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Mexico’s Amazing Sea of Cortez: How Education is Helping Preserve ‘The World’s Aquarium’


A short jaunt over Arizona’s southern border—a mere 215 miles from Tucson into Mexico—lies the glimmering Sea of Cortez.

Desert map ©Public Domain
©Public Domain

Also known as the Gulf of California, this sea is recognized as one of the most biologically diverse on the planet—it is home to approximately 900 species of fish, thousands of species of invertebrates, as well as sea turtles, and marine mammals like sea lions, dolphins, and whales. Famed French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau once called it “the world’s aquarium.”


CEDO’s headquarters is easily recognized by a 16.7-meter Fin whale skeleton that sits on an incline on the property in Puerto Peñasco.   ©Simon W. Herbert
CEDO’s headquarters is easily recognized by a 16.7-meter Fin whale skeleton that sits on an incline on the property in Puerto Peñasco. ©Simon W. Herbert

It is also home to CEDO, the Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans (Centro Intercultural de Estudios de Desiertos y Océanos.) CEDO has emerged as a vital educational hub for environmental management, beach cleanups, and responsible fishing practices.


CEDO’s headquarters is located in the town of Puerto Peñasco in the northern part of the Sea of Cortez. Also known as Rocky Point, population app. 63,000, the town is a popular tourist destination and Mexican fishing port.


Some forty years ago, an alliance of nonprofit organizations in the United States and Mexico created CEDO to research the unique areas of the Northern Gulf of California, the Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve and the Puerto-Peñasco-Puerto Lobos Biological Corridor.


CEDO conducted field research in these environments, developed partnerships with researchers from the US and Mexico, and initiated community monitoring projects. As a result, CEDO’s integrated research programs “quickly advanced [the] understanding of the northern Gulf of California and its biophysical, ecological, and socioeconomic features.” CEDO’s investment has paid off—these unique environments are considered one of the best researched habitats in the Gulf of California.


However, challenges emerged as the local tourist industry, fisheries, and population grew. CEDO responded by educating coastal communities on how to continue their traditional livelihoods while supporting healthy, resilient ecosystems.


CEDO’s interior courtyard.  ©Simon W. Herbert
CEDO’s interior courtyard. ©Simon W. Herbert

Recently, CEDO Executive Director Nélida Barajas Acosta talked with The Earth & I about CEDO’s successes and challenges. In 2019, Acosta moved with her husband Abelardo (who also works with CEDO) and her children from Mexico City to Puerto Peñasco. Since then, she has worked tirelessly to continue CEDO’s many projects while bringing a fresh and innovative approach to the organization.


Acosta wants to raise interest about environmental issues among Mexican youth. “There is … awareness about the environment [among the young] but not [at] the level … that [it] should be,” she says. “There are many young people who are interested in doing activities to protect and conserve the sea, but they are not in big numbers; there is something we are missing in communicating with them in ways they can engage.”


Caring About Clean Beaches and Seas


Pollution is a perennial issue.


Mexico’s many renowned, beautiful beaches are often also littered with garbage. Cans, bottles, plastic bags, and other debris often end up in the sea, where they can harm sea birds, sea turtles, and other marine animals. Ingesting plastic can even result in an animal’s death.


“Lately there is more social ‘punishment,’” Acosta says. “A person may say, ‘Oh, he’s a cochino, she’s a cochina [loosely translated a dirty person.] I ask people, ‘Why don’t you pick up your waste and throw it in a trashcan?’ Sometimes the response is, ‘Oh, I am giving work to others’ [to those who collect aluminum cans], but this is not how you do it! Is it difficult to put the garbage in a bag and put it in the trash can? The tides come up, and those cans end up in the sea; most of the trash in the sea is coming from the land,” she says.


CEDO has been promoting beach cleanups for twenty years to help both residents and visitors remember that they should always properly dispose of their trash. In 2021, for instance, CEDO organized the International Coastal Cleanup. More than 600 participants from Puerto Peñasco, including governmental, educational, and civil society organizations, along with volunteers, fishers, and families, collected three tons of waste at twenty-three cleanup sites along the Gulf’s coastline.


In 2021, CEDO organized the International Coastal Cleanup.  ©CEDO
In 2021, CEDO organized the International Coastal Cleanup. ©CEDO

Cleanup results were registered with Clean Swell, an app that helps record the types, weight, location, and other details of the debris found.


Responsible, Sustainable Fisheries


A critical socioeconomic issue in coastal fishing communities is creating well-managed fisheries.


