A well-known conservation success story in Cabo Pulmo, Mexico, involves a local community that lobbied the government to establish a marine park and no-take zone that would save its coral reefs.
Decades later, the area is now an extremely popular vacation destination, with more tourists entering the area than the local community can handle.
Residents feel overwhelmed by the growth and popularity of the area. They are calling for new regulations to be put in place.
When Dr. Sylvia Earle, the famous oceanographer and conservationist, visited Mexico’s Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park in 2016, she called it a “hope spot” for the planet. In little more than a decade, Cabo Pulmo residents had come together to help establish one of the first protected oceans in the country.
Even more significantly, the community was designing and managing the park itself.
Today, conservationists continue to point to Cabo Pulmo as a shining example of community-based conservation. But visits from Earle and other internationally renowned figures over the years, combined with booming tourism on the Baja California coast, northwest of the country, have created new problems for residents.
The national park has experienced such a massive influx of visitors and tourism development that it is becoming increasingly difficult to control. If a better plan isn’t established soon, residents told Mongabay, the area might become ungovernable.
“If we don’t do something, [the protected area] isn’t going to last another two years,” said Judy Castro, a local resident. “That’s how much time Cabo Pulmo has left if something isn’t done.”
The creation of a conservation hotspot
The 7,111-hectare (17,572-acre) stretch of ocean and coast has over 200 species of fish and the largest coral reef in the Gulf of California. It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005 and placed on the Ramsar list for wetlands of international importance in 2007.
The area was traditionally home to small-scale fishing by the Cabo Pulmo community but began seeing the emergence of commercial fishing as early as the 1960s. Large fishing boats depleted fish populations that the locals had relied on for subsistence, forcing them to continuously travel farther outside of their traditional fishing areas.
Scientists also observed concerning structural damage to the coral reef, including a sharp decline in branched corals, which grow branches from their base like a tree. Now, only flat reef remained.
By the 1980s, biologists from the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur had begun meeting with the community to discuss concerns about the future of Cabo Pulmo. Together, they came up with the idea for a national park that would cover parts of the beach and establish a no-take zone in the surrounding waters.
Locals could continue to fish for consumption but would eventually have to transition to other economic activities like boating, food service and lodging. Castro said she remembers there being opposition from the older members of the community, such as her father, who was accustomed to going out with her brothers every morning to fish.
“My dad said, ‘No, they’re not going to take fishing away from me,’” she said. “It was my brother Mario and uncle Juan who were the first to be convinced, and they started to convince everyone else.”
Mario Castro, her brother, established the first boating services in Cabo Pulmo but, like many of the residents who followed his example, struggled for years to find a viable business model. The nearby vacation spot Cabo San Lucas was still relatively unknown, and the only highway passing by the community — Camino Cabo Este — would not be paved for years.
Tourism projects loom over local community
It wasn’t until the early 2010s that the area started to attract enough tourists to support local businesses — albeit with a caveat. Foreign tourism companies also started moving in on the area, hoping to establish their own tours of the recovering coral reef.
In 2015, the community managed to fend off a $2 billion, 3,814-hectare (9,425-acre) tourism project known as Cabo Cortés. Over forty years, the project would have developed 15 hotels and two golf courses, as well as a marina with nearly 500 slips. Scientists feared it would destroy the coral reef.
So far, another threat like Cabo Cortés hasn’t come along. But there are dozens of small- and medium-sized businesses moving in that have overcrowded the area, attracting even more tourists and creating long wait times for boats wanting to go out on the water.
“It’s horrible,” Mario Castro said. “I try to leave my own store and everywhere there are cars, motorcycles, bikes, dogs, people everywhere — so much traffic.”
In 2011, nearly 5,000 tourists registered for snorkel activities in the park, according to government figures. By 2018, that number had nearly doubled. However, many local companies continued to have around five people on their staff.
To work in the area, businesses must obtain a permit from Mexico’s National Commission on Natural Protected Areas (Conanp). Community members said Conanp has granted too many. They want the commission to pause permits and increase its presence in the park.
Conanp did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment.
The community is also struggling to develop infrastructure like bathrooms, lodging and health centers, among other necessities. According to a recent report from the Baja California Sur Coastal Institute, Cabo Pulmo and the surrounding area will need approximately 46% more drinking water in 2040 than it does today.
Officials have been working with the community to develop a public use plan that will cap tourism numbers and possibly make it more difficult for additional businesses to enter the area. The scientists that helped establish the park back in the 1990s are also monitoring whether the tourism boom is hurting local ecosystems. They suspect that divers could be making physical contact with wildlife, and that excessive noise might be driving them to different waters.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, when tourism had disappeared, tests conducted in park waters revealed that there were even more fish than normal, indicating that the park is still in the process of protecting biodiversity.
They also detected illegal fishing and small amounts of pollution from boating. Without additional government support to manage tourism at the marine park, however, residents are worried the coral reef could start to feel the impact, too.
“Do you know what I would like?” Mario Castro said. “That they would close the park, that they close it down before it ends us.”
Banner image:A strip of protected beach in the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park. Photo via Jeff Gunn/Flickr.
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