The Ghosts of Fisheries Past

We’re tired.

The wind has been unpredictably swirling around at night, sometimes bringing a 2am thunderstorm to sit on top of us for an hour–which also means Uly sits on top of us for an hour. In these storms, Josh keeps and eye on the GPS to watch if the anchor drags, I just worry about the boat getting struck by lighting, and Uly trembles in the v-berth. This does not make for great sleep.

So when we sail into the canyon cove in Nopolo, we breathe a sigh of relief. Here, we can anchor close to shore and gain wind protection from every side except the east. Only one house was ashore, and two young girls played together in the water. They have one solar panel and a satellite dish for TV. No road connects them to the outside world. The main town of Nopolo is a little more north, unprotected from the southern swells, and we are amazed at how snuggled in we feel at the mouth of this canyon.

The canyon at Nopolo, the only house is just out of the frame on the right.

The canyon at Nopolo, the only house is just out of the frame on the right.

We row ashore and walk the cobbled beach. At the south end, we find dilapidated structures, and guess that this used to be the town. The frames and concrete are on the edge of the canyon and its mangrove-filled lagoon, and the flash floods have eroded the edge of the canyon and the structures.

The ruins on the south side of Nopolo. The town has migrated to the north, probably because of flash floods carving out the mouth of the canyon.

The ruins on the south side of Nopolo. The town has migrated to the north, probably because of flash floods carving out the mouth of the canyon.

A view up the canyon.

A view up the canyon.

 

As we walk back into the canyon, we hear the tinkle of bells from the burros grazing on the steep canyon sides. We find a shallow cave and what looks like a big, heavy canoe.

The boat in the cave.

The boat in the cave.

 

“Look, this was a sailing canoe,” Josh whispers, pointing to the hole in the boat for a mast. With the eye of a wooden boat builder, he points out the trunnels, the ‘tree nails’ that hold the boat together with wood, not metal. The boat has trash inside from people using the cave, but it doesn’t affect the dignity of this well-built wooden launch.

The sailing canoe.

The sailing canoe.

The trunnels, or tree nails, holding the boat together.

The trunnels, or tree nails, holding the boat together.

 

Further down the wash, we find a grave site partially dug up and carved away by flood waters that must rip down this canyon during a heavy rain. One gravestone is clearly marked “Castillo León, 1849-1935.” They all have a cross over each casket-shaped block of concrete. It amazes me to realize that people have been calling this remote canyon home for at least 160 years.

People have been fishing here for a long time. Only recently have people moved from sails to motors, as the old boat tells us. Turns out the boat is a chalupine. These sturdy crafts are made using rib molds to shape the planks, completely built in Baja California Sur. According to the amazing book A Vela, Remo, y Motor, (By Sail, Oar, and Motor), the fishermen then covered the boats with pitch and painted them. Since these boats were very strong, they were used until the 1970s.

The beautiful grain of the wood used to make a very solid boat.

The beautiful grain of the wood used to make a very solid boat.

 

It was around this time, the 1960s, that modern commercial fishing methods and technologies reached the Sea of Cortez. Since then, 90% of the fish stocks in the Sea have been fished out–only five to ten percent of the original stocks remain. Although a fleet of pangas with outboard motors had a big impact, it was the gillnets used by medium and large boats, then intensive longlining, that dealt the final devastating blow. This kind of fishing is illegal, but unless organized cooperatives and / or local and national police forces create an iron regulatory presence, illegal fishing is difficult to stop. The regulations around fisheries for the region have not stayed ahead of the technology or the overharvesting.

The fisheries of Baja and Mexico are increasingly studied and defended by national and international researchers and nonprofits, all fighting the clock to both understand the damage and prevent further degradation. I know very little about the fisheries in Baja. But I do know is that there are non-profits dedicated to the long-term survival of the fisheries–and the people who depend on them. The Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy, and Niparajá all work together and with local and regional fishermen and governments, year after year, to bring about the necessary regulations and agreements to keep both the fish and the fishers alive. The work does not meet the pace of politics, which often asks that decision be made within a term. But there is no “gillnet” to capture and sweep away all the problems of the fisheries. Both fish and regulatory change require a steady and determined hand to be fairly harvested.

The tiny main village of Nopolo, dependent on healthy fisheries.

The tiny main village of Nopolo, dependent on healthy fisheries.

 

I imagine that the wooden boat saw a sea teeming with fish, and her thick wooden sides kept fishermen safe on the water for years. In a more complex world today, it takes more than a good boat to protect the fishers and their families. The impacts on the fisheries now extend beyond the individual fishers to include those of climate change, such as ocean acidification and warmer water temperatures. With those changes, however, comes the rise of ocean and climate research. I hope that, from the cave in Nopolo and the graves by the arroyo, the spirits of the past can witness not only a slow but steady return of the fish, but a new era in which the people of Mexico demand and oversee a just caretaking of their blue resource.

The chalupline view to the Sea of Cortez, carved by the flash floods, the sea--both affected by the invisible forces of climate.

The chalupine view to the Sea of Cortez, carved by flash floods and the sea–both of which are increasingly affected by the invisible forces of climate.

4 Responses to The Ghosts of Fisheries Past

  1. Dan Kammen September 14, 2015 at 6:22 pm #

    The signs of social change as a response to environmental drivers is a fascinating and key undercurrent to so many of your posts. Even before we get to climate change, this fragility
    is so interesting to see you document.

    • Jess September 17, 2015 at 9:38 am #

      Dan, I’m so glad you’re reading these, your comments give me insight into the experience (and help me tweak my interviews.)

  2. Randy Fish September 14, 2015 at 7:02 pm #

    Jess, What a wonderful article and photos also! When we sailed the Holopuni’s down there, we overnighted at Agua Verde. Kimokeo and I were talking to the fishermen about the abundance of the many species of fish in their pangas.(Many species that I had not seen in years) I asked if it was an unusually lucky day for them, they said it was normal. We could not help but think this could not go on much longer. The road is being paved into Agua Verde and the big refrigerated trucks are now making regular trips hauling fish out. In days past they would only catch as many as would keep fresh until transport arrived. One can only hope they get it together and conserve some for the future.

    Best Regards, Randy Fish

    • Jess September 17, 2015 at 9:50 am #

      Thanks Randy! When I spoke with the fishermen about their fishery, I got some interesting responses–which made me realize that I know very little about the fisheries in Baja. Investigation underway to get a clear, hopefully unbiased picture to share…

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