A look beneath the surface: What’s left of the Sea of Cortez?

Any sailor with even the mildest case of wanderlust has gazed longingly at the gentle curve of a table top globe, tracing imaginary routes from their home towns to far away ports with the tips of their fingers. For west coast sailors, these lines are likely to lead south; perhaps meandering along Baja’s rugged Pacific coast and turning the corner at Cabo San Lucas, headed for a place where the water is said to be bluer, the air warmer, the fish just a bit more colorful…

This magical place, of course, is the Sea of Cortez. And if that