I recently returned to Australia from Mexico after a 7 week journey throughout the northern Gulf of California. It will have a lasting impact on my life. I joined scientists on a multi-national expedition searching for the most endangered cetacean on the planet. I experienced first-hand what it is like to live in the upper gulf, an area frought with poverty and drugs, and the social and economic consequences that arise from each. I spent time on the water documenting artisanal fishers setting gillnets from pangas in an epic desert sea brimming with life. I watched hundreds of shrimp trawlers dragging nets along the sea floor all over the upper gulf (including through the vaquita refuge and biopshere reserve), unregulated and out of control. And, I met face to face, the secretive porpoise everyone is talking about – the vaquita marina.
In the blogs I have written about “Expedition Vaquita”, the perspective of the local people is one I feel has not been adequately shared. In November, I spent time in El Golfo de Santa Clara. Members of the community kindly took me out on their boats, let me into their homes allowing this odd american-australian hybrid to examine their lives in close focus.
Miguel Reyes Franco was one of these people. Miguel is the President of the fishermen co-operative “Tiburones de Santa Clara”. A cooperative is a group of fishermen that organize themselves in order to maximize their benefits. A group of co-operatives can be represented by a federation. The federation ensures the co-operatives can access things like government funds.
I first met Miguel at the NACAP meeting in Mexicali in late October 2008. Miguel was very personable and well versed on the vaquita issue. He was also someone keen to be part of the solution. He attended the event to find out first-hand what alternative lifestyles were being offered to the fishermen, and how the first-year of the government plan was affecting them.
For the past year, Miguel has been taking part in the alternative gear experiments in the region. The following interview takes place at his house in El Golfo. Miguel gave me a different perspective and insight into the issues surrounding vaquita conservation from those most affected.
Listening to Miguel, I felt that alternatives will only work if an even playing field is created for all fishermen. At its core, fishing is an extremely competitive business - if you don't catch more fish, your neighbor will. This has led to all sorts of problems with fishing on a local and commercial level worldwide.
As in any fishing community, fishers in El Golfo want to catch as many shrimp ( and fish) as possible to make money. If alternatives do not generate the same amount of income as fishermen currently get using gillnets, ultimately they will fail. Miguel represents fishermen who want to see this program work fairly, and ultimately conserve vaquita at the same.
I would like to thank Ernesto Vasquez of CONANP and Catalina López Sagástegui of Noroeste Sustentable (NOS) for kindly transcribing and translating thes interviews.