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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.