Collaborative Science from a Fisherman’s Perspective, A Conversation with “Papo”


Blog, Coastal & Marine, Conservation, Fisheries

José Heriberto Cota, or “Papo” as his friends call him, is an active fisherman from Punta Abreojos fishing community in Baja California Sur, Mexico, that was established in the early 1930s, with just 15 people. While some fishermen from this community focus on scale fish, José fishes primarily for benthic species like red spiny lobster (Panulirus interruptus and P. inflatus) and abalone (Haliotis fulgens and H. Corrugata), natural resources that play an important role in the culture and economy of Punta Abreojos; they are resources with international demand and a high commercial value, and are exported to countries such as Singapore, China, Japan, the United States and France (Cota-Nieto et al., 2015).

José is in his late 60’s and is the father of Juan José Cota Jr., our Fisheries Project Officer at the Centro para la Biodiversidad Marina y la Conservación in La Paz (CBMC), Mexico, and has been a key member of our collaborative science efforts since 2009. To this day, José Sr. helps us produce robust information that has proved useful to the local community and other stakeholders such as government decision makers and academics. I had the pleasure of interviewing him, with his son and granddaughter, about his career and involvement with fisheries science and technology:


José Heriberto Cota, or “Papo” as his friends call him, is a fisherman from Punta Abreojos fishing community in Baja California Sur, Mexico (photo by Alan Berman)


April, 2017 

Could you please introduce yourself and tell us how you became a fisherman?

My name is José Heriberto Cota Arce, and I have been fishing for over 30 years in the community of Punta Abreojos, and in the Fishing Cooperative of the same name. It’s located on the North Pacific coast, you could say right smack in the middle of the Peninsula. I have always loved the sea, and when I was growing up in Ensenada, I had family in Abreojos, so I decided to go on vacation there one year with a school course. I never went back. That was in 1972, so I must have been around 14 years old – and that’s how I began my life by the sea. I worked at the packing factory for abalone {Haliotis fulgens & H. corrugata} and caracol {the marine snail Astraea undosa}, there was a lot of abalone in those days, and then there came the period of commercialization of lobster {Panulirus interruptus & P. inflatusfor export to France; they installed a processing plant and I got involved.

When I started fishing there was no such thing as GPS, or sonar, or any of that, and those things have made all of our {fishermen’s} lives easier. For example, when there is a dense fog, now we can go out and work, more slowly of course, but we get the job done. New technology is something that has helped us a lot.

A fisherman from Punta Abreojos fishing cooperative uses a continuously recording GPS  device to track his movements at sea

How do you feel about your son, José Cota’s, career as a fisheries biologist at the GCMP?

My goal when I was in high school was to be a marine biologist, and so when my son told me he wanted to be one, well of course I loved the idea! I said to myself “I couldn’t do it but now at least he will be able to.” He and I are always communicating; he asks me things that, naturally, we {fishermen} live from day to day. What’s more, I helped him with his career. In fact, I would say his career is almost mine! (says laughing).

Juan José Cota Jr., Papo’s son and our Fisheries Projects Officer at the CBMC conducts biological monitoring at Punta Abreojos (photo by Ismael Osorio)

Practical experience is the most essential thing. Sometimes biologists have a good knowledge of how to manage products, but it’s the fishermen that know how to find them, when they are reproducing and that sort of thing. It’s been a good relationship. As a matter of fact, I have with me now a log that we came up with of where the product aggregates and in what month; that’s what all of us fishermen keep with us to more or less guide us; in other words we check the log to find out, more or less, what dates we fished and when and where the fishing was best.

Everyone in the community has gotten more involved with the projects, he {Juan José Jr.} has a huge advantage in that he is from the community, everyone supports him. We all pull together as one here.

Fishermen from Punta Abreojos fishing cooperative wheel their boats in and out of the Pacific Ocean (photo by Juan José Cota)

What has been your role as far as being involved with collaborative science?

I’m the one that moves the equipment; I bring the logbook to record all the data that the government asks for – all of it; the schedule, everything that we {the fishermen in the cooperative} record every day, how long we worked, what the temperature was, what the sizes of the product were. All of this knowledge has been used to gain support from the government; we can tell them what the situation is like and they do understand.

How do you see the future of your local fisheries, is the outlook a good one?

I think the outlook is a good one. It’s not that we don’t have problems, but we are now better prepared to affront them. Between the biologist’s and our own monitoring, everything is moving forward. Not only is there more knowledge, but also there is greater production, little by little that is. Lobsters are migratory and so the catch varies from time to time, but there are always some. We weren’t always so secure; there was a time when we didn’t know a lot of things. For example, when we fished cabrilla {also known as verdillo – the barred sand bass, Paralabrax nebulifer} we realized that at certain times they would all gather together, and so we fished during these times, but now we realize that when they gather that’s just when they are about to spawn, so now we protect that too. But we didn’t even know that before. As you know, there is a lot of information now on social media, but before there was a lot of insecurity. If lobsters or abalone started dying, for example because of a red tide, we thought that the world was ending! But now we know that it’s a phase, due to El Niño or what not, and that it will pass eventually.

The verdillocabrilla de arena, or barred sand bass, Paralabrax nebulifer, is a bottom dwelling carnivore in the family Serranidae (, illustration by Michel Lamboeuf)

Have you seen any changes in the way fishing is practiced in your community as a result of incorporating more scientific knowledge?

Yes, there are changes. There are very clear changes. The new fishermen sometimes take things too lightly, but older fishermen, those of us who are older, well, we have another criteria of care… it’s as if we matured, I guess we all mature over time, because in the beginning I was like that too; I did things lightly and thought “it doesn’t matter, there will always be plenty,” but it’s not true, we have to start protecting from the bottom-up so there will still be some in the future.

Has this knowledge and sense of stewardship left the community and spread to other areas?

That is difficult. Every community is unique and most are very far apart geographically. We have our way of doing things and they have theirs. The only way to spread the knowledge would be to actually go there and speak to them, and we have done this, but once we leave we have no way of knowing what they do with it.

Have you always been so optimistic about collaborating with scientists, or was there a time when you doubted?

In the beginning I doubted. We all doubted. For example, with using the GPS trackers, but over time, we started seeing that there could be real gains for all of us, and the, how would you put it, fear, started disappearing. We doubted because of questions regarding coordinates. Our lobsters and abalone live on rocks in the same places and well, I don’t know if you know this, but in the zone that we manage there still exists a major problem with illegal fishing, so that’s what we have been mostly guarding against. We have 3 radars on the beach and at least three boats that patrol and can respond to any calls immediately, detaining illegal fishers until a government inspector can go out, and it’s worked very well. Things are going good, thank God, we have done well in this fishery.

Fishing for lobster in the Pacific, from Punta Abreojos fishing cooperative (photo by Juan José Cota)


Author: Alan Ruiz Berman is the Science Communication and Education Coordinator at the CBMC in La Paz Mexico.

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