The Pernicious Effects of Warm Water

 

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In the middle of the Baja California peninsula, the entrance to the Santa Rosalía harbor protects boats from an impending storm.

 

“At night, it looked like another city,” Isabel tells me as she gestures out her office window toward the sea. “There were hundreds of lights. But now, what do you see?” she asks me.

Nada,” I reply.

Isabel Soto Gonzalez runs the daily operations at the marina in Santa Rosalía. She tells me that the harbor (where we are docked to diagnose our faulty batteries) used to be full of calamareros, squid fishermen. This floating city of light just outside of the harbor pulled in thousands of pounds of Humboldt squid every night. This mysterious six-foot-long predator is known for its massive size and an ability to rapidly change color from white to red. It has a beak so sharp it can cleanly shear a finger off a careless fisherman.

To catch squid, boats ply the nighttime waters with bright halogen bulbs directed on the water’s surface. This attracts plankton and little fish, which in turn lures the night-feeding squid. These days, panga fishing boats zip in and out of the inner harbor, or dársena, but mostly during daylight hours. The fishery for the giant squid supported hundreds of boats and over a thousand people—until the squid disappeared in the winter of 2009 and never returned.

“Too many fishermen?” I ask. Hundreds of boats in one area sounds like too much pressure on one species.

“I’m not sure. The squid supported all those boats for years. Then they just disappeared so fast.”

Almost ten percent of the 12,000 residents earned their income through the capture, processing, and sale of squid. As I talk with people in town, it’s clear that the disappearance of the Humboldt squid still reverberates in the community. An entire industry was lost in one season—and at first no one here can tell me why.

A Harbor First For Land, Then For Sea

 

The red roofs and colorful clapboard sandwiched into the narrow arroyo of Santa Rosalía.

The red roofs and colorful clapboard sandwiched into the narrow arroyo of Santa Rosalía.

 

The story begins not on the sea, but the land. In 1868, a rancher discovered copper in Santa Rosalía in the form of blue-green concretions, or boleos. He supposedly sold his claim for a measly sixteen pesos, and in 1884 a French company gobbled up claims. Compagnie Boleo (El Boleo Copper Company) developed 375 miles of tunnels under the pueblo and Santa Rosalía joined many other Mexican towns in an era of resource exploitation that filled foreign pockets.

When production waned and the Mexican Revolution started the process of taking back Mexico’s resources, the French sold the mine but left a crucial piece of infrastructure: the harbor.

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A photo of the harbor from the turn of the 20th century. Mexican-built steam ships designed to cross the Sea of Cortez sit in the harbor, and international sailing ships sit outside the breakwater wall, waiting to offload giant wooden beams and take on the mined copper.

 

I learn this from Elías Moreno Camacho, the fifty-four year old Santa Rosalía native who maintains the marina. Because of the mining operations, Santa Rosalía has the unique advantage of having the only breakwater and inner harbor for hundreds of miles. Indeed, this is the only reason that we are able to safely stay here on our sailboat—it would otherwise be an open and exposed strip of coast. The mining operation used the first slag from the mine to build the harbor’s rock wall. The ripples of obsidian-like, smooth black rock hold a stodgy edge against the sea.

Elías extolls the other virtue of the breakwater: it not only protects boats, but the town arroyo, or the valley between two mesas that funnels all water from surrounding mountains to the sea. Like almost all of the towns in Baja, Santa Rosalía is built in an arroyo. Mulegé, a town 30 miles south, gets regularly ravaged by the ocean floods during hurricanes. But that doesn’t happen here, Elías tells me, because the mine created this sturdy breakwater. The mine may have brought many negatives, but it uniquely protected Santa Rosalía from one of the most dangerous impacts sea level rise and climate change. But he has pointed out that the extractive industry on the land protected a town—and thousands of fishing boats—that would otherwise not exist. Mulegé needs a mine, Elías jokes.

Perhaps this harbor, which shelters the town and the boats from increasingly dangerous hurricanes, explains the squid disappearance. The dársena was able to house hundreds of boats, more than could otherwise be here. Because the Humboldt squid are so large and the harbor so protected, it makes good economic sense to catch hundreds of pounds in one night and have a safe harbor nearby to easily offload their fresh catch every morning. So did the calamareros take too many too fast?

The Shrinking of the Squid

In fact, the squid aren’t all gone, a fisherman tells me. They’re still here—just smaller. This could mean that the large adults were fished out. However, with the short lifespan of the calamar, the stock should have recovered after a couple of years—but it hasn’t.

Isabel, now my ally in solving this mystery, sends me down the street from the marina to a small, squat building pinned between a restaurant and a convenience store on the edge of a black sand beach.

Martín Gozalez Rivas has overseen the fishing community here for 15 years. He is the Director of the federal Secretary of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries, and Food, SAGARPA, in Santa Rosalía. Or, as Martín says, he’s the jefe de pesca, the fishing boss. Martin’s manner is brisk and tidy, like his cleanly pressed light blue shirt. He was born in a tiny desert town in the center of the Baja peninsula, Vizcaíno, and he didn’t see the ocean until he was eighteen years old.

