Well, I’ve finished my first book of this adventure (The Winner Stands Alone, Paulo Coehlo, which I found on board, thank you Ken), so I suppose it is time to think about another post. This one is a deviation from tales of boat preparedness and wrangling toddlers. Please forgive my over-simplification of very complex matters, but fitting this into a blog post challenges extensive detail.
The boat yard we are sitting in is located right at the northern end of the actual port of Puerto Peñasco, and from our vantage point right at the edge of the yard next to the launch, we can see many of the other boats in the port. The vast majority are fishing boats, and as far as I’ve been able to tell, few leave the dock. Each time we walk toward the Old Port, we walk past groups of (what I assume are) fishermen and women, sitting at the side of the road, next to the docks, awaiting something.
If anyone has had the pleasure of reading John Steinbeck’s reports on the matter, the Sea of Cortez has been chock full of immeasurable species of fish and sea life. The historical catch of Peñasco has been shrimp; however, I understand that since the 1920s some fishermen (and I’ll use that term to indicate both men and women who fish, simply for ease of reference, but for the most part it has seemed to be primarily men we see) have also sought a fish called totoaba, which was desired for its medicinal properties, instead of for food (more on that later. Totoaba (also known as Totuava) flourished in this area, but extensive fishing has led to it being listed on the CITES Appendix I and deemed critically endangered. But, as with most things in life, it’s more complicated than that.
Totoaba are sought out for their swim bladders, which apparently go to China for astonishing amounts (latest reports confirmed somewhere around $22,000 each). The swim bladders of the Totoaba are used in Chinese medicine for everything from arthritis cures to aphrodesiacs. Unfortunately, as is frequently the case with items valued at this magnitude traded between nations, organized crime ends up involved, as has happened on both the Mexican and Chinese sides of the picture. Catching and selling Totoaba is highly illegal, so it is transacted on the black market. Mexican cartels and Chinese cartels run the business, and the fisherman end up caught in the middle. In addition, it is my understanding that to make matters worse, destitute fisherman borrow funds from Mexican cartels to purchase fishing equipment, and thus are motivated to service their debts (and thus catch the most valuable items they can).
Adding insult to injury, many have blamed the illegal Totoaba industry on the near extinction of the marine Vaquita, a species of porpoise, claiming the gillnetting and trawling as responsible for their by-fishing demise. Alternate reports have suggested a much more complex ecological impact from such things as the damning of the Colorado river, which has had its own myriad of complicated consequences.
Unfortunately, these activities have led to an embargo on the sale of Mexican seafood from the Sea of Cortez to the U.S., which in turn has decimated the lives of the local fisherman, and lead to those immobile fishing boats we see here in the port. The local fisherman make the valid argument that, since Totoaba fishing is already illegal, the sale of other marine life to the U.S. should not be prohibited.
Stemming from these issues have been ongoing disputes between the people who make their livelihood via fishing and the environmental conservationist group, Sea Shepherd (including ex-Greenpeace board member, Paul Watson), largely due to the impact of the netting on the Vaquita population. The other week a local fisherman lost his life after his aluminum boat collided with the Sea Shepherd vessel, Farley Mowat, wherein the fisherman’s boat broke in two and he was thrown to the sea. Needless to say, there are differing accounts on how the collision actually occurred. Some state the fishermen were charging the Sea Shepherd vessel, throwing Molotov cocktails and ramming the sides. On the flip side, the desperation of the fisherman in these circumstances cannot be overlooked, as Sea Shepherd is standing in the way of making any pittance of a living and the fishermen feeding their families. Some reports have suggested that the Mexican authorities are the ones who’ve requested the presence of the Sea Shepherd vessel, and others suggest they’re there without permission.
Ultimately, this all raises the question of whose responsibility it is to protect these waters and these species? Who is responsible for the local and global health of an environment? And, who is there to help clean up the consequences of these changes – who will provide the education and guidance on different ways to earn a living to people who have been sustaining themselves this was for generations?
While I’m not making a suggestion one way or the other (as I’ve not yet educated myself enough yet), for another look into this issue check out the National Geographic documentary, “Sea of Shadows”.