National Geographic : 2017 Sep
62 Octavio Aburto dives near Isla Espíritu Santo, in the Gulf of California. The marine biologist studies why some reserves succeed and others fail. He’s found the secret is in the community that lives there. “You start creating pride,” he says, “a commitment to recovery.” By Erik Vance Photographs by Thomas P. Peschak It’s a half hour before sunrise, and the ocean appears inky black as it slaps against the sand. A dozen fishermen are lounging in the boat master’s office in Punta Abreojos, laughing and talking about the party they’ll have that night. The mood is festive in this hamlet at the midpoint of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula because today is a day the town looks forward to all year long—the opening of abalone season. Actually the season opened four months earlier, but Punta Abreojos observes an unusual self- imposed ban. Rather than fish for abalone as soon as the government allows, in January, the community waits until April, when the shellfish have put on more weight. I head out into the Pacific Ocean with three fishermen in their 50s who have been working together since they were teenagers. “Horse” runs the engine, “Mole” hauls up the bags of abalones, and “Fish,” naturally, is the diver. (They are Por- firio Zúñiga, Eduardo Liera, and Luis Arce, but no one here calls them that.) Fish is in especially high spirits—he’s just returned from Pebble Beach, California, where he surfed and played golf. His buddies poke fun at him as he slips into a crisp new wet suit. The sun is up, and the water has turned from black to deep blue. Before they arrive at their fishing spot, Horse stops the boat over a reef crawling with abalones. “Those are the green abalone,” Mole says. “ They won’t be ready for a month at least.” A few miles later Fish hops into the water. Within two hours he’s hit the catch limit and comes up with a smile and a bag full of healthy abalones. In most fishing towns in Mexico—or in much of the rest of the developing world, for that matter—men like these would be pulling a meager catch out of depleted waters, living hand to mouth. What makes these men so optimistic about the season ahead? How can they afford new gear and vacations at elite golf courses? The town’s fishing cooperative started in 1948 and for years operated like others—taking as much from the sea as it could. But in the 1970s, after a few disappointing harvests, the fishermen decided to try something new. They would man- age the lobster (and later the abalone) for the long term instead of immediate profits. Today Abreojos and a few like-minded Baja communities following the same strategy catch more than 90 percent of Mexico’s abalones. Hous- es in Abreojos are freshly painted. The town has a baseball team and a surfing team. The lobster and abalone are canned at a modern processing plant and sold directly to Asia, maximizing profits. The PHOTOGRAPHIC COVERAGE FOR THIS STORY WAS SUPPORTED BY THE SAVE OUR SEAS FOUNDATION.