Martín at SAGARPA.

Martín at SAGARPA.

 

“But once I saw it, that was it,” he states with an emphatic hand chop. “I knew that’s what I would do for the rest of my life.” He studied Oceanography in college in Ensenada, and has worked on the coasts of Baja for the past 26 years. Martín is the person who finally clues me in to the cause of the fishery collapse: warm water.

“In 2009, the currents changed, heating up the sea.”

In 2009, there was a mild El Niño, and this brought a surge of warm water into the Sea of Cortez. El Niños start a thousand miles away, at the equator, when the wind blows backwards. Normally, it blows east to west, from Peru toward Samoa. During El Niño years, low pressure builds up over the equator, and high pressure from the South Pacific rushes in to equalize the pressure. This global balance of weather pressure manifests as wind. The wind pushes water warmed on the surface of the South Pacific, where it has built up over a half a meter higher than near Peru thanks to all of that wind, back towards South America. The warm water flows east, then eventually to the north.

El Niños are a natural phenomenon that occur every two to seven years. But a warmer atmosphere and ocean mean El Niños can have warmer water, occur more frequently and with more effects, and cause difficult-to-predict regional and local changes to currents and weather. Warm water in the Sea of Cortez was one of the subtle regional changes in 2009.

All of this warm water affects the underwater food conveyor belt. The Sea of Cortez typically experiences ‘upwelling’ in the water at the coast. Coastal winds blow the surface water away from the shore, and that allows the colder, nutrient-rich water from deeper in the sea to takes its place. This upwelling brings marine invertebrates to the surface near the coasts, feeding everything from little cochito (trigger fish) to Blue whales, the largest creatures to ever exist on earth.

 

A NOAA graphic of upwelling.

A NOAA graphic of upwelling.

During El Niño, warm water flows into the Sea from the equator and traps the cold water 150 feet below the surface. The upwelling current can´t cycle nutrients to the coastal water, so all of the animals that typically feast near the shore must look elsewhere for food.

The Humboldt squid, however, did something far more bizarre than just move: they shrunk.

Many of the giant squid moved to the Midriff Islands, where the powerful tidal current will not be disrupted by a little warm water. But the few squid that stayed near Santa Rosalía bred a full year younger and only a fraction of their possible full size (at one pound as opposed to 30.) Most creatures do not have this option to breed smaller, and it’s an unique adaptation of the squid given limited food. If they had needed to grow for another year, that population would have died out. Instead, they shrunk.

Seven years later, the giant squid still haven’t returned in numbers to support the ‘floating city’ outside the Santa Rosalía harbor. With a lifespan of six to eighteen months, squid don’t have much time for a memory of old breeding and feeding grounds. There are still squid at the shore, as noted by the fishermen, but nothing in number or size like before.

The Fallout on Land—and Sea

The fishermen couldn’t live off these tiny versions of the Humboldt squid—they don’t sell for nearly as much as a big calamari steak. Nor could the fishermen migrate over 100 miles in their open pangas to the ripping tidal currents around the Midriff Islands. Hundreds of boats of fishermen were suddenly out of work.

“There were many robberies. People were desperate,” Isabel tells me. “But who can blame them?” All their livelihood disappeared in one winter. Many of the transient calamareros left—but some, especially those who grew up here, wanted to stay.

What did the community do to confront this change? I ask Martín at SAGARPA.

“Well, they have adapted,” he says. This is the first time I’ve heard the buzzword ‘adaptation’ used.

“Ahh, you see, the calamareros are now pescaderos or tiburoneros (shark fishers),” Martín says wryly. “It works for now. But it means that the rest of the sea comes under more pressure, and they risk losing all of their livelihoods again if they can’t control their catch.”

There is a solution out there for this problem: the cooperative. One of the most common and effective ways for small-scale fisheries to govern their catch is this organization that self-governs their catch while creating collective bargaining power for their product. However, Martín tells me that the cooperatives in Santa Rosalía don’t function as they should. He won’t mention much further, but I’m pretty sure that I can get the story from individuals, and make a note to do so.

Not only the men were affected by the loss of the squid—women and families felt the change as well. Yerenia Aguilar Mesa, at FONMAR, the state-level agency that supports marine-based work, tells me, “There were a lot of women who worked at the cannery.” She pauses. “A lot of women. They all lost their jobs.” In some cases, both the husband and the wife were employed in different sides of the same industry. When that industry tanked, the family lost both incomes.

This is all the result of one year of warm water.

Riding the Current

In Mexico, men state with dignity that they are a pescadero. It’s more than a job—it’s as much a part of them as the blood in their veins. Fishing is inseparable from their sense of self.

This continues to be the case with the soft-spoken fisherman I find working at the fueling station at the edge of the dársena. Vidál works the evening shift, from 5pm to 1am, and he and I sit on the curb in front of the gas station office under the yellow glow of the overhead lights, facing the sea. When I ask him que se dedica, what is your profession, he answers pescadero. Sure, he’s a gasolinero right now, but that’s only his job. He’s a fisherman as much as he’s a human.

