Fixing the Broken Aquarium of the World


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Fig. 1. The Gulf of California is often referred to as the aquarium of the world due to the abundance of life he encountered by Jacques-Yves Cousteau in the 1970’s. In 2016, GCMP Director Octavio Aburto said “it is no longer appropriate to pretend this image holds true today, and it is more sound to say and accept that ‘The Aquarium of the World’ has long been broken.”

Understanding our ecological footprint and learning how to make use of our planet’s dwindling and finite resources, and supplying the food requirements for an ever increasing population, are the greatest challenges of the modern era. In the Gulf of California, 60% of reefs are overfished (Fig.2), meaning we are taking out fish at a greater rate that they can reproduce. Meanwhile, local consumption, as well as the export market for fish in Mexico is increasing (SAGARPA, 2011), making it imperative that we work to achieve a functional balance between sustainable fisheries and a healthy marine environment. This process will require robust information about fishing practices and their current and potential impacts on marine ecosystems, a scientific foundation that the GCMP has long been building from the bottom (of the sea) – up. For example, we have conducted Long Term Ecological Monitoring (LTEM) of fish and invertebrates in rocky reefs for the past 20 years and counting.

Fig.2. Understanding the difference between the impacts of human activity and natural trends is difficult, and requires a consistent baseline of information. As a means of accomplishing this hefty task, the GCMP undertakes annual scientific surveys of reefs in the Gulf of California.

Among many things, this invaluable underwater data set has revealed that some commercial species, along with the marine habitats essential to sustaining them, have the ability to recover when left undisturbed. The larger the area left to recover, the greater the rewards will be in terms of regaining fish-biomass ; and the longer an area is left undisturbed, the more top predators (carnivores, like groupers and sharks) will return to that area. More fish in the oceans, especially top predators – the backbone of both marine ecosystems and most commercial fisheries, means improved socio-economic opportunities surrounding commercial fishing, and in the long run other ecosystem-service based industries like recreational fishing and marine ecotourism (Fig.3).

Therefore, results such as these can unite different sectors around promising management initiatives, like the establishment of Fisheries Refuges – areas specifically designed to improve fisheries and that can also ensure the sustainability of species and habitats. The GCMP is currently exploring the best science concerning monitoring the success of fish refuges, and raising awareness about the huge potential of this management tool.

Fig.3. LTEM and studies of Fisheries Refuges have shown that protected areas increase the biomass of certain commercial species and promote recovery after stock collapse. The longer an area is protected, the more top-predators (which are the anchor of the food web) will return.

Synergy can come from a participatory process, where stakeholders take part in collecting and understanding the information that is being applied to management and policy. Moreover, fostering and maintaining long-term relationships with the fishing sector can advance and guide the science, a reciprocal process that the GCMP’s work in the GoC is built around, and that we like to call “Collaborative Science” (CS)(Fig.4). CS allows academics to come out of the “ivory tower” and support sectors like artisanal fishermen in forming their own conclusions according to the best available information, and developing their own innovative and effective strategies for managing resources from the bottom-up. In this way, we can as a society begin to address complex socio-economic and ecological questions, such as, “how can we best manage the valuable Gulf corvina fishery, considering areas and times, so as to protect its ability to spawn? (3)” Research that addresses the most pressing needs of the community (Fig. 1) represents a paradigm shift from conducting science that is independent of socio-economic and ecological concerns, a model that has long been re-enforced by the academic stigma associated with risking a biased interpretation of data.


Fig.4. Collaborative science involves forming relationships and developing a context for the science -> applying scientific methods with support from, and informed by, the community -> conducting unbiased analyses of the data -> sharing comprehensive representations of the data in a way that is transparent & easy to understand -> maintaining a positive feedback loop that drives the science and its various applications forward.

The GCMP’s CS model is proof that ecosystem science can be an unbiased and rigorously scientific process, that is also purposeful and of potentially great benefit to a wide range of stakeholders. The ecological state of the ocean, and the human relationship to it, is a story that is constantly unfolding. Instead of extracting information for an individual agenda, the GCMP aims to weave the scientific method deep into the fabric of society and give people the ability to understand and manage their natural resources. Ultimately, we believe CS will inform and inspire the social and political will needed to fix the broken Aquarium of the World.


By Alan Ruiz Berman

Alan is the Science Communication and Education Coordinator at the Centro de Biodiversidad Marina y La Conservacion (CBMC) in La Paz, B.C.S., MX.

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