Heroes of the Gulf: Juan Castro



We could have never dreamt of such an extraordinary recovery of marine life, but in the reefs of a hidden undersea marine reserve named Cabo Pulmo in Baja California, Mexico, the total amount of fish boomed more than 460 percent from 1999 to 2009. Cabo Pulmo can be considered the world’s most robust marine reserve (see the article).

I participated, back in the 1990s, in the studies for the declaration of the marine park. Frankly, we decided to go ahead because the community was so determined but the place at that time was not in good environmental health. However, if you visit the place now, you cannot believe the change that has taken place. And all of it has occurred thanks to the determination of a community of coastal villagers that decided to take care of their place and to be at the helm of their own destiny.

If you want to be inspired, then read a story narrated by one of these conservation heroes:

My name is Juan Castro Montaño, and I was born in 1945. When my father was a young man he was a bold swimmer, and he started to dive for mother-of-pearl. He found a very valuable pearl; it was small, but very valuable. My father used to tell me that they would put the pearl in an enameled plate, one of those deep plates. He would place that pearl in the exact center and the whole plate would shine.

He got to be one of the best divers because he had such an exceptional endurance, simply by holding his breath because at that time fins and visors were not known. They would dive straight down, in a “harpoon plunge” as they would call it. And the harpoon plunge could yield a lot for the effort. They would go down with the momentum of the vertical plunge, and when their speed finally slowed down they would swim back to the surface using their feet and hands. The only thing they would carry was a sharp metal rod used to catch the pearl shells down below.

We also used to fish in the islands of the Pacific coast by Magdalena Bay. We used to fish there for lobster, shark, and many other fish. We had to work hard, because we would spend six months there and six months here in the Gulf. We would spend here the season when lobster fishing was banned in the Pacific, and as soon as the ban was lifted we would move there. It used to be a good place to fish, a beautiful place.

But we had no limits in our fishing, if we could have filled all our boats we would have. This destructive practice hit my mind and my heart the first time I could get hold of a diving visor and jumped into the water. “This is a natural garden down there, tended by the hand of God” I said to myself. I felt joy, I was overwhelmed, but I also felt a deep sadness because I saw the destruction that we, the fishermen, were doing with our lines and our anchors.

When we started bringing dive tours we all realized that the damage could not continue. “If we keep fishing like this,” we thought, “we will destroy the reef in such a manner that no one will want to return here.” And that is how we all jointly decided to stop fishing.

Exequiel Ezcurra. Dr. Ezcurra is a former director of the Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias and provost of the San Diego Natural History Museum; current director of the University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States (UC MEXUS). Dr. Ezcurra is a professor of ecology at the University of California Riverside and an adjunct professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego. His 30-year career as an ecologist has embraced a vast range of interests that include nature conservation, the ecology and biogeography of coastal deserts and wetlands, land-ocean interactions, the application of mathematical modeling in ecology and conservation, and the management of natural resources in areas under traditional use (Please visit: Ezcurra Lab).

Texts recorded, transcribed, and edited by Ana Ezcurra, Octavio Aburto-Oropeza, and Exequiel Ezcurra.

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