Marine Park Makes a Full Recovery

Written by on August 19, 2011 in Marine Life, Policy & Ocean Law

Emily Tripp
Senior Writer

According to researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, a marine reserve and wildlife park near the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja peninsula is the most robust reserve in the world.

This ten-year analysis Cabo Pulmo National Park (CPNP) was published in PLoS ONE and revealed that the total biomass increased by more than 460 percent from 1999 to 2009.  CPNP fish stocks were severely depleted and the park was established in 1995 with the help of local citizens who have since then strictly enforced the “no take” restrictions.

“We could have never dreamt of such an extraordinary recovery of marine life at Cabo Pulmo,” said National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala, who began the study in 1999.  “In 1999 there were only medium-sized fishes, but ten years later it’s full of large parrotfish, groupers, snappers and even sharks.”

The most important finding is that depleted fish stocks can recover to levels smiliar to areas that were never fished by humans in the first place.  Newly recovered marine life at CPNP has created eco-tourism businesses like kayaking and diving, and has even reduced local poverty.  It has become a model for depleted areas in the Gulf of California.

“The study’s results are surprising in several ways,” said Octavio Aburto-Oropeza, a Scripps postdoctoral researcher, World Wildlife Fund Kathryn Fuller fellow and lead author of the study.  “A biomass increase of 463 percent in a reserve as large as Cabo Pulmo (71 square kilometers) represents tons of new fish produced every year.  No other marine reserve in the world has shown such a fish recovery.”

Mobula (giant bay ray) jumping off the shore in Cabo Pulmo. Photo Credit: Nick Bonzey.

Mobula (giant bay ray) jumping off the shore in Cabo Pulmo. Photo Credit: Nick Bonzey.

One of the key factors for the reserve’s recovery was the protection of spawing areas for large predators.  The most important factor, however, was the local enforcement by a few determined families.  “We believe that the success of CPNP is greatly due to local leadership, effective self-enforcement by local stakeholders, and the general support of the broader community,” the authors note in their report.

“The reefs are full of hard corals and sea fans, creating an amazing habitat for lobsters, octopuses, rays and small fish,” said Brad Erisman, a Scripps postdoctoral researcher and co-author of the article.  “During some seasons thousands of mobula rays congregate inside the park and swim above the reef in a magnificent way.”

“I participated, back in the 1990s, in the studies for the declaration of the marine park. Frankly, we decided to go ahead because the community was so determined but the place at that time was not in good environmental health,” said Exequiel Ezcurra, Director of the University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States (UC MEXUS) and co-author of the article. “If you visit the place now, you cannot believe the change that has taken place. And all of it has occurred thanks to the determination of a community of coastal villagers that decided to take care of their place and to be at the helm of their own destiny.”

“Few policymakers around the world are aware that fish size and abundance can increase inside marine reserves to extraordinary levels within a decade after protection is established; fewer still know that these increases often translate into economic benefits for coastal communities” said Aburto-Oropeza. “Therefore, showing what’s happened in Cabo Pulmo will contribute to ongoing conservation efforts in the marine environment and recovery of local coastal economies.”


Copyright ©  2011 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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