Baja’s beleaguered beaches

Will an ill-considered mega-tourism development plan end a traditional way of life?

©Anthony Moats

Pancho Verdugo has an eye for spotting whales. I am perched at the bow of his 15-foot panga (a small flat-bottomed boat), scanning the horizon, when he suddenly yells, ”¡Ballena!” I barely catch sight of the whale’s misty breath far in the distance. Minutes later, Pancho has us strategically placed when a 50-foot fin whale erupts from the depths, barely a boat-length away.

Like many fishermen in the Baja California fishing village of Bahía de los Angeles, Pancho increasingly relies on ecotourists like me to support his family. But stories from the nearby town of Santa Rosalillita have him worried. There, a partly constructed highway and marina are the focus of a denuncia (legal complaint) filed by a coalition of Mexican and US conservation groups. The denuncia asserts that environmental laws are being ignored during initial construction of the ambitious Escalera Náutica (Nautical Ladder) project.

Conservationists say the highway and marina at Santa Rosalillita offer a sobering glimpse of Baja’s future if FONATUR, Mexico’s National Tourism Fund - a powerful tourism development agency - builds the $1.8-billion Escalera Náutica over the next 24 years. The master plan calls for constructing 22 marinas, with hotels, golf courses, and airports, up and down the coasts of Baja and mainland Mexico.

Grassroots environmental organizations, such as the California-based Wildcoast International Conservation Team and Mexico’s Pro Esteros, have a different vision of the future.

“That type of mega-development is not appropriate for ecological treasures like Bahía de los Angeles and other sensitive areas,” says Pro Esteros co-director Patricia Martínez Rios. Pro Esteros is not wholly opposed to Escalera Náutica, but the group urges a cautious approach to development. “We just want them to do it right. Start small, then study the impacts. And leave the pristine sites like Bahía de los Angeles alone.”

Serge Dedina of Wildcoast agrees, favoring Escalera Ecológico, an alternative being offered by a coalition of Mexican and US NGOs. “There’s already an established tourism infrastructure in places like La Paz and Cabo San Lucas. Upgrade those facilities, and leave sensitive areas like Kino Bay and Bahía de los Angeles to more small-scale ecotourism.”

Local people are a critical part of the conservation equation as well. Many of the more effective organizations like Pro Esteros and Wildcoast emerged from Baja’s last conservation controversy - the seven-year effort to preserve the gray whale calving grounds of San Ignacio Lagoon - with a fresh focus on community development efforts.

As Dedina puts it, “It’s really hard for environmental groups to keep saying ‘no’ to everything.” Martínez Rios adds, “We know we can’t just bring environmental projects to communities. We need to help people earn basic necessities. Then they will be ready to protect the environment.”

Helping people earn “basic necessities” through ecotourism or other ecologically friendly enterprises is easier said than done. But as I discover over the course of several trips to Bahía de los Angeles - a place wealthy in wildlife but pitifully short on economic opportunities - there’s reason to hope that healthy ecosystems and economic development can go hand in hand.

One sultry evening, at the town ejido (Mexican landholding cooperative) office, I attend a gathering of the recently formed Marine Park Committee. Pancho is there, as well as many other fishermen like Joel, Memo, Fermin, and Ramon - fiercely independent men who nonetheless realize the need for unified action to save their community. Commercial fishing has taken a toll on the once seemingly limitless fishery. Now, with catches declining and the wholesale price for fish at 25 to 50 cents per pound, local people realize they need economic alternatives.

Many in attendance become quite animated when the conversation turns to the proposed national marine park. The park is the centerpiece of conservationists’ efforts to promote ecologically sustainable development in Bahía de los Angeles. “It’s given the town a roadmap for the future,” says Dedina. “It will not only help commercial fishermen but will be good for ecotourism.”

The park’s primary goal is to provide tools to better manage marine resources. Proponents say this means more fish for commercial fishermen, larger catches for sport fishermen, and name recognition to help lure ecotourists.

For many of the fishermen - who make much more money in a day taking wildlife enthusiasts out looking for whales, dolphins, and sea lions than they would fishing - the value of a marine park is obvious. But many townspeople are apprehensive of government involvement, whether it’s the Escalera Náutica or a marine park. There is agreement that something must be done to stem the tide of illegal and unmanaged fishing, but fishermen insist they must be the ones to write and enforce the rules.

