San Francisco Chronicle covers Cabo Pulmo
Cabo Pulmo - 1 hr North of Los Cabos - under threat by mega - resort Cabo Cortes
Cabo Pulmo's fight to save 'the world's aquarium'
Christine Delsol, Special to SFGate
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Cabo Pulmo, a remote knob of classic Baja landscape with an underwater world singularly blessed by nature, slumbered for decades on the peninsula's East Cape. It rarely made a blip on the tourism radar except for avid fishermen, divers, and in more recent years, divers and adventurous tourists from Los Cabos, about an hour's drive away. Despite a valiant, and successful, effort by Cabo Pulmo's residents and fans to get the federal government to protect its uniquely rich waters as a marine national park in 1995, today it is the target of massive development that would plant 30,000 hotel rooms — equivalent to another Cancun — on the sand dunes, along with a marina for 490 boats, shopping centers and two golf courses.
You don't have to be a math savant to figure out that the area, which now has only about 80 scattered residents, will be irrevocably changed. Not only will the wild, frontier-like atmosphere be replaced with the crowds and bustle of another mega-resort, by most scientific assessments a unique ocean ecosystem will be destroyed.
The only coral reef in the Gulf of Mexico, at an estimated 20,000 years one of the oldest on North America's Pacific coast, lies off of Cabo Pulmo's shore. Parts of the shallow coral mountain lie just 10 miles offshore, sheltering 226 fish species. In addition to sea turtles, dolphins, tiger and bull sharks, and migrating humpback and blue whales, Cabo Pulmo is one of the few spots in the Americas where rare whale sharks — the largest fish alive — congregate near land.
Despite Cabo Pulmo's remoteness and relative obscurity, locals began seeing fewer fish in the 1990s, while those there were had retreated farther out into the ocean. Primarily because of commercial fishing boats' practice of dragging their anchors through the coral to snag the valuable fish species, what had once been dubbed "the world's aquarium" by pioneering diver Jacques Cousteau was increasingly barren of life.
Alarm over the reef's degradation led to the campaign that turned Cabo Pulmo's waters into a 17,560-acre marine reserve, which prohibited fishing. Local residents shifted much of their economy from fishing to ecotourism. Slowly, the reef recovered. Cabo Pulmo was designated a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site in 2005 and was added to the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance in 2008.
The efforts have paid off: A study released by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in August 2011 found Cabo Pulmo's "biomass" — total weight of living species — increased by 463 percent from 1999 to 2009. The report credited the park’s success largely to enforcement of protective regulations by local boat captains, dive masters and other locals.
Octavio Aburto-Oropeza, one of the report's authors, wrote in a Scripps article about the study, "No other marine reserve in the world has shown such a fish recovery." Residents have noticed an increase in the number of fish, including a monumental spike in the number of sharks. Some species are migrating from other areas to the now-healthy reef.
In February of this year, the Mexican Senate's Natural Resources, Environmental Protection and Fishing Commission trumpeted Capo Pulmo as one of Mexico’s most successful conservations efforts in a photo exhibit in Mexico City titled "Successes of Conservation." There’s no question the pride is justified; the irony is that Mexico’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) had already set Cabo Pulmo’s destruction in motion by approving the environmental impact statement in 2008 for the initial stage of the Cabo Cortes mega-resort proposed by Spanish developer Hansa Urbana.
Federal environmental officials did impose stricter environmental conditions while green-lighting the project a second time March 1, 2011, after a resident filed for a review. Those conditions would not stop the pollution from vacation activities and sediment from construction and dredging, or the addition of thousands of homes for resort employees in a region where fresh water is scarce.
Environmentalists, backed by scientists from Mexico and around the world, brought Cabo Pulmo’s plight to UNESCO’s attention last May. The alerts brought representatives of UNESCO, the Ramsar Convention and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to Cabo Pulmo in November to evaluate the potential impact of Cabo Cortes and to hear from both the affected communities and the developer. The organizations called for Cabo Pulmo to be added to UNESCO's "World Heritage in Danger" list and the Montreux Register under the Ramsar Convention as a wetland in danger.
The 2009 abandonment of the once-ballyhooed "Escalera Nautica" project, which aimed to create a route of marinas and tourist sites up and down the Baja peninsula, and the sputtering, three-decade history of the still-unrealized Loreto Bay project, would seem to argue against the Cabo Pulmo development on financial as well as environmental grounds.
Despite the runaway-train speed of large-scale tourism development in Mexico, Cabo Pulmo is not lost yet. SEMARNAT ruled last August that the 2008 environmental permit it granted for Cabo Cortes no longer is valid, and that it would review that decision.
Some heavy hitters are beating the drum for outright cancelation this time around, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., as attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and president of the Waterkeeper Alliance; Jean-Michel Cousteau, the legendary marine biologist's eldest son and president of the Ocean Futures Society; Greenpeace; the World Wildlife Fund; and Mexican movie and TV stars.
To learn more about the effort to stop development at Cabo Pulmo, go to the WiLDCOAST website. The international conservation organization, which works in the Californias and Latin America, offers volunteer opportunities and is collecting petition signatures.
Former Chronicle travel editor Christine Delsol is the author of "Pauline Frommer's Cancún & the Yucatán" and a regular contributor to "Frommer's Mexico" and "Frommer's Cancún & the Yucatán."
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