Vidál was a “fisherman by car.” He drove the coast in search of octopus, and he would spearfish in rocky outcroppings along the coast. Vidál used a Hawaiana, a pole spear that uses a long elastic band inside a narrow pole to tension and shoot a three-point prong. This requires the ability to get within five feet of the target and be lightning fast and precise—all while holding one’s breath for minutes to find creatures designed to disappear under rocks. This makes his specialty a highly skilled profession requiring deep local knowledge. It’s also a skill threatened by the more destructive, larger scale fishers who rake the rocks with nets.

Vidál can’t spearfish anymore because he lost his car in the hurricane last year (and, very possibly, the octopus are scarce from overharvesting.) I asked him if he was supported by the fishing cooperatives.

He smiles grimly and shakes his head. “No. Son mafiados.” It’s a mafia. He tells me the cooperatives hold all of the permits for fishing. If an independent fisher wants to get a permit to fish, he can’t do it without being a part of the co-op. But independent pescaderos can’t get into the co-op either. Instead of functioning to protect both the fish and the fishers, it functions as an exclusive club. In addition, they don’t police their catch.

Unwilling to deal with the politics of the cooperatives, Vidál found the job at the gas station when he couldn’t fish anymore. Does he like the job? I expect to hear no. Instead, he replies that he does.

I am terrible at disguising my reactions, so I must look surprised. Vidál smiles and shrugs.

“It’s steady work, and I get to be right next to the water.” He sweeps his hand out to the black sea just beyond the giant, above ground tank of diesel fuel. With dwindling sea resources, I can see the appeal.

Vidál, in the attendant's shack.

Vidál, in the attendant’s shack.

 

Humans are remarkably tolerant of physical change. We have a high threshold for temperature shifts. As land-based bipeds who are soothed and restored by the sea, we rejoice and flock to the shore when the water is a little warmer. People, like Vidál, can change their work and shift their mindsets to survive in changing conditions.

However, we depend, for work and food, upon creatures which are sensitive to the slightest change in water temperature—even a couple of degrees. As a result, we are more vulnerable to temperature change than we might otherwise acknowledge. Santa Rosalía had proven at least partially resilient, even with its deeply flawed cooperative system. People live in Santa Rosalía because they like the small town, the seafood, and their roots. They want to be near the sea. Sometimes that may mean that their work isn’t on the water, but adaptability in this case comes from willingness to be flexible in work—and to wait and see if things improve.

****

We leave the dock at three in the morning to motor into the blackness of night (to arrive at our next anchorage before dark.) We steer far away from shore to avoid the debris in the water from recent rains, and Josh and I alternate on bow watch with the spotlight to search for potential boat-damaging items. Daybreak finds us over five miles from shore. As the first sunlight pours from behind the clouds, a panga appears on the glassy horizon to our east. It barrels straight toward us, and only slows as they pull alongside. On the open sea, I’m concerned that the two men approached us because they have a problem. Everything okay? .

Their panga overflows with mint green nets. With a bright grin, the man in the middle reaches into the bottom of the boat and pulls up a four-foot Bonnethead shark, arching his back to lift it to his chest to show us. Both Josh and I exclaim, and I ask if we can take a photo.

Early morning, the tiburoneros at sea.

The tiburoneros with the Bonnethead shark.

Once my camera is out, the man at the motor, who seems to be the more experienced fisher, switches places with the young skinny man at the center, and as we two boats float together in miles of calm water, he lifts another shark, perhaps a Dusky, from the floor. He wraps his arms in a tight hug around the six-foot shark to thrust it over his head, like a snub-nosed trophy. I would normally feel sad about a dead shark, but their pride is palpable, and Josh and I cheer for these two men. They chased us down in the middle of the sea just so they could show us their catch.

A great smile. I would normally feel sad about the sharks, but it was difficult to not feel the pride in the catch from these fishermen.

A great smile. Early morning, far from shore.

 

In the hunt on the sea, a fisher must know the subtleties of two complex worlds: above the waterline, and below it. He must have the ability to navigate and fix a boat, and the savvy to find and trap a creature he can’t see until he pulls it from the water. It’s exciting to share a moment of their spoils. Their smiles glow with accomplishment.

We have sails up, so we are pulling away from their panga. With proud grins, the tiburoneros gun their outboard and disappear with their sharks into the open, wild, warming sea.

 

3 Responses to The Pernicious Effects of Warm Water

  1. Dan Kammen November 25, 2015 at 12:50 pm #

    This is your best entry yet! You use the historical and marine data to weave an absolutely fascinating and important story of both ecological and social change. Bravo!

    One thing I wonder is if some of the groups you meet would like to share their stories and receive feedback from other campesino an other organizations dealing with environmental change.

    We just published an article and built a website to share these local stories, and to connect groups to each other:

    https://rael.berkeley.edu/project/stakeholders-in-science/

    I hope this is useful.

  2. Beth Elrod Scofield November 27, 2015 at 1:44 pm #

    I loved this entry. So interesting. You should put all these together in a book when you get back. So excited for all you and Josh are experiencing.

    • Jess November 28, 2015 at 10:18 am #

      Thanks Beth!

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