Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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