As the meeting winds down, I realize that many of these fishermen are facing an economic transition familiar to blue-collar Americans - to an economy increasingly tied to the service industry rather than resource extraction. After spending a day with Pancho searching for whales, I find it easier to envision him as an ecoguide than as a waiter in an Escalera Náutica hotel.

On the other hand, many in the Mexican government believe the centrally planned, capital-intensive developments of FONATUR are a much better hope for Baja’s economic future than locally controlled ecotourism and other small-scale enterprises. FONATUR hopes to provide a much-needed boost to the region’s struggling economy by modeling the Escalera Náutica after its well-known success stories of Cancún and Cabo San Lucas. There, selling land and franchises to private investors was the primary mode of economic stimulus.

Zonas abandonadas

As I drive south from Tijuana on the legendary Highway 1, mileage signs and billboards heralding the Escalera Náutica begin to make regular appearances alongside the road. The signs’ boat and marina icons - which reportedly cost over $100,000 - seem grossly out of place as I pass endless stretches of bone-dry desert and alien-looking boojum trees.

Arriving at mile zero is anticlimactic. The only evidence of anything significant is a newly paved, extra-wide highway, devoid of traffic and pointing straight as an arrow to the barren Pacific coast.

Two miles down the new highway, flawless asphalt gives way to dirt. I finish my detour eight miles later in the tiny fishing village of Santa Rosalillita and immediately notice a dredge taking sand out of the newly constructed breakwater. This is the site of the marina that is the subject of the recently filed denuncia - construction that Escalera Náutica opponents say is not only illegal, but in a surf zone and doomed to constant erosion from the persistent Pacific swell.

The highway and soon-to-be built marina at Santa Rosalillita are key steps in the Escalera Náutica’s “terrestrial bridge.” The idea is to lure well-heeled boaters to Mexican waters by creating a shortcut across the narrow peninsula. Boats will be hauled out of the Pacific Ocean at Santa Rosalillita, then transported by truck to the more sailor-friendly waters of the Sea of Cortez near Bahía de los Angeles.

Due to its location on one of the narrowest points of the Baja peninsula, Bahía de los Angeles is slated to be the eastern anchor for the entire Escalera Náutica project. Plans include marinas, hotels, and trailer parks, as well as logistical installations for the terrestrial bridge, mostly outside the current town center.

You’d think the economic opportunities presented by such a plan would have townspeople laying out the welcome mat. But most residents are skeptical of government projects, even when promises of services like cheap electricity sweeten the deal.

Martinez Rios tells of a visit from FONATUR officials to the town last year. “One representative from FONATUR promised new generators for electricity if the town would support the project. People said, ‘Bring the services first. Then maybe we’ll see. We know how the government works.’”

Dedina describes Bahía de los Angeles as one of Baja’s many zonas abandonadas (abandoned zones): it has the lowest per capita rate of government investment in all of Baja. “There’s absolutely no government presence there at all. Historically, people have had no local control over their resources. They’ve been subject to the whims of outsiders, like poachers and industrial fishing boats, and haven’t had a mechanism to stop them.”


When it comes to distrust of FONATUR projects, the people of Bahía de los Angeles aren’t necessarily representative of the rest of Mexico. FONATUR’s economic track record with mega-resorts like Cancún and Cabo San Lucas makes it a difficult target for conservationists.

“Talking about saving turtles and wildlife is one thing - you’re not attacking the government,” Dedina says. “There’s a perception among people in Mexico that everything FONATUR touches turns to gold.” Tourism is one of Mexico’s top three sources of revenue, along with oil and the flow of cash from migrant workers in the US. “You just can’t go out there and say Cabo and Cancún are environmental nightmares,” Dedina adds.

Interestingly, one reason FONATUR was created in 1969 was to address the explosion of tourism in Mexico’s coastal areas, which was wreaking havoc on local water quality and marine life. In 1969, with loans from the Inter American Development Bank, the Mexican government set up a trust - subsequently dubbed FONATUR - to develop and administer tourism projects through the federal government, exploiting their economic potential while protecting the environment.

