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The Fate of Cabo Pulmo National Park Remains Uncertain

By Dawn Pier

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about Cabo Pulmo, the Jewel of Mexico. The reef and marine animals living inside Cabo Pulmo National Park may be protected from direct impacts like fishing, aquarium collectors and boat anchors, and it may be the most successful marine park on the planet, but in 2008 a potentially devastating impact to the reef and its inhabitants began to gain momentum.

2.5 tons of manure dropped in protest against the Cabo Cortes development. Image courtesy of Greenpeace/Prometeo Rodríguez

That impact is a massive resort complex that Spanish-based developer  Hansa Baja planned to build directly north of the park.  The proposed development would create a sprawling new city on a scale comparable to Cancún that covers 9,800 acres and includes 29,000 hotel rooms and residential housing units, at least two golf courses, a 490-boat marina and a private jet port. A development of this type and scale would include the operation of a desalination plant to produce fresh water, application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to the golf courses and grounds, anti-fouling paints and other chemicals used in the marina and the city’s own creation of pollution (gas, oil, sediment and domestic garbage) which would flow south on ocean coastal currents toward the reef.

Upon learning of the developer’s intentions, WildCoast, Greenpeace Mexico, World Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defense Counsel (NRDC) and a consortium called Cabo Pulmo Vivo that consists of Baja-based conservation organizations like Amigos para la Conservacion de Cabo Pulmo (Friends for the Conservation of Cabo Pulmo), came together to fight the megadevelopment. The campaign against Cabo Cortes has been gaining momentum over the past year with articles almost universally condemning the project appearing in CBS News Online, the San Francisco Chronicle and National Geographic. Jean-Michel Cousteau, oldest son of biologist and explorer Jacques Cousteau, publicly criticized the project in March, and in April of last year, the Los Angeles Times published an Op Ed penned by none other than Robert Kennedy Jr. of the NRDC and Mexican poet laureate and founder of the environmental group Grupo los Cien, Homero Aridjis.

In the end, the economy dealt the developer a greater blow, with parent company Hansa Urbana forced to declare bankruptcy in 2011. The company’s assets, including the land and development plans for Cabo Cortes were acquired by regional Spanish bank, Banco Sabadell. At present it is not clear if the bank will sell the project or develop it.

The campaign against the development reached fever pitch on March 28th when, in an unprecedented move, the minister of the Mexican Environmental Protection Agency (SEMARNAT), Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada, stood before the Mexican Senate to answer charges that permits for Cabo Cortes were obtained illegally, through the use of bribery and fraud. Greenpeace Mexico was there representing concerned citizens and activists all over Mexico. The event was covered by a wide array of national media. On April 25th, frustrated with SEMARNAT’s recalcitrance to charge Elvira with fraud, Greenpeace Mexico dumped 2.5 tons of manure in front of the SEMARNAT office buildings in Mexico City and hung banners emblazoned with the words “Algo Huele Mal,” something smells bad in SEMARNAT.

Whether Elvira is charged or not, the larger question that remains to be answered is who will end up with ownership of the large expanse of land and development plans? Will the Mexican government step up to the plate and purchase the development from the Spanish bank owner in order to protect its conservation success story? Will the community of Cabo Pulmo be given a say in what kind of development is created on its Northern border? Or will it be sold off to the highest bidder? The fate of Cabo Pulmo National Park remains in the balance.

What about you? Do you think that the benefits of a development on the scale of Cabo Cortes outweigh the costs to the environment? We’d love to hear your comments!

Cabo Pulmo: The Jewel of Mexico

By Dawn Pier

Cabo Pulmo National Park in the East Cape is the most successful marine reserve in Mexico, possibly worldwide. It contains the northernmost coral reef in the eastern Pacific, and, at around 20,000 years old, is considered the most important reef in the American Pacific. Only a handful of uninhabited, un-fished reefs found in the Pacific Ocean exhibit the abundance of fish you will see in the waters of the bay on which the picturesque community of Cabo Pulmo sits.

Image courtesy of Nikki Goth Itoi

However, it has not always been the teeming underwater garden it is today.

By the 1990s, decades of overfishing and anchoring damage left the coral reefs here almost void of life. The coral was bleached and broken, appearing grey or white in most places. Fish were present, but mainly in small sizes and numbers. The large groupers, whale sharks and reef sharks were gone. Sea turtles were a rare sight. In 1995, In hopes of reversing the damage they saw, the local community, along with scientists from the university in La Paz, convinced the Mexican federal government to establish a marine protected area of 7111 hectares that includes the bays at Las Barracas, Cabo Pulmo, and Los Frailes.

