Can Tourism Trump Tuna in Mexico?

This Global FIshing Watch map shows fishing activity (lighted dots) within and around the proposed Revillagigedo Marine Protected area [outlined in yellow] off the west coast of Mexico.

Last year, a study comparing the economic value of tourism and commercial fishing around a cluster of remote Eastern Pacific Islands put some hard numbers behind a proposal to create the one of the world’s largest Marine Protected Areas (MPA). Those numbers shifted the balance in a previously one-sided dialogue with the government of Mexico which owns the islands. According the study, drawing a no-take boundary with a radius of 100 nautical miles around the islands of the Revillagigedo Archipelago (A.K.A. Soccoro Islands) would preserve millions of tourism dollars, while diverting only ten percent of the commercial tuna catch to other areas.

“The first thing that happens when you are discussing topics such as the implementation of a huge marine reserve, is that people say we cannot touch the Mexican fishery because Mexico will collapse,” says Octavio Aburto an Assistant professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “This new information completely changed the way that we have been discussing this idea with the government, because it shows that, actually, the impact is minimal.” Aburto is coordinating efforts between Mares Mexicanos and National Geographic Pristine Seas to build a case for the MPA designation.

The chain of four volcanic islands sits about 500 miles southwest of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Divers and snorkelers drawn to an abundance of resident giant oceanic manta rays form the core of a tourism industry that delivers an estimated $14 million US dollars to the Mexican economy every year.

But abundance in the region also draws fishers, especially Mexican purse seiners targeting tuna. The overlap is the source of consternation for conservation scientists such as Aburto and his colleagues. Their concern: The waters surrounding the islands are nearly unrivaled for their diversity and support 31 animals that range from vulnerable to critically endangered, including the near threatened tiger, silky and Galapagos sharks as well as the endangered scalloped hammerhead. The large pelagic fish such as sharks and rays are often caught accidentally in tuna gear, and the potential reduction in numbers due to fishing could impact tourism, especially since the giant mantas of Socorro Islands are local and do not travel or migrate from the territory, which means they are particularly vulnerable to depletion.

Giant Oceanic Manta rays (Manta birostris) draw thousands of tourists to the Revillagigedo Islands off the west coast of Mexico. (photo courtesy: Octavio Aburto)

But getting data from the tuna industry about the relative importance of the area for fishing is nearly impossible and unverifiable. “They always said, ‘trust me – I am the expert, I have the data and the data says that it would be too big an impact,’” Aburto says, “and because we haven’t had the data, we could not argue with them.”

In October, Global Fishing Watch filled in that data gap. Juan Mayorga, Aburto’s colleague from Pristine Seas and the Sustainable Fisheries Group at UCSB, analyzed AIS data from fishing vessels that used the area around Socorro Islands. He compared the effort they actually spent fishing within the proposed MPA to their efforts in the broader Eastern Tropical Pacific .

The data revealed that 22 fishing vessels spent a combined total of 265 fishing days within the proposed expanded MPA. Based on the assumption that catch is proportional to energy and effort spent, Mayorga was able to estimate the amount of catch inside and outside the proposed boundaries and calculate its dollar value.

Although he estimates the value of the fishing effort inside the proposed MPA at $8 million U.S. dollars, that represents only 10 percent of the total catch value, and only 7 percent of the fishing effort. The researchers argue that the loss can be made up elsewhere as tuna travel throughout the region. In fact, the well-established effects of “spillover “and “seeding” around MPAs may even benefit the fishery. Studies have shown that not only do growing fish populations expand outside of no-take zones, but larger fish inside MPAs produce more larvae which drifts outside MPA boundaries, resupplying fish stocks and increasing catch.

As part of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, Mexico has joined the international community in committing to protect 10 percent of its marine territory by 2020. But as of October 2016, only 1.6 percent was protected and less than 1 percent of that was no-take. They have a long way to go, but expanding the Marine Protected Area around Revillagigedo Islands would fill the bill entirely, adding 278,758 square km which equals 8.9 percent of Mexico’s waters.

Achieving that accomplishment isn’t going to be easy, Aburto says, especially given that of the three largest of Mexico’s seven tuna companies are poised to fight the MPA. But fishing data from Global Fishing Watch and the economic analysis Aburto and his colleagues brought to the table last year garnered them the first productive meetings with four top government officials (the minister of the environment, the minister and the commissioner of agriculture and fisheries, and the commissioner for marine protected areas). He says the ministers agreed that an MPA is worth looking into. The discussions are ongoing, and Aburto has high hopes that transparency and data have given them the leverage they need to prevail.