National Geographic

An Ocean Miracle in the Gulf of California-Can We Have More of This, Please?

For generations we have been taking fish out of the ocean at a rate faster than they can reproduce. The problem is that there are fewer and fewer fish to meet an ever-increasing demand. The solution is simply to take less so that we can continue eating fish for a longer time.

Opponents of conservation, however, argue that regulating fishing will destroy jobs and hurt the economy–but they are wrong, and there are real-world examples that prove this. A scientific study published today by the Public Library of Science shows that protecting an area brings the fish back, and creates jobs and increases economic revenue for the local communities. I have seen it with my own eyes and, believe me, it is like a miracle, only that it is not–it’s just common business sense.

The no-take reserve at Cabo Pulmo is full of fish schools. Photo: Octavio Aburto


Cabo Pulmo National Park in Baja California, Mexico, was protected in 1995 to safeguard the largest coral community in the Gulf of California. When I dove there for the first time in 1999, I thought the corals were very nice, but there were not so many fishes, and I didn’t think the place was extraordinary. Together with Octavio Aburto and other Mexican colleagues we dove at many sites in the gulf, in a region spanning over 1,000 km. Cabo Pulmo was just like most other places I’d seen in the Gulf of California.

But the Cabo Pulmo villagers wanted more. They decided that the waters in front of their settlement were going to be a no-take marine reserve – fishing was banned with the hopes of bringing the fish back. They had a vision, and they succeeded in a way that exceeded all expectations, including mine.

In 2009 we went back to Cabo Pulmo to monitor the fish populations. We jumped in the water, expecting fishes to be more abundant after 10 years of protection. But we could not believe what we saw–thousands upon thousands of large fishes such as snappers, groupers, trevally, and manta rays. They were so abundant that we could not see each other if we were fifteen meters apart. We saw more sharks in one dive at Cabo Pulmo than in 10 years of diving throughout the Gulf of California!

World Heritage Biosphere Reserve from Gulf Program on Vimeo.

Our research indicated that the fish biomass increased by 460% at Cabo Pulmo–to a level similar to remote pristine coral reefs that have never been fished. In contrast, all other sites in the Gulf of California that we revisited in 2009 were as degraded as ten years earlier. This shows that it is possible to bring back the former richness of the ocean that man has obliterated, but that without our dedication, the degradation will continue.

Underwater miracle at Cabo Pulmo, Baja California. Photo: Octavio Aburto


Most importantly for the people of Cabo Pulmo, since their reef is now the only healthy reef left in the Gulf of California, it has attracted divers, which bring economic revenue. And fishermen around the marine reserve are catching more fish than before thanks to the spillover of fish from the no-take marine reserve. It seems like a win-win to me!

The question is: how can we have more of these?


  1. [...] Click here to read EIR Enric Sala’s description of Cabo Pulmo as “An Ocean Miracle in th… Keywords: Cabo Pulmo, marine reserves, Mission Blue, ocean (0) More » [...]

  2. [...] more on marine reserves, learn about the ocean miracle in the Gulf of California, see how marine reserves boost nearby fishing grounds. This is also available as an educational [...]

  3. [...] more on marine reserves, learn about the ocean miracle in the Gulf of California, see how marine reserves boost nearby fishing grounds. This is also available as an educational [...]

  4. [...] Pulmo National Park is the most successful marine reserve in Mexico, possibly worldwide. It contains the northernmost coral reef in the eastern Pacific, and, at around [...]

  5. [...] of Cabo Pulmo in 1999, four years after the local community began to enforce the reserve. They returned to the area in 2009, and were astonished by how the ecosystem had changed. Gulf groupers larger than any seen elsewhere in the Gulf, dense schools of predatory jacks, and [...]

  6. Cabo Pulmo : El Rastreador de Noticias
    December 24, 2011, 4:51 am

    [...] An Ocean Miracle in Cabo Pulmo National Park, Baja California, Mexico – Can We Have More of Th… [...]

  7. [...] National Geographic y Instituto Scripps de [...]

  8. [...] Against all odds, the informal and under-funded marine park has been heralded as a success. Right around the time I visited the relatively new park in 2000, marine ecologist visited the area on an expedition to study local fish populations. Sala returned nearly ten years later and was floored by what he saw. Sala writes: [...]