The upper Gulf of California region is known for a protected species known as totoaba, a delectable fish that can grow to six feet and weigh as much as 200 pounds. This massive fish, however, is suffering from seriously depleted numbers. Dried totoaba swim bladders are so valued in China they fetch prices of up to $46,000 per kilogram on the black market. Due to the totoaba’s marketability, illegal fishing of the species has become rampant. Moreover, “people who fish illegally also catch the vaquita,” says Acosta, referring to a small marine dolphin that may become extinct because it is often trapped in fishing nets.


CEDO’s work to create sustainable fishing practices has been critical.


Overfishing of totoaba for their swim bladder has resulted in the near extinction of the above pictured vaquita, a porpoise found only in the Gulf of California.  ©Flip Nicklin/Minden Pictures
Overfishing of totoaba for their swim bladder has resulted in the near extinction of the above pictured vaquita, a porpoise found only in the Gulf of California. ©Flip Nicklin/Minden Pictures

“Probably the most tangible project CEDO has been involved with, that made a huge impact on fisheries and the livelihoods of fishermen, are environmental impact assessments,” says Acosta. “If you want to fish in protected areas, we can show fishermen how they can fish legally, and how they can harvest fish from the sea; but they cannot fish with nets. In the upper Gulf of California, I can say these environmental impact assessments have been a great success.”


She continues, “[E]verything we are doing is … interrelated. When we speak of communities, people may care about the ocean, but what of those geographically isolated small communities? Who cares about them? But they need to go into the sea and fish, and they can overfish—or they can fish in sustainable way. When that fish gets on your table, you can share the story of the fisherman, the woman who is cleaning and bringing the fish to market. Instead of paying one peso for that fish, you are maybe paying two pesos, but you are giving more value to the work they are doing, and now they have a better livelihood.


“Fishers can show they care about the ocean and provide evidence that they are fishing in a sustainable way,” adds Acosta. “We are talking with fishermen and learning from their traditional knowledge of fishing, but we are providing them with new tools on how to do sustainable fishing. You are eating a sustainably caught fish from your area, not a frozen fish from China or Chile.”


CEDO also is “not only working with the fishermen, but with [their] families,” Acosta says. “The children go to school and hear environmental programs. The wife talks to her husband about saving water. Information goes from the fishermen to the mothers, and then to the kids. We need a new approach; we are proposing nature-based solutions. The solutions to all societal challenges that humanity faces, we can find in nature. This means health, and food and livelihood. We can work together to keep nature healthy while gaining everything we need to live well.”


In May of 2021, CEDO instituted the Escuela del Mar (School of the Sea), a program which trains and certifies both men and women to fish responsibly and sustainably in the Gulf.


CEDO’s School of the Sea certification program.  ©CEDO Archive
CEDO’s School of the Sea certification program. ©CEDO Archive

The local Mexican population seeks to be involved with improving the environment, but they need good information, says Acosta. People don’t want to hear they are “an agent of ocean pollution”; they want to know what they can do to reverse the trend.


“I work now with the sons and daughters of fishermen. When I ask about solutions to environmental problems, they often have the best ideas and many stories about how to protect the environment because they have been living there forever,” says Acosta.


Regarding CEDO’s funding, Acosta says individuals and US sources are the biggest backers.


“Our funding comes from individual donors—from $5 to a $1,000; 30% of our income is from individual donors, 60% of our funds come from the Unitetes. Why isn’t Mexico supporting our work more? In Mexico, philanthropic culture is not taught in schools or in families. So, you have money for Starbucks, but you are not contributing to ocean conservation?” she says.


It sometimes seems like an uphill battle to raise people’s consciousness about their environment through education and vigilance, but Acosta is undeterred.


“There is no single solution to these problems; we must be creative and understand how everything is related. Everyone needs to recognize the role they play in this complex equation. It is related to education, but it is also related to care,” says Acosta.


“The main message we need to share is to bring people to nature: If you don’t spend time in nature, you can’t love it, and you won’t care,” she adds. “Why is [it] important to protect the ocean? You can have all the scientific arguments, but I see the future of conservation is through a more intensive, interaction with everyone. It isn’t just biologists, scientists, and nonprofits; we all play a role in creating the conditions in which we live in.”


Visitors to CEDO can register for programs which include ecotours to San Jorge Island, kayaking, tidepool exploration, and estuary excursions. To learn more about CEDO’s work, visit their website at https://cedo.org/

 

*Kate Pugnoli is an Arizona-based freelance journalist and former educator who works with nonprofit organizations. Her area of interest is in addressing environmental issues impacting marine biodiversity and conservation.


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