Life in the Gulf of California Hope Spot

The Gulf of California, a 700-mile narrow sea between Baja and mainland Mexico, is home to over 800 species of fish, 2000 invertebrates, as well as whales, dolphins, sea turtles and sea lions. The area includes 256,000 hectares of mangroves, 600,000 hectares of wetlands and 70 percent of Mexican fisheries. Simply put, this area is one of the most productive ocean regions in the world. That is why Mission Blue has named it as a Hope Spot.

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Vibrant waters of the Gulf of California

On the recent Mission Blue Hope Spot expedition to the Gulf of California, we had a chance to dive with the local marine life. Since National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Sylvia Earle was leading the expedition, we also had the opportunity to compare marine life in the Gulf of California with what it was when Dr. Earle first dove here 60 years ago.

We saw many sea lions, those playful underwater acrobats. They look lazy, cantankerous on the rocks, but once they shimmy into the water their natural adaptation to the environment becomes obvious: they are fast and can turn their bodies–which can weigh hundreds of pounds–on a dime. Sea lions are also extremely social and will come investigate nearby divers, swimming right up to them, looking them over and often nibbling on a diver’s fin for fun.

Be careful though, if a big bull comes up and barks in your face, you may want to back off, suggested Kip Evans, Mission Blue’s Director of Expeditions.

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A playful sea lion nibbles on a diver’s fin.

The Gulf of California is a caricature of dramatic topography and bathymetry. The water is super deep in the central and southern regions and the narrow sea is abutted by high, dusty mountains. At the northern end, where the Colorado River Delta empties into the Gulf, there exist some of the greatest tides in the world. Think of all the nutrient-rich sediments that were carved out of the Grand Canyon and deposited in the Gulf of California via the Colorado River.

This productive coastal wetland system, along with others in the Gulf of California, forms important zones of ecological productivity that are not found in the surrounding desert ecosystems. Shore birds, for example, use the wetlands as resting and feeding grounds.

Unfortunately, the Hoover Dam drastically reduced fresh water flow to the Gulf of California via the Colorado River and negatively impacted the Delta and the Gulf as a whole. In its natural state, the Colorado River delivered 18 billion square meters of water and 160 billion kilograms of sediment per year. Now those numbers are around 8 billion square meters and 12 billion kilograms of sediment.

A Dry Colorado River Delta (Wikipedia)

The variety and abundance of fish populations in the Gulf of California have historically attracted fishermen. With the completion of the transpeninsular highway in 1973, the area was subjected to accelerating industrial and sport fishing—as well as coastal development. Hunted species include bonito, marlin, swordfish, grouper and the giant sea bass which lives to over 100 years old.

Many of the species currently being fished—tuna, sea bass, grouper, yellowtail, shark, marlin, scallops, lobster, snapper, shrimp, and halibut—have suffered steep declines in the last 50 years. Moreover, some destructive fishing methods are laying waste to other marine life through bycatch and causing physical damage to the sea floor. Indeed, there has been great damage caused in recent decades due to fishing of shrimp, sardines, squid, tuna, Mexican “panga,” and other marketable species. Moreover, seabirds are challenged by the drastically reduced food supply caused by humans plundering their staple foods such as sardines.

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Historical Photo: Fishermen in Gulf of California

Thankfully, the deeper waters of the Gulf of California are heretofore untouched by industrial fishing. Those efforts are mostly concentrated along the shallower pelagic zones. Still, other side effects of fishing such as entanglement are killing marine life, including dozens of vaquita porpoises each year. This is not good news since fewer than 100 of these rarest porpoises, who live solely in the Gulf of California, remain on earth. When we asked local marine conservationist Lorenzo Rosenzweig Pasquel about the prospect of the vaquita, he simply shrugged his shoulders. It’s not looking good.

What was unexpected for the Hope Spot expedition was to not see a single shark. Their absence is a serious sign of a marine ecosystem out of balance. Dr. Earle remarked that when she dived here 30 years ago the waters were teeming with swarms of hammerheads. Sadly, we didn’t see a single shark during a week of diving.

Mexico has been protecting the Gulf of California since 1964 when it declared a protected area at Isla Rada, a breeding ground for 90 percent of the world’s Heermann’s gulls and elegant terns. Currently there are 27 coastal and marine protected areas in the Gulf of California, representing 45 percent of the National System and eight percent of the marine area in the Gulf itself. But less than one percent of those protected areas are “no take”, meaning no living things can be taken from the waters. One “no take” area, the Cabo Pulmo Marine Reserve, has seen a remarkable bounce back in biodiversity and productivity since protection measures went into place 25 years ago.

A ray in the Gulf of California

Mr. Pasquel recommends a multi-pronged approach to revitalizing the Gulf of California: One, expand the network of Marine Protected Areas while increasing enforcement in protected areas. Two, improve management of active fisheries and foster sustainable coastal development. Three, strengthen the civil society capacity to ensure the sustainability of both the ecosystems and the local population. 

Mission Blue designated the Gulf of California as a Hope Spot, because if properly protected, it can rebound and be a source of biodiversity and productivity that can help lift the ocean out of the steep decline of the last half century. Learn more about Hope Spots.

Sunset over the Baja Peninsula
Sunset over the Baja Peninsula

Background to this series of posts

Bold Plan for 50 Ocean Hope Spots


Exciting news came out of the 3rd International Marine Protected Areas Congress (IMPAC 3): Her Deepness Sylvia Earle, Mission Blue and IUCN launched 31 new Mission Blue Hope Spots — Marine Protected Areas — across the globe to massively scale up the level of marine protection that experts consider necessary for a sustainable future.

A Hope Spot is an area of ocean that merits special protection because of its wildlife and significant underwater habitats. Each Hope Spot can give the ocean a breathing space from human activities so that it may recover and flourish. Dr. Earle named these areas Hope Spots because they represent a real hope to restore the health of our imperiled ocean.

The 31 new announcements come in addition to the 19 Hope Spots that Mission Blue was already working to protect over the previous four years. Click on the thumbnail below to hear about Hope Spots straight from Sylvia.

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When Dr. Earle won the TED Prize in 2009, she implored ocean supporters “to use all means at your disposal – films, the web, expeditions, new submarines, a campaign! – to ignite public support for a network of global marine protected areas, Hope Spots large enough to save and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet.” Click on the thumbnail below to hear the TED talk.

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Read all the Voices posts in this series on Mission Blue Hope Spots

Keywords: Sylvia Earle, Mission Blue, IUCN, Mission Blue Hope Spots, marine protected areas, underwater habitats, TED Prize, oceans, Baja, Mexico, Gulf of California, whales, dolphins, turtles, sea lions, Colorado River, Hoover Dam, seabirds, fishing