  9. [...] local fish populations. Sala returned nearly ten years later and was floored by what he saw. Sala writes: "In 2009 we went back to Cabo Pulmo to monitor the fish populations. We jumped in the water, [...]

  10. [...] An Ocean Miracle in the Gulf of California. And finally a bit of good news: If you leave damaged marine areas alone, they heal eventually heal themselves. Not only that, creating protected areas also “create jobs and increase economic revenue for the local communities.” Do we need more incentive? I hope not. [...]

  11. bandrupt
    August 31, 2011, 11:00 am

    I like the planet that we live on.

  12. Lisa
    Wellington, New Zealand
    August 25, 2011, 1:41 pm

    @Longboarder from New Zealand. Fish farming of carnivorous fish such as salmon is not an answer to overfishing, although it would be nice if it was that easy! Those fish need to eat something, and what they eat is material caught from the ocean, such as small fish and crustaceans. They need around ten times their weight to grow to their havestable size, so you actually end up taking more out of the ocean. Finally, as the nets to catch the organisms they eat have a small mesh size, they tend to catch everything in the area being fished (compared to nets which have a larger mesh size so most of the small fish etc will slip through them).

  13. sara
    August 20, 2011, 3:05 pm

    Thanks for sharing this informative information with us.

  14. Linda Shell
    Central Florida
    August 19, 2011, 7:29 pm

    I am mezmerized by the beautiful dance of the fish.

  15. longboarder
    Auckland, New Zealand
    August 16, 2011, 6:09 pm

    Fish farming. Farm fish as we do animals. There is even an argument for farming endangered species for human consumption because as I understand it that helps to pay for their conservation and propogation. Sustainable fish farming at NZ King Salmon accounts for around 55 per cent of the world’s farmed chinook salmon. Check it out at

  16. [...] a way of bouncing back from the atrocities done by man. National Geographic has an article on the recovery of the Gulf of California when fishermen were taken out of the picture. Cabo Pulmo National Park was protected in 1995 by the [...]

  17. T
    Sri Lanka
    August 16, 2011, 1:55 am

    but what did the fishermen (assuming that was the logical livelihood of the villagers before the ban) do for money and jobs during this ban?

    Is this model feasible in places like Sri Lanka, where coastal communities depend on the sea and fishing as their main livelihood and income source?

  18. Avraam Jack Dectis
    Chesapeake, Va
    August 15, 2011, 4:34 pm


    The only way to implement the same thing on a Global Scale is to implement something called a Rolling Ban.

    A Rolling Ban breaks up the worlds fisheries into a small numerical set and then, one at a time,for a set period of time, bans all fishing in each member of the set.

    A simple example would be to divide the world’s fisheries into North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific, I dian.

    All fishing would be banned for one year in the North Atlantic, followed by the South Atlantic, etc.

    When fishing resumed for each member, quotas would hold the catch equal to the previous year’s catch.

    Eventually the quantity of fish would rise and then so would the quotas.

    The timing of the fishing bans and the division of the fisheries would be tuned over the years for the best results.

    Avraam Jack Dectis

  19. Sayeed
    August 15, 2011, 1:16 pm

    This is positive news, indeed!!

    It is interesting how demand drives places like this to the brink in the first place. I work as a dive instructor in the beautiful Andaman islands where the commercial fishing operations are minute and most fishermen catch fish by the traditional use of a line and reel. This means that they only take what the island population needs and fish stocks are able to stay healthy. It is a reason why a lot of experienced divers from around the world comment on the fact that the average fish size they see when diving here, is much larger compared to other spots around the world.

    As a result, the reef is healthy and in situations where the reef suffers damage there are sufficient fish stocks to help recovery.

    However, the flip side of this is that the very tourists who visit also help drive up the demand for the size caught in these waters which may cause a change in reef populations. Only time will tell……as the article indicates, a lot can happen in 10 years.

