Menus Subscribe Search

The Perils of Being Selfish With Shellfish

• December 01, 2009 • 5:00 AM

Bandits, then locals, broke the rules in self-governed marine reserve, marring what had been a heart-warming conservation success.

It was good news when scientists in Puerto Peñasco, a fishing and tourism hub in Baja California, found proof for the first time of the rapid “reseeding” effects of marine reserves — how a no-fishing zone can replenish fish stocks by exporting babies beyond its boundaries.

The Puerto Peñasco divers were worried about the declining stocks of snails and scallops, the bread and butter of their trade. So, beginning in 2001, they worked closely with researchers to design, set up and monitor three de facto marine reserves where fishing was banned. The no-fishing zones extended along 11 miles of rocky coast and around San Jorge Island, 20 miles offshore in the northeastern Gulf.

Within a year, there were big increases in the abundance of juvenile rock scallops and black murex snails both inside and outside the reserve boundaries. The bigger and older the shellfish got inside the reserve, the more larvae, or babies, they produced, and the more they drifted with the current, quickly reseeding the depleted areas where fishing was allowed.

The reserves extended over 30 percent of the fishing grounds, but the local cooperative of about 22 divers could see that it was beneficial. They volunteered their time to count scallops and snails underwater. They kept an eye on each other, too, taking occasional trips to the island to see if anyone was cheating.

During the first two years of the reserves, there were only 13 violations of the fishing ban out of 2,000 local diving trips from Puerto Peñasco. Nobody wanted to risk being ostracized. News of the thriving shellfish stocks spread along the coast. The Mexican government recognized the divers with a Presidential Conservation Award.

“Things were going so well,” said Richard Cudney-Bueno, who helped design the Puerto Peñasco reserves as an adjunct biology professor at the University of Arizona School of Natural Resources and a researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz Institute of Marine Sciences.

And then the roving bandits came.

They arrived in a handful of boats from 200 miles away, and they started poaching in the reserves that had been maintained based on trust at San Jorge Island. There was nothing the locals could do. The Mexican government had never formally recognized the fishing ban, and nobody had a legal right to throw out the newcomers.

The locals weren’t going to stand by and let others reap the benefits of their investment at San Jorge. So, they joined in the poaching, and it spread from the island to the coastal reserves in a free-for-all.

Within a month, the local populations of scallops and snails plummeted by half as the divers took in big hauls, driving down the market price. By the end of two months, the shellfish stocks had dropped to pre-closure levels.

“The whole thing got wiped out due to disruption of the social structure that had supported it,” said Peter Raimondi, a University of California, Santa Cruz biologist who collaborated on the study. “Scientifically, it was really interesting, but for the people who experienced it on the ground, it was terrible.”

How Reserves Work
The establishment of marine reserves is typically controversial and fraught with conflict. Environmentalists seek the conservation benefits of “underwater parks,” but the fishermen don’t see what’s in it for them. Where’s the proof, they want to know, that reserves can actually replenish stocks elsewhere?

In their groundbreaking study of the Puerto Peñasco reserves, published this year on the PLoS ONE blog, Cudney-Bueno, Raimondi, William Shaw of the University of Arizona and their colleagues in Mexico, describe how they were able to predict and then confirm the rapid effects of the dispersal of fish larvae outside the reserves.

By tracking local currents in the Gulf of California and calculating how far the wandering larvae would travel, the scientists pinpointed exactly where the larvae, now grown to little scallops, would eventually attach to the rocky ocean bottom. They predicted, correctly, that it would be about a 10-day trip for the floating larvae to locations between 12 and 30 miles away.

The divers counted young shellfish in the “reseeding” locations and inside the reserves both before and two years after the fishing ban went into effect. The scientists found that the density of juvenile rock scallops increased more than 40 percent inside the reserves and more than 20 percent in fishing areas outside the reserve boundaries. The density of black murex snails in fishing areas increased threefold.

Robert Warner, an evolutionary ecologist who helped design a 318-square-mile network of marine reserves around California’s Channel Islands, the largest such network off the continental United States, called the Puerto Peñasco study “an important contribution to the marine reserve literature.”

“It shows a rapid increase in juvenile settlement in areas downstream from reserves, after only two years,” Warner said.

As previously reported by Miller-McCune, local fishermen were engaged in the monitoring efforts at the Channel Islands, just as they were at Puerto Peñasco.

But there the similarity ends. The Channel Islands marine reserves are vigorously enforced by the National Park Service, National Marine Sanctuary, U.S. Coast Guard and California Department of Fish and Game. These agencies patrol the reserve network by air, by sea and on land. The park alone spends about $350,000 per year on enforcement.

As many as 200 fishermen get verbal or written warnings or citations every year at the Channel Islands, park officials said. In addition, the patrols stop more than 1,000 boats yearly to hand out educational materials and deter them from fishing in the reserves.

