By Reef Check California's North-Central Regional Manager Megan Wehrenberg
Members from three organizations- Reef Check (RC), the Mexican nonprofit Comunidad y Biodiversidad (COBI), and the School for Field Studies (SFS) of Mexico- joined forces in November to conduct a training for a select group from the Isla Magdalena Fishing Cooperative. The Cooperative created a Marine Protected Area (MPA) within their fishing grounds to address declines in the populations of fished species. The most important commercial species include abalone, lobster, and sea cucumber; fishes are also harvested but mostly for personal consumption, and within the MPA boundaries no take of any species is allowed. RC staff traveled to Isla Magdalena to teach the fishermen how to scientifically monitor this new MPA so that they can track any related recoveries of species of interest. This program was to mirror the similar monitoring program that has been going since 2006 in Isla Natividad, also in Baja California.
On November 8th we arrived at San Carlos, a sleepy fishing town on Bahia Magdalena and the site of the SFS campus. This was our home and headquarters for the next three weeks. Campus life was in full swing with college students from around the US spending a semester learning abroad. It was great to interact with the students and instructors and to share with them a bit about what we were doing. The school was a perfect place to run the training from, with nearly all the comforts of home, and just meters away from a beautiful lagoon that filled with many birds and the colors of sunset each night.
During our first week we were diving, diving, diving! We spent time finalizing the species list for the protocol as well as looking for potential sites inside and outside the reserve that had similar substrate structure. We spent time with seasoned fishermen boating up and down the coast to get the lay of the (underwater) land. The diving logistics took some getting used to as well. Since the narrow mouth of Bahia Magdalena was a long boat ride away, the easiest way to get out to the open Pacific was to boat to the thinnest part of the barrier island, drive the boat onto a waiting trailer, and drive across the land to the beach on the other side. This works great in theory, but ensuring that a trailer is waiting, that the towing vehicle will be up and running, and that the conditions will be good on the other side turned out to be an art form.
The fishermen enrolled in the training had spent most of their lives in and underwater (many of them fish using hookah), however they were fairly new to scuba. They were open-water certified by Cyndi Dawson, former Reef Check staff member, in May of 2010 and spent minimal time practicing. Therefore, before we began the training we had a scuba refresher. Fortunately, having spent their lives in the water, they were excellent divers from the start! It was no time at all before we were heading into the classroom to begin the RC training. We spent the next week alternating between days in the classroom and underwater while the group learned the RC monitoring protocol and the associated species identification. It was really a treat working with guys who knew so much about the surrounding waters.
By our third week at the school all of the trainees had passed their species tests and field evaluations with flying colors and were ready to utilize their new skills. Together we surveyed five sites, three within and two outside the reserve. The conditions were good during the surveys, a period of calm and clear water following heavy winds the week before. We were surprised to find that the winds had caused upwelling that decreased the water temperature 10° F in only 1-2 days (from 70° F to 60° F)! Our time studying this region was particularly enjoyable because of how unique it is ecologically. Bahia Magdalena is in the transition zone between the Temperate Northeastern Pacific and the Tropical Eastern Pacific Biogeographic Regions. That means that it is possible to see many of the species that we regularly see at home in California swimming alongside tropical species of mainland Mexico. You know you are in another world when you look into a crevice and find a garibaldi sharing it with a king angel fish or you see a school of yellow snapper swimming through a forest of southern sea palm kelp.
We had a great time during our three weeks on Bahia Magdalena and were very happy with all we accomplished. We even had a delicious Thanksgiving feast and celebration with the (mostly American) students and professors at the school as well as several of the fishermen and their families. As we went around the table and said what we were thankful for I was delighted by the number, including myself, who were thankful to have had the opportunity to learn and work in such an amazing place with such wonderful people.
We would like to thank the Cooperativa de Bahia Magdalena, COBI, and SFS Mexico for their participation and support of this training. To view pictures please click here.