  20. N
    August 15, 2011, 1:14 pm

    AMAZING stuff…we always hear about the impossibility of marine ecosystem recovery in class…this story shows that we can still afford to be hopeful for the future :)
    @ Enric Sala: HUGE fan…keep up the good work

  21. S. Robertson
    United States
    August 15, 2011, 1:12 pm

    IF mankind would only take what it really NEEDS of anything the planet would be much better off. Look at the supermarket displays – overstocked with fish, vegetables, and meats that will be thrown away. IF mankind did not feel the need to be everywhere maybe there would still be room for the other living plants and animals that inhabit this planet, too.

  22. The Hammer
    August 15, 2011, 1:10 pm

    I think it’s a fantastic idea to place a moratorium or create protected areas to revive the ecosystem. Humans have been exploiting nature with little regard since the industrial revolution. If ‘no fishing’ restrictions are placed, sure there may be loss of jobs, but over fishing and depleting resources will do the same. At least by rebuilding the populationa, and placing certain restrictions to create balance will be the best for everyone.

  23. LadyEos
    Monterrey, Mexico
    August 15, 2011, 12:11 pm

    You know? all that effort will go to waste soon, a big resort is going to be built there, and while it will bring more economic growth this place will be doomed soon. It is a beautiful example that conservation is possible and viable but it worked because no one interfered with it. As said it will be over soon if people keep messing with the coral reef.

  24. Cv.Unnikrishnan
    August 15, 2011, 10:34 am

    What a splendid idea !

  25. Juan
    Birmingham, AL, USA
    August 15, 2011, 10:07 am

    It is very naive to assume that eco-tourism will replace fishing-derived income in anything other than isolated areas. As long as Cabo Pulmo has the fish, divers are attracted there. There aren’t enough divers to replace fishing income “from AK … to CA” as suggested by one poster. let alone worldwide. The loss in jobs, plus the price increase for available food, would be very harmful. A measured approach is needed – not an outright ban.

  26. Ron DamonomaD
    Guadalajara, Mexico
    August 15, 2011, 9:40 am

    Not too fast. First, fish numbers are better compared to the point when they were critical. As good as the results look, this area if far from what a pristine ecosystem should look like. /// All this new hype might be driven by financial interests that want to exploit the recent increase in number –why? So we can go back to near depletion again? Mexico, just like the US, is now driven by corporate interests –just look at Carlos Slim’s empire.

  27. Zach
    August 15, 2011, 1:31 am

    Now lets start this in the USA, from Alaska all the way down the West Coast, WA, OR and CA. Fishing moratorium for 15 years.

  28. whatever
    United States
    August 15, 2011, 12:41 am

    All you humanitarians, Tom is right.

    Once the greedy fisherman takes the last fish, he is stuck figuring out what to do to feed his family or for profit on the very next day. And it’s certainly not the whipping-boy environmentalist’s fault.

    Wiping out everything is not even a short-term solution for anyone, least of all the short-sighted fisherman.

  29. Greenpa
    August 14, 2011, 10:48 pm

    Yes, more please – AND!!! Immediately adjacent to the beautiful NO TAKE zones- there should be “fallow- harvest” zones.

    What? Something new- based on old agricultural practice- you’ll get better crops, if you rest the land. Why not have ocean harvest areas where harvest IS allowed- but only for 2 months- every 3rd year?

    For example. Obviously other intervals are possible, and appropriate in various places. And immediately adjacent to No Take zones because- they can provide the “seed” for the harvest; and also the protection; people are watching, and enforcing.

    We actually KNOW what the results will be- bigger harvests of much more valuable fish, with a fraction of the energy expended. Maybe we should try it.

  30. Norman
    August 14, 2011, 9:57 pm

    @ Tom Mariner:

    “Since we don’t seem to be able to get countries whose populations would riot if they could not get their supply of protein from the sea to agree to limits, maybe a country that could make arbitrary laws and enforce them with gunships is needed.”

    That’s easy for you to say when it’s not your territorial waters being claimed by Chinese gunships. What China is doing in Southeast Asia is nothing but the tactics of a schoolyard bully.

  31. Enric Sala
    August 14, 2011, 1:39 pm

    Hi Henk,
    The answer to your million dollar question is: yes, the large fish spawn inside the reserve (check original research article here:
    The recovery of fish at Cabo Pulmo has been steady over time, and from a scientific point of view it is clearly not a short-lived success. As it has been shown in many other marine reserves around the world, effective protection has long-lasting benefits.

