sean Hennessey, a full-time outreach/education coordinator in Loreto. Hennessey, a former student at the Baja-based School for Field Studies, came aboard to promote TNC’s vision of a true community-oriented marine park. Working in conjunction with Serge Dedina (TNC) and Fernando Arcas (GEA), he created an environmental education program called Bajo El Mar. With this program, Hennessey took local children on scuba diving expeditions, using equipment donated by a local outdoor adventure company, Las Parras Tours. The idea was to expose local children to the marine world they are being asked to protect. After the scuba trips, the children were asked to use photos they had taken underwater to convey what they had seen. These “photo essays” are on display in the GEA museum in downtown Loreto. “With first-hand experience comes a desire to protect. We must start with the kids of this community and build awareness from the ground up,” Hennessey proudly declares.
CREATING THE MANAGEMENT PLAN
Under the guidance of the University of La Paz and funded by a $65,000 grant from FONATUR, the Bay of Loreto Park is now creating its Biological Resource Management Plan. The plan is being drafted with the help of SEMARNAP/Parque Nacional Bahia de Loreto staff, headed by former PROFEPA officer Benito Bermudez. Biological research for the plan is largely provided by ISLA, providing a focus on island conservation and also by the University of La Paz. Once complete, it will set an adaptive management timeline and an ecological zoning plan for sensitive areas. This plan has been anxiously anticipated by many parties, all with many differing expectations. Don Croll, of the U.C. Santa Cruz (UCSC) Long Marine Lab, feels that a large part of the park’s focus should be on island protection. Croll’s Island Conservation and Ecology Group (ICEG) has been working in cooperation with SEMARNAP to eradicate non-native species – the biggest threat to the Bay of Loreto islands and elsewhere in the Gulf of California. As a blue whale researcher with UCSC and the University of La Paz, Croll has spent a fair amount of time on Loreto Bay's waters. He believes the park will be able to regenerate a healthy fishery. The viability of the fragile island ecosystems is what Croll feels is in peril. However, Croll is encouraged by the effort SEMARNAP has made to control by permit the level of island beach use, stating that “human misuse is the cause of the damage witnessed on these islands.”
CONSENSUS IS NOT SIMPLE
Many differing voices are speaking out with their ideas on what the park's objectives should be. Biologists, researchers, local sea kayak guides, panga fishermen, Loreto's community activists and American sportfishermen are all weighing in their opinions. There have always been and will always be conflicts regarding the use of global marine resources and achieving consensus is very difficult. As Wallace J. Nichols, a wildlife ecologist with the University of Arizona who often works in the Bay of Loreto, sees it, “The question for this park is how can we do the most good, for the most people, for the longest time. Putting together a sustainable resource map for an area mainly comprised of water and a few islands is a challenge.” Sean Hennessey adds, “You can’t put a fence around an ocean.”
It is important to remember that the park falls under the laws of the Mexican government. The plan must be approved by the Secretary of SEMARNAP and then the Diario Official, the Mexican equivalent of the U.S. Congressional Record. Consequently, creating a management plan to suit all of these varying interests is taking some time. Bermudez and his staff hope to have the plan completed and accepted by all parties involved within the next four months, making it a three-and-a-half year project when finalized. That’s a surprisingly short amount of time given the volume of research so far invested and considering the park was critically under-funded from the beginning.
COMPROMISE IS CRITICAL
Determining and responding to the needs of the community that created the park has also added uncertainty to the process, making some goals seem compromised. As Nichols says, “It won’t make everyone happy, but isn’t that what management is about? It’s a chance SEMARNAP must take to ensure the viability of this biosphere for years to come, balanced with the political pressure it faces as a government organization. Expectations can make this a very hard process. The amount of progress so far accomplished by the Park, TNC and its supporters is to be applauded. If they focus on each piece of the plan and set realistic goals, they can make a go of it.”
The final draft of the resource plan will address the concerns of local and visiting sportfishermen, though it seems, says Nichols, “that the freedom to fish wherever and whenever is over.” Restrictions on small-scale gill netting by panga fishermen are being researched and revised. Areas like sensitive spawning grounds will be identified and closed to net fishing. Bay of Loreto Park Director Benito Bermudez is creating a zoning plan for these sensitive areas, allowing only safe fishing practices. Local fishermen will need to learn these safe practices to obtain their permits. The biomass levels as the Park rebounds are being studied. What will happen as fish populations return to healthy densities? How will this new resource be managed responsibly? How will the community benefit? The Park will eventually create a “safe haven” for larger migratory species such as whales. Sea turtles, of which there are five endangered species, are also found within Park boundaries.
CHANGE COMES HARD
Loreto local commercial fishermen have felt the impact of the depletion of their local fishery from industrial fishing. The percentage of locals still fishing for their livelihood is very small. Still, last year they refused to accept a draft plan presented in a town meeting format by the University of La Paz. Returned to SEMARNAP for revision, the draft is now being worked into the forthcoming plan. Despite the Park's local birth, it has been difficult for some to warm up to the idea of the Park controlling their rights. In Nichol's view, “The issue is responsibility and it is an age-old issue. We must all give up a little autonomy for the good of all.”
Many local commercial fishermen have become sportfishing guides – a transition that Serge Dedina applauds. “Sportfishing is great. It is the original sustainable economic activity. The more people that turn to sportfishing, the less pressure is applied on the commercial fisheries.” He goes on, “Who better to provide knowledge of the sea than fishermen who have been working on the water their whole lives?"
What an amazing evolution to witness – from the seeds of an idea planted by the members of a community to the formation of a national park that could well become a role model for new park systems all over the world. To paraphrase Nichols, “The primary goal is to balance the use of all the resources found within the park and protect them in such a way so as to sustain and provide for existing and future populations. The role of the park and its management plan must be to focus on the recovery and conservation of all that lies within its boundaries and to thoughtfully balance these objectives with the lives of the people who are dependent upon those resources."
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