A Glimmer Of Hope – Baja Reef Conservation


For decades, the Sea of Cortez’s reefs and reef fisheries were declining at an alarming rate as fishermen using compressed air ravaged them. Then, 20 years ago, residents of a small fishing community took matters into their own hands and with community-wide commitment, stopped the fishing that was killing the reefs and reef fish populations by providing 24-hour citizen-driven vigilance and community commitment to stop killing any reef fish in their area.

Their success in reversing the decline and the spectacular recovery in fish populations is a remarkable accomplishment that has been recognized universally. Nowhere else in the Sea of Cortez has this been achieved.

The first and only location in the expansive Sea of Cortez that has reversed the decline so far is the “Cabo Pulmo National Park.”

Thus, we begin 2018 with another success story in Baja’s Sea of Cortez, reversing the devastating decline of reef fish, but this time in an area close to La Paz, B.C.S., a large city of 350,000. If the reefs and reef fish recover here, those experiences will pave the way for recovery at other endangered reefs throughout the Sea of Cortez.

In 1972, Mike McGettigan, a successful U.S. businessman and his friend Richard Kipp, of Portland, Ore., bought a 52-foot Cheoy Lee sailboat named Vagabundo in San Carlos, Baja California Sur, in which he traveled, dived and fished in the Sea of Cortez for a year. He smiled as he recalled the trip. “I had this unbelievable year to learn what it was like to live in Baja California and experience the sea before the highway from the U.S. was completed; I knew then that I was destined to remain.”

Isla San Diego, aerial photo, Sea of Cortez

During the late-1970s and early-80s, McGettigan spent at least half of each year in Baja California waters. During that time, he sold his interest in the sailboat and bought and sold two yachts before commissioning the building of Ambar III, a 75-foot motor yacht in 1984. “I wanted to build a boat with a 3,000-mile range to let me stay on the water for extended periods of time and travel the Eastern Pacific,” he explained.

In 1981, he helped finance the first dock at Marina de La Paz, the second-oldest marina in Mexico, owned and operated by the Shroyer family. He has based his boats there ever since. McGettigan has logged over 400,000 miles on the water, including over 150 trips to the Revillagigedo Islands, as well as logging thousands of hours underwater as a SCUBA and free-diver.

I first met McGettigan at the Solmar Suites Hotel in the early 2000’s through Baja writer and Western Outdoor News Baja Columnist, Gene Kira, at a Baja Fisheries Symposium hosted by the influential Fundacion Para La Conservacion De Los Picudos, A.C. The Foundation for the Conservation of Billfish had been established in Cabo San Lucas that year by Luis Bulnes Molleda of the Solmar Suites Hotel. McGettigan, along with others who shared his concern over the rapidly declining fish populations in the Sea of Cortez, had founded Sea Watch in 1993.

McGettigan recalled the rapid destruction of the fisheries in the Sea of Cortez in the 70’s and 80’s that spurred him to found Sea Watch, an organization dedicated to exposing the destruction and often illegal fishing practices. The initial work of the Sea Watch organization focused on the giant oceanic manta ray and the whale shark, and after filming and producing proof that the giant oceanic manta at the Revillagigedo Islands were being slaughtered by shark boats, President Carlos Salinas decreed the Islands a biosphere in 1994 and protected the killing of the giant manta with a $10,000 fine. Sea Watch and McGettigan continue their surveillance and enjoyment of the Islands and were happy when the Mexican government recently announced a massive expansion of the Revillagigedo Marine Park to over 57,000 square miles.

One of Sea Watch’s earliest and most ambitious projects began in 1999 when McGettigan was fishing in Magdalena Bay. He spotted two confiscated Chinese ships, the Fang Ming and the Lapas No 3, rotting away on anchor in Bahia Magdalena at Puerto San Carlos. It occurred to him that they would make excellent artificial reefs for diving.

When he returned to La Paz, he discovered that on April 18, 1995, the Mexican Navy had impounded a Chinese ship found in its territorial waters. Aboard the ship were 157 illegal immigrants who had crossed the Pacific Ocean in search of a better life.

The ship’s name? Fang Ming. Underway for two months, the passengers and crew were found to be in poor health in overcrowded conditions, with very little food and water. The crew and passengers were transported first to the United States and then deported back to China. The vessel Fang Ming was directed to Puerto San Carlos, where it was anchored; another Chinese ship, the Lapas No 3, met a similar fate and was anchored there as well.

Discovering that the ships were abandoned, McGettigan shared his artificial reefs idea with his friends, SeaWatch board member John Riffe, one of the pioneer divers in La Paz, as well as with Miguel Sanchez Navarro, former president of Pronatura, a Mexican non-government, conservation organization. They devised a plan to make this idea a reality.

Pronatura investigated the legal requirements, assembled a coalition of donors to help with the funding, and managed the acquisition of the two vessels. As they were never claimed by their owners, in 1999 the Ministry of the Navy granted the transfer of Rights of Ownership Title to Pronatura.

Fortunately, John Riffe was a close friend of the admiral in charge of the navy in La Paz and convinced him to join the project. Consequently, the Mexican Navy transported the ships to Puerto Cortes on Isla Margarita in Bahía Magdalena, where crews cleaned and removed, by hand, hydrocarbons and other pollutants and toxic materials.

