Marine protection for the Gulf of California

Geographical location:

Latin America/Caribbean > Central America > Mexico

King angel fish (Holocanthus passer) in coral reef, Gulf of California. Mexico.
© WWF-Canon / Gustavo YBARRA

Summary

The small subtropical sea between the mainland of Mexico and the Baja Peninsula is the Gulf of California - a large inlet once fed by several rivers, including the mighty Colorado River. A series of dams upstream in the United States has reduced the flows into the gulf to a mere trickle. Water pollution and overfishing also threaten the gulf, which supports rich marine life, including the endangered Vaquita porpoise, blue and fin whales, and a number of marine turtles.

WWF and its partners are working to ensure that at least 15% of the Gulf of California is managed as marine reserves to protect threatened species and help replenish economically important fish stocks.

Background

The location and elongated form of the Gulf allows for climatic and ecosystem diversity that extend from Sonoran and the Baja California deserts to tropical forests in the South, with the Sierra Madre Occidental (one of the 2 main mountain ranges at 2,000m above sea level in Mexico) bordering the East of the terrestrial portion.

Rocky shores mark the central and lower Baja coast and occur around nearly all Gulf islands. Hundreds of miles of gently sloping sandy beaches, interrupted by short stretches of rocky headlands characterize the mainland. Both coastlines have numerous coves, bays, lagoons, and estuaries bordered by mangrove swamps and salt marshes.

With 3 of the 5 states bordering the US, the region is considered a natural location for international traffic routes and tourism development. The service industry includes 2,532 services such as restaurants, bars, and night clubs. In addition the Gulf has a total of 60 marine ports (15 commercial, 20 fishing, 17 tourist and 8 ports for petroleum activities). All tourist areas are accessible by land through the terrestrial highways and in some cases through the international and national airports in the principal tourism sites such as La Paz, Mazatlan, San Carlos-Guaymas, Los Cabos and Puerto Peñasco

The great diversity of topographic and bathymetric features of the Gulf of California has produced a variety of habitats and an outstanding richness of marine life. Although it represents only 0.008% of the world's seas, the Gulf harbours 34 species of marine mammals, almost 900 tropical and temperate species of fishes, 5 species of marine turtles, 4,839 known species of marine macro-invertebrates and 626 forms of macro algae.

Much of this marine life is endemic to the Gulf, including 79 species of fish, 749 macro-invertebrates, 62 marine macro algae, some coral species and one marine mammal. Many of its deep waters life forms are still unknown.

The Gulf region supports about 530 bird species (170 of which are sea and shore bird species) and provides nesting, feeding and breeding sites for residential and migratory birds. The wetlands and coastal lagoons along the Eastern coastline and the Baja California Peninsula are part of a vital intercontinental migratory corridor between North and South America - the Pacific Flyway - with more than 260,000ha of mangrove ecosystems.

More than 800 islands and islets, known worldwide because of their beauty and the remarkable richness of the waters surrounding them, house a large number of endemic reptiles, mammals and cacti (50% of the total are endemic species).

They house important breeding colonies for birds, such as Herman's gulls and elegant terns, blue footed and brown bobbies, brown pelicans, and serve a function as resting and foraging areas for many migratory birds, and important breeding rookeries of California sea lions.

In 1992 WWF began work in the Gulf of California, sponsoring research studies on island seabirds, sardines, anchovies, and other gulf species. This led to an intensive analysis of small-scale fishery activities in the Grandes Islas. Maps developed in cooperation with local fishermen are now part of a database and help WWF analyze the political, social, economic, and ecological implications of managing the area's fisheries.

The Gulf of California ecoregion Action Network Programme, launched in 1998, developed a shared conservation vision for the Gulf. The result was a series of conservation actions which jointly with CIMEX, Fondo Mexicano para la Conservación de la Naturaleza (FMCN), CBC - Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and other major alliances (California Sea Grant College (CSGC), and ALCOSTA, was intended to impact at truly ecoregional scale, optimizing efforts and resources and sharing projects and responsibilities in order to influence decisions at the highest levels.

Objectives

- An ecoregional conservation and sustainable development action plan for the Gulf of California is completed and operating.

- At least 15% of the marine area of the Gulf is legally protected and effectively managed as marine reserves.

- The spiny lobster and jaiba (blue crab) community-based fisheries in the Gulf of California and Baja Peninsula are certified through Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

- Watershed management to ensure freshwater for environmental use.

- Sustainable management and recovery mechanisms for the remaining populations of species of special concern (vaquita, marine turtles, sharks and rays).

- Communication and environmental education campaigns to support conservation targets.

Solution

The Gulf biodiversity priorities portfolio is used to guide investments in conservation and the development of environmental policy tools as the ecological zoning plan for the Gulf of California.

At the same time WWF and its partners developed advocacy activities to capitalize the take out of the shrimp bottom trawling fleet in the Upper Gulf reserve exploring the intention of the CANIPESCA to work together with Conservation International (CI) and WWF for the sustainability of the industrial fisheries.

Currently WWF in the Gulf has consolidated strong steps toward the conservation at an ecoregional level. A powerful base has now been established with information and planning to create a foundation for policy impact and platforms. This provides a solid support to get a more active agenda focused on more and measurable conservation successes in the future.

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