Unfortunately, the latter goal fell by the wayside in the rush to capitalize on made-to-order tourist destinations like Cabo San Lucas. Dedina has no confidence in FONATUR’s ability to protect the environment. “They engage in classic greenwashing. They say they’re pro-environment, but meanwhile, in Santa Rosalillita, they built an illegal marina in a surf zone, which is filling in with sand; an illegal road in a National Park, which destroyed rare cacti; and they ruined a sensitive wetlands. They have no credibility. The idea is to not create five more Santa Rosalillitas.”

A string of failed RV parks, an abandoned marina near Loreto, and a history of questionable real estate practices that includes expropriation of private property and land speculation better indicate how FONATUR operates, opponents claim.

“These guys are classic Soviet-style, large-scale tourism planners,” Dedina continues. “They have almost no practical experience with the sites and communities they are planning to work with.”

Yellowstone of the Pacific

Months after my whale excursion with Pancho, I am drawn back to Bahía de los Angeles to catch a glimpse of one of its unique natural resources - the polka-dotted whale sharks that come to feast in the plankton-rich waters. This time, my guide is Joel Prieta, a former commercial fisherman who now relies exclusively on ecotourists and sport fishermen to support his family. In a few short hours, I see how these waters could become what conservationists are marketing as Mexico’s “Yellowstone of the Pacific.”

The sleepy fishing village of 700 people lies nestled between the rugged Sierra San Borja Mountains and the sparkling waters of the Sea of Cortez. A quick survey hints at the town’s first economic boom. Blue-eyed Mexicans with English surnames like Smith and Daggett point to the legacy of the $2 million worth of gold and silver that was hauled out of the Flores mine in the late 19th century. The next wave of immigrants arrived over the next 50 years to capitalize on Bahía’s second gold rush: the prolific fishery for which the town became famous.

Now, the virtual collapse of the commercial fishery - partly from illegal industrial fishing - has left many residents on the edge of poverty. They have few options except to continue overfishing or to poach sea turtles. In the midst of this dilemma, conservationists see a golden opportunity to revive locally controlled fisheries and stimulate ecotourism.

While Bahía de los Angeles lacks the commercial species like abalone and lobster on which its Pacific neighbors capitalize, it boasts some of the world’s most productive waters for large marine animals.

The deep waters, atop an offshore extension of the San Andreas Fault, combine with strong tidal currents to create a year-round feast of plankton, the foundation of the food web. Seven species of whales, immense pods of dolphins numbering in the hundreds, sea lions, and 30-foot whale sharks all rely on the rich organic soup that gives the Sea of Cortez its brilliant aqua-green hue.

The offshore islands, marginally protected as part of the Islas del Golfo (Islands of the Gulf) Biosphere Reserve, would be included in the marine park. They hold species found nowhere else on earth and provide critical habitat for a variety of seabirds, including blue-footed boobies, cormorants, pelicans, and osprey.

After snorkeling for hours among docile whale sharks, I’m off to a sea lion rookery. On the way, I pass a pod of spotted dolphins extending as far as the eye can see.

From the edge of our boat to the far horizon, it’s a true Baja feeding frenzy, with pelicans and osprey dive-bombing the schools of sardines driven to the surface by sea lions and dolphins. In the distance, a spout indicates a fin whale. Thinking about the numerous tales from local residents who lament the decline in marine life, I can’t help but wonder, “What was this place like 30 years ago?”

It doesn’t take long to see that Joel has made the transition to an ecotourism and sportfishing guide. Along with a sturdy fisherman’s build, he has an engaging smile and seems thoroughly at ease speaking his self-taught English with tourists.

I hire him to take me to some uncharted dive sites he’s discovered. I drop into a forest of pink sea fans and scattered orange cup coral that shelters an amazing display of marine life. Soon I’m engulfed by a massive school of three-foot yellowtail jacks, prowling the reef for their next meal.

When I surface, I’m treated to sashimi, Baja style. During my brief underwater foray, Joel has hooked a yellowtail, marinated it in soy sauce and wasabi, and laid out fresh slices for me to sample. While he shows me the yellowtail in his fish guide and teaches me its Spanish name - jurel - I savor the freshest sashimi I’ve ever tasted.

Taking that leap of faith

I ask Antonio Resendiz, a resident sea turtle biologist and former ejido president, about the challenges fishermen face in becoming ecoguides. Antonio is one of the town’s chief proponents of a shift to a conservation-based economy. He has seen the town through many changes since first arriving in the 1970s as an idealistic government employee to study sea turtles, which at the time were being legally hunted by the thousands.

