Gulf of California Fisheries – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Gulf of California
The Gulf of California is one of the more productive and biodiverse marine ecoregions in the world, but due to a lack of regulation and oversight the region is suffering. Image: Valnet Inc.

The Gulf of California, aka the Sea of Cortez, is the body of water below Southern California that separates the Baja California Peninsula from the Mexican mainland. It’s one of the more productive and biodiverse marine ecoregions in the world.

But according to various reports, there are multiple issues affecting the region’s commercial fisheries including overfishing, the potential collapse of the tuna fishery and rampant organized crime that has managed to gain control of the entire seafood production chain.

The Good

As mentioned above, the Sea of Cortez is home to a very rich ecosystem and is considered one of the most diverse seas on Earth, as well an environment filled with natural beauty that has yet to be spoiled by man and industry.

The region also has a long history as a commercial fishery. The gulf’s fisheries, which include shrimp, squid, tuna and sardines, account for 70% of Mexico’s fishing, and contribute $900 million USD annually to its economy, according to data from the global environmental non-profit The Nature Conservancy.

About 10 commercial fishing companies run roughly 50 boats in the Gulf of California, and commercial vessels can take in up to 3,000 tons of fish a night, according to data from Stanford University and the San Diego-based Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The Gulf contributes about 50% of Mexico’s total fisheries landings, according to Scripps and Stanford.

But despite its abundance, the gulf—which is also called the Vermilion Sea by some—is suffering.

The Bad

Due to a lack of regulation and oversight, the Gulf of California has suffered from rife overfishing through the years, particularly tuna.

“Small pelagic fish captured in the Gulf of California alone contribute up to 21% of the total national reported catch by weight, with Pacific sardine historically being the dominant species caught,” according to a 2021 study published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences.

Unfortunately, the tuna fishery, which was established in the late 1960s, has collapsed multiple times over the decades and as of the past year, had been teetering on the brink of another collapse.

In 1991 the fishery experienced its first collapse, going from total annual landings of almost 300,000 tons to fewer than 10,000 tons over a two-year period.

“Since then, the fishery has undergone three more collapses with a periodicity between three and eight years, showing a boom and bust dynamic behavior,” the authors of the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences report wrote. “Fisheries managers in the region have assumed that boom and bust cycles are primarily driven by large-scale environmental variability.”

Official regulations for the fishery aren’t species-specific, as the Pacific sardine is grouped with other small pelagics in the region. For the group in its entirety, Mexican regulations establish a maximum of 4,000 to 6,000 commercial trips per year, with a maximum catch of 700,000 tons annually.

“The lack of specificity on these regulations have resulted in a lack of enforcement of a quota limit for the fleet, which historically has fished until the end of the season or until the fishery is not profitable anymore,” according to the report. “Given these dynamics, it has been reasonable to assume that the total catch per season is representative of the total abundance.”

“When thinking about the trade-offs among sustainability, human livelihoods, and the inherent complexities of fisheries management, we must recognize that a fisheries policy should be as robust and simple as possible,” the report’s authors wrote. “By using the Pacific sardine fishery in the Gulf of California as an example of a highly variable and difficult to manage small-pelagic fishery, we have shown that estimating an equilibrium sustainable effort could represent an upper limit for both the effort and catch.”

“However,” they continued, “for these policies to be effective, they should be sensitive to other external drivers, such as market pressures, extreme environmental events, and the importance of these resources as key components of the ecosystem to link primary productivity to upper trophic levels.”

“Our work thus offers an insight into a new framework for fisheries management based on embracing the complex processes that drive population dynamics yet producing relatively simple and robust policies,” the report states, particularly pointing out a discussion around the comparative effects of both environmental variability and fishing effort on the population of Pacific sardine in the Gulf of California.

“If successfully implemented, dynamic policies that consider external drivers, such as environmental variability, might be able to generate cumulative larger catches than the equilibrium policy over the long term,” the authors wrote. “However, the success of this approach will depend critically on the accuracy of available environmental forecasts.”

The Ugly

Organized crime has not only taken over the Baja California commercial fishing community, but also the region’s entire vertical chain of seafood production through retail, according to a series of recent reports in Mexican media.

Based on findings from a fall 2021 investigation in Mexico, journalist Vanda Felbab-Brown published three reports on the systematic takeover of legal and illegal fisheries by organized crime groups in Mexico unfolding across the country, including the Gulf of California.

“The fisheries monopolization is taking place in high-value species such as abalone, geoduck clams, lobster, scallops, and totoaba, which are then sold by the cartels to China as well as to U.S. markets and Mexican restaurants catering to foreign tourists, and low-value species sold for consumption in Mexico,” Felbab-Brown wrote.

According to her reporting, the takeover began with criminal groups targeting fishers poaching protected species, such as totoaba, whose bladder is considered a delicacy in China. Then, criminal groups moved toward extorting and imposing rules on fishers harvesting low-value seafood, obligating them to sell only to the cartels.

Organized crime groups then move to extort both legal and illegal fishers, fishermen’s cooperatives, and seafood processing plants, transporters and exporters. After that, they establish a presence in communities and processing plants and demand that the processing plants process seafood brought in by the cartels — and fake documents for it.

“They dictate to local communities the amount of a particular species to be harvested and delivered to the cartel and violently punish non-compliance with those demands,” she wrote in a February column.

The Sinaloa Cartel has orchestrated shrimp poaching during the period when legal shrimping is banned to allow the species to recover, Felbab-Brown, who’s a senior fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the Foreign Policy program at The Brookings Institution in Washington, DC., said.

“In (the states of) Sinaloa and Sonora, the cartel organized legal and illegal fishers with some 200 to 300 hundred pangas for illegal shrimp harvesting in the Gulf of California. The cartel would then sell lesser quality shrimp in Mexico and bring top-quality shrimp for the U.S. market to U.S. government-certified processing plants.”

Do so would force the processing plants to issue fake documents that the shrimp were caught legally during the permitted fishing season, a Mexican seafood exporter, who spoke anonymously, disclosed.

For high-value fish meat, scallops, or oysters requiring freezing, complex processing, and provenance and sanitary documents, the cartels are known to take the seafood to Mexican and U.S. government-certified processing plants.

The investigation found that a refusal by a processing plant to accept seafood brought in by Mexican organized crime groups would lead to the plant being burned down or its employees or owners killed, according to processing plant operators.

In some cases it has been reported, the Sinaloa Cartel is allegedly renting and acquiring entire processing plants for itself either without the federal government’s knowledge or free of interference.

“Large seafood businesses believe they can either work with the narcos (narcotics traffickers), sell out their business and move away, or perhaps hire a private security company,” Felbab-Brown said. “As a high-level official of a Mexican fishermen’s federation put it, by far the healthiest choice is to comply with the narcos.”

“Small-scale fishers,” she said, “often do not have the option of packing up and moving elsewhere.”