  32. Steve
    August 14, 2011, 5:37 am

    @Tom. You say “just” to feed his family, like that is trivial. Since you are so altruistic, why don’t you sacrifice your family to save a fish? Conservation is good, but your attitude is typical of the out-of-touch-with-reality mind-set of so many tree-huggers these days. You critcize subsistance fishermen, but you do nothing to conserve yourself!

  33. asim
    india kashmir
    August 14, 2011, 2:11 am

    better late than never….

  34. ejs
    August 14, 2011, 1:35 am

    @Tom Mariner

    This story tells of a community’s achievements, and you’re degrading their resiliency and hard work with your judgment, even if you “hate to be judgmental.” It’s not that fisherman purposely intend to overfish the seas they rely on for food–desperation doesn’t give hungry people many other alternatives. For example, a familiar and continuing conundrum for farmers is deciding whether to feed their families or feed their cattle. A similar analogy can be applied to hungry fisherman and their families.

    Instead of pointing out what caused the depletion of resources, which is already common knowledge, raise your hat to the villagers that managed to restore Cabo Pulmo and who will continue to be its environmental stewards.

    Bravo, Mexico!

  35. Henk Meuzelaar
    Palisades, Idaho
    August 13, 2011, 10:15 pm

    We happened to anchor there in 1993 and scuba dive from our sailboat because of Cabo Pulmo bay’s reputation for pretty coral formations. The coral was so-so and the fishes were far and between. Also, the anchorage was quite exposed and rolly. So, it is great to hear the amazing transformation this bay has undergone in over the past 15 years or so.
    Clearly, the bay has become a last refuge for many species that used to be abundant all over the Sea of Cortez (aka Gulf of California). Recent u/w photographs look like belated illustrations for Steinbeck’s “Log of the Sea of Cortez” written well over half a Century ago.
    To me, however, the million do0llar question would seem to be where all these fish are spawning and breeding. If not in Pulmo Bay itself (which I doubt) this success story might be relatively short-lived, even if the developers can be kept at bay (or rather, anywhere else!).
    Maybe National Geographic could pay attention to that side of the story in a future issue…….??

  36. valoispq
    August 13, 2011, 5:04 pm

    Happy to see marine life returning and hope it continues, we do not need any more giant complexes or golf courses, man is so greedy. Just leave things as they are, it is enough!

  37. Wallace J. Nichols
    Davenport, CA
    August 13, 2011, 1:22 pm

    Congratulations to the many hundreds of people who have worked for decades to protect Cabo Pulmo, and to the resident divers and fishers who love their home coast!

    Now let’s make sure these successes aren’t rolled back by runaway coastal mega-development coming from Cabo San Lucas.

    La Paz, Baja California Sur - 50 miles north of Cabo Pulmo
    August 13, 2011, 11:48 am

    Unfortunately, the Cabo Pulmo reef is currently threatened by a plan of development of an enormous resort complex. Desalinization for drinking water and discharge from the proposed golf courses (the most environmentally unfriendly ‘sport’ per participant) along with dredging plans for a new marina will devastate the reef and surrounding area. All the work that been accomplished over the last decade to secure the reef now faces utter devastation.

  39. Tom Mariner
    Bayport, NY
    August 12, 2011, 6:15 pm

    What a wonderful and heartening story — Just don’t take the fish and they replenish.

    I hate to be judgmental, but a fisherman would willingly and instantly take the last of a species just to feed his family or make a profit today. Let tomorrow take care of itself.

    Obviously the wickedly efficient Japanese and other factory ship countries can do incredible damage in a short amount of time and are a special case. With 38,400 of these factory ships scouring the sea for life 12 months a year, it is estimated that within 50 years there will be in effect no fish left in the sea. And those countries that permit the ships to sail from their ports and the companies and seaman who man the ships absolutely do not care and will go to war to protect their right to deplete the fish off our shores.

    I hate to say it, but maybe China has the right idea by claiming a good portion of the Pacific Ocean as their territorial waters. Since we don’t seem to be able to get countries whose populations would riot if they could not get their supply of protein from the sea to agree to limits, maybe a country that could make arbitrary laws and enforce them with gunships is needed.