Fishing was banned inside park boundaries and local residents’ vigilance to stop anchoring, aquarium fish collecting and other harmful activities helped to bring the reef back from complete destruction. As a result of their efforts, between 1999 and 2009 the abundance of fish increased an unprecedented 463 percent. This is particularly amazing because since its declaration the park has received few resources from the Mexican government. According to Enric Sala, Scripps Institute researcher involved in conducting the study, “In 2009 …we jumped in the water, expecting fishes to be more abundant after 10 years of protection. But we could not believe what we saw–thousands upon thousands of large fishes such as snappers, groupers, trevally, and manta rays. They were so abundant that we could not see each other if we were 15 meters apart. We saw more sharks in one dive at Cabo Pulmo than in 10 years of diving throughout the Gulf of California!”

In 2005, CPNP was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site as one of the “Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California.” In 2008, Cabo Pulmo became a Ramsar International Wetlands Site. In 2011, renowned ocean conservationist Sylvia Earle described Cabo Pulmo as a “Hope Spot,” a place she deems to be critical to the health of the world’s oceans.

Diving in Cabo Pulmo is an incredible experience not to be missed. If you don’t already have your dive certification, all three of the local dive shops offer “Discover SCUBA” packages that include an on-land detailed lesson followed by a shallow dive. If breathing underwater is not your thing, then rent some snorkel gear and hire a panga to take you out to the reef. The great thing about Cabo Pulmo is that most of the reefs are located in relatively shallow waters, so anyone can see the incredible results of this little community’s gargantuan conservation efforts.

Take a look under the sea:

We’d love to hear from readers who have dived the reef and perhaps have even witnessed changes in fish abundance over the years. What was the most incredible creature you’ve ever seen in CPNP? For me it was a Goliath Grouper – so IMMENSE and yet with such tiny little eyes. They are truly prehistoric looking.

Costa’s on the Coast

By Dawn Pier, East Cape Amiga

There are at least ten Costa’s Hummingbirds feeding at the two feeders hanging from the ramada on the patio.  I’m not sure exactly how many there are because they move so fast they’re hard to count. They flit back and forth across my plane of vision, tiny forces enveloped in feathers, wings beating at upwards of 90 beats per second, too fast for the human eye to perceive their individual movement. Instead I see a blur of wings that suggests where they were and will be, but like an atom, it’s just an approximation, impossible to see the wing in real time.

Costa Hummingbird

They chatter and scold one another, fight and dive bomb like World War II flying aces, going up, up, up and then banking and falling back towards Earth in a tiny mass of blurred feathers. Their size belies their identity and sometimes I imagine I’m seeing a large beetle or tarantula wasp and then am shocked by the fact that I could mistake a bird for an insect.

Their metallic chit-chit call warms off interlopers looking for the same sweet sustenance, but their softer gentler whirring call suggests something more soothing. The bird books don’t distinguish between the two calls, but when they make the whirring song from atop a perch I cannot imagine it’s anything but an attempt to attract a lover.

The sun catches briefly the iridescent green of their feathers, the brilliant tyrian purple and indigo of the male’s gorget, but it is the briefest of glimpses because he’s off again, charging after a competitor, or a female in an attempt to impress her with his speed. The gorget resembles long sideburns giving the males the appearance of tiny winged Elvis impersonators.

A pair will build a tiny nest together, less than a couple of inches in diameter and wrapped around the netting of the palapa. A few short days later two tiny white eggs appear.  The wait to see if they will hatch is short, only 15 to 18 days. The hatchlings appear one day suddenly, hideous black leathery things with just a dusting of straggly downy feathers. They are smaller than a quarter with surprisingly short, yellow-edged beaks. Their eyes are closed bulges on bobbing heads supported by weak necks. They look frail and unbelievably helpless.

 Mother and father share the responsibility of delivering sweet nectar to the nest and day by day the chicks expand and grow, their beaks begin to elongate. Sooner than I would have thought possible based on their appearance only a couple of weeks earlier, pin feathers appear, fill in and fledging is imminent.

One day the nest sits empty. I feel an empty space open in my gut and I realize I’d felt some kinship to these little creatures. I miss them and wonder if they fledged or met some other less glorious fate – as a late night snack for a Coachwhip Snake perhaps?