The vessels were then towed into the Sea of Cortez to the Port of Pichilingue near La Paz, where the navy spent four months preparing them for safe diving. Wide cuts were made in the hull for more light penetration and easy access for divers; obstacles and loose materials were removed to create a safer diving environment.

The place chosen for the Fang Ming artificial reef was on the west side of Espiritu Santo Island, outside the navigation channels, in an area protected from wind and swells and near a natural reef.

On November 18, 1999, the Fang Ming was towed to the site to be sunk. Anchors were used to fix the orientation of the hull in the direction of the dominant currents. The navy brought a fire-fighting frigate to flood the hull compartments, and the bottom valves were opened, flooding the chambers of the vessel with seawater. Two teams of divers and cameramen were inside the ship as it sank to document the process.

All described the experience as though they were in a “giant washing machine.” In less than two minutes the ship had sunk to the seabed and the divers came out shaken, but unharmed!

Today, 18 years later, the wreck of the Fang Ming enjoys the protection of the Archipelago Espiritu Santo National Park and is full of life. Fishing is forbidden on the site, with the result that fish are plentiful and approachable.

McGettigan shared, “On our last visit this November, we were able to closely observe a pair of green turtles on the ship’s deck, a sea lion resting inside the wreck, many kinds of moray eels and lots of Cortez angelfish, large parrotfish and grouper, and schools of snapper and grunt.”

The Fang Ming project clearly demonstrates that protected artificial reefs are tremendous habitats for rehabilitation of marine life and an extraordinary environment for diving.

Archipelago Espiritu Santo National Park just had its 10th anniversary and the marine life population continues to grow due to the reduction of illegal fishing around the islands. This success is a result of the involvement of user groups, the citizens of La Paz, and ROC’s vigilance and coordination with committed federal authorities.

Espíritu Santo es parte de ti” (Translation: “Espiritu Santo is part of you”) a local, grassroots campaign which aims to encourage visitors and citizens of La Paz to take pride in Espíritu Santo National Park and help protect it by supporting citizen-driven vigilance and by not consuming parrotfish, a key species in the health of the reef ecosystem. After just one year of work, there is already a remarkable and visible recovery of the reef fish population at Espíritu Santo, thanks to the joint efforts of a responsive CONAPESCA (Mexican fisheries) and an engaged public.

Starting in 2007, Sea Watch’s Mike and Sherry McGettigan, along with attorney Maria Ugarte Luiselli, petitioned and received a change in federal law that prohibits any fish extraction by using compressed air. In addition, it made it illegal to use hookah equipment for spear fishing.

The new law also makes it illegal to place nets on rocky reefs, or anywhere there is a coral reef. Despite being outlawed by the Mexican government in June 2009, the practices of illegal netting and night-time spearfishing using hookah equipment continued.

This destruction stopped temporarily in 2009-2010 as a result of Red de Observatorio Ciudadano (or “ROC”), the first citizen-driven vigilance in the Bay of La Paz. In its first year of operation, ROC stopped the killing of over 500-tons of reef fish in the Bay of La Paz and the number of illegal boats was reduced from 29 to just 4.

By 2011, the illegal fishermen fought back, persuading CONAPESCA to delay and stop the prosecution of illegal fishing, and not go on patrols.

Realizing the effectiveness of ROC’s work (meet the ROC team), new formal agreements were negotiated with CONANP (the Mexican National Park Service), CONAPESCA (fisheries) and PROFEPA (the legal arm of the Mexican National Park Service) that would include government authorities on ROC patrol boats.

reef conservationNone of the fisheries recovery success would have happened without the support of the CONAPESCA inspectors who have worked diligently with the ROC vigilance team to stop illegal fishing in the Bay of La Paz and at Archipelago Espiritu Santo. Their joint operations work is now being recognized and supported by the community and a special dinner was held to highlight and honor the ROC team, the Federal CONAPESCA team and the State FONMAR vigilance team.

The campaign goal is for:
Citizens of La Paz to take pride in the Espiritu Santo National Park and help protect it by supporting ROC.
• Fishermen, tour operators and visitors to be made aware of the rules and regulations of the park and report illegal fishing.
• Restaurants, markets and citizens of La Paz to promote responsible consumption of fish, avoiding species important to the ecosystem health of Archipelago Espiritu Santo, such as reef critical parrotfish and surgeon fish.

To date, three of the four major supermarkets in La Paz (including Chedraui and Walmart) have committed to stop selling parrotfish in their La Paz stores and so far, all 17 of the 33 restaurants in La Paz that have been contacted have committed to stop serving parrotfish.

Because of the public pressure for change that now exists in La Paz, CONAPESCA is working closely with ROC and there is now daily intel about illegal fishing from fishermen who also now realize that CONAPESCA inspectors on ROC patrol boats are (for the first time in memory) fighting to stop illegal fishing. The result of that synergy is why there were 11 boats confiscated in 2017.




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That Baja Guy-Gary Graham, the BD Outdoors Baja Editor, has more than five decades fishing experience off of Southern California and the Baja Peninsula. From light tackle and fly up to offshore marlin fishing, Gary has experienced all facets of this fishery. He's set several fly-fishing world record...