A Happy Ending
Belatedly, the Mexican government is giving Puerto Peñasco some support.

In a before-and-after study published on the PLoS ONE blog this year, Cudney-Bueno tells how the government in 2006 finally gave the diving cooperative exclusive rights to harvest rock scallop in their fishing grounds. Such formal Mexican fishing “concessions” are rare, and Puerto Peñasco’s was the first in the Gulf of California.

Today, the shellfish stocks are building back up and the diving cooperative is working with researchers to design a management plan, backed by the government, that will include permanent seasonal closures and no-fishing zones for rock scallop and quotas in areas where fishing is allowed. It will give them even more of a buffer than they had before, Cudney-Bueno said.

“It’s just crucial to have control over the fishing grounds,” he said. “The divers know that leaving a place untouched for some time will only lead to an increase in resources. People really can manage their own regions, but if you don’t have the umbrella backup, it’s very hard to control.”

The Mexican government does not have the resources to regularly patrol reserves in the Gulf. But next time, if the bandits come, the Puerto Peñasco divers can legally call on the local port authority to deal with them.

The story of Puerto Peñasco’s success, failure and success has given a boost to fishery protection elsewhere in the northern Gulf, with funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. In Bahía de los Angeles and Bahía de Kino as well as Puerto Peñasco, fishermen are working with researchers to protect not only scallops and snails, but also stocks of crabs, lobsters, sea cucumber and groupers.

“The pie has been sliced in too many pieces in the Gulf,” Cudney-Bueno said. “Some communities are really taking things into their own hands. There’s a sacrifice in establishing reserves, absolutely. But there’s so much belief in the resilience of the system.”

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Melinda Burns
Former Miller-McCune staff writer Melinda Burns was previously a senior writer for the Santa Barbara News-Press, covering immigration, urban planning, science, and the environment.

More From Melinda Burns

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


August 20 • 8:40 AM

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.


August 20 • 8:00 AM

What the Cost of Raising a Child in America Tells Us About Income Inequality

You’ll spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise a kid in the United States, or about five times the annual median income.


August 20 • 6:00 AM

In Praise of ‘American Greed’

While it remains semi-hidden on CNBC and can’t claim the car chases of Cops, American Greed—now with eight seasons in the books—has proven itself a worthy endeavor.


August 20 • 4:00 AM

Of Course I Behaved Like a Jerk, I Was Just Watching ‘Jersey Shore’

Researchers find watching certain types of reality TV can make viewers more aggressive.


August 20 • 2:00 AM

Concluding Remarks About Housing Affordability and Supply Restricitions

Demand, not supply, plays the dominant role in explaining the housing affordability crisis. The wages are just too damn low.


August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


August 19 • 10:00 AM

Child Refugees: The New Barbarians

The disturbing rhetoric around the recent rise in child refugees into the United States from Central America may be shaping popular opinion on upcoming immigration reform.


August 19 • 8:00 AM

Making Police Departments More Diverse Isn’t Enough

Local police departments should reflect the communities they serve, but fixing that alone won’t curb unnecessary violence.


August 19 • 7:15 AM

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.


August 19 • 6:00 AM

Seeking a Healthy Public School Lunch? Good Luck

Mystery meat will always win.


August 19 • 4:00 AM

The Positive Effects of Sports-Themed Video Games

New research finds sports-themed video games actually encourage some kids to get onto the field.


August 19 • 1:00 AM

DIY Diagnosis: How an Extreme Athlete Uncovered Her Genetic Flaw

When Kim Goodsell discovered that she had two extremely rare genetic diseases, she taught herself genetics to help find out why.



August 18 • 3:30 PM

Mister Rogers’ Heart-Healthy Neighborhood

Researchers find living in a friendly, cohesive neighborhood lowers seniors’ chances of having a heart attack.


August 18 • 2:00 PM

Wealth or Good Parenting?

Framing the privileges of the rich.


August 18 • 12:00 PM

How Much Did the Stigma of Mental Illness Harm Robin Williams?

Addiction treatment routinely fails people with mental illnesses, while mental health care often ignores addiction. And everywhere, stigma is rife. Can a tragic death prompt a more intelligent approach?


August 18 • 10:00 AM

Punished for Being Poor: The Problem With Using Big Data in the Justice System

Correctional departments use data-driven analyses because they’re easier and cheaper than individual assessments. But at what cost?


August 18 • 8:00 AM

What Americans Can Learn From a Vial of Tibetan Spit

Living high in the mountains for thousands of years, Tibetans have developed distinct biological traits that could benefit all of us, but translating medical science across cultures is always a tricky business.


Follow us


Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent "feminization."

Journalists Can Get PTSD Without Leaving Their Desks

Dealing with violent content takes a heavy toll on some reporters.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.