As we bounce down a dusty washboard road in his beat-up Land Rover, the charismatic Mexico City native, with his urban, fast-paced approach to life, seems out of place in the laid-back fishing village. But after several stops peppered with lively exchanges, it’s clear he has developed a genuine rapport with local people and knows the town and the challenges it faces all too well.

“Joel,” Antonio says with a nod. “He’s a smart guy. Tries hard to learn English and the Internet. Clean boat. First-class service. Many fisherman can’t compete with people like Joel [as guides].”

Antonio goes on to explain that Joel is from Ensenada and, like himself, is a transplanted urbanite with more education than most local fishermen. “These shy fishermen with fish blood on their boats and squid ink on their shirts - many don’t know how to smile [at tourists]. We need help.”

When asked about the marine park, he hedges, displaying the apprehension I had sensed at the Marine Park Committee meeting. “We’re scared of too many rules. Permits. Paperwork. Insurance. If we’re really going to have a locally controlled marine park, we’ll need English classes and guide training. And especially business from tourists. If we could have full boats for just four months of the year, people would have money, and we’d have no poaching [of sea turtles].”

“Take Pancho,” Antonio continues. “He is an excellent guide. He just needs a little push.”

One push is coming from groups like Wildcoast. Among other things, Wildcoast funds the local grupo marino (marine group), made up of Pancho, Joel, and two other fishermen - Memo and Ramon. The group is paid monthly to monitor and collect data on caguamas (sea turtles), using their expertise in locating turtles to help the critically endangered species. Wildcoast’s other efforts include a broadcast marketing campaign and a plan for billboards along Highway 1 - all designed to encourage more ecotourism business.

Antonio has hope for the park and what it could do for his community. “We need to give [the government and supporting NGOs] a chance. Maybe a couple more meetings.” But, he emphasizes, “They must respect people’s feelings.”

Chris Pesenti is co-director of Pro Peninsula, a San Diego-based group that works in Baja communities. He has seen what happens when local people aren’t part of the park planning process in places like southern Baja’s Cabo Pulmo - resulting in “paper parks” with little local buy-in.

Pesenti believes Bahía de los Angeles will be different. “The community is going to play a tremendous role in managing the park because it’s their resource - they’re the ones who stand to gain or lose more than anyone else,” he says.

Dedina says the prospect of collaboration has resulted in a “big conceptual leap” in how townspeople view their role in their future. “On some level it’s probably a leap of faith on the part of local people that they’re going to have to do it themselves.”

Pesenti concurs. “Local people are slowly recognizing that solutions are going to be attained through collaboration and not by individual effort.” He believes the soon-to-be built community center will help by creating a “sense of pride” in town. Plans for its use include English classes, and workshops for women to initiate local enterprises like making and selling handicrafts. It will also serve as the marine park headquarters.

Just a few tools

Toward the end of my stay in Bahía de los Angeles, I find myself in town with Joel and Pancho as they do some maintenance on the grupo marino‘s new boat, a donation by the Mexican government.

Joel says the Escalera Náutica “sounds like it won’t benefit local people.” His suggestion is “start with something smaller - maybe in a place more populated.” He is particularly encouraged by a future training program to help fishermen become park managers. “A good opportunity for me, my family, and the community,” he says.

Pancho agrees, adding, “Ecotourism is going to help us more than commercial fishing. Many people [in Bahía de los Angeles] are afraid of people coming from the outside and us ending up acting as servants [e.g., waiters and maids]. The marine park could be a success… if there’s somebody trained to help us.”

After numerous trips to Bahía de los Angeles, spending time with fishermen, conservationists, and other townspeople, I get the feeling Pancho wisely sums up how people feel about the future. It’s a sense of guarded hope for their children and their community - but hope that is tempered with a history of abandonment and broken promises.

As I shake hands with Joel and Pancho and we part ways, I’m left with a feeling of cautious hope as well - hope that Serge Dedina is right about what the future holds for Bahía de los Angeles.

“I think things are going to get better, only because of what we’ve seen in places like San Ignacio Lagoon. With just a little bit of help, these people will really work hard to make a better future for their children. If you give people a few tools, they’ll do miraculous things.”

Freelance writer Tony Moats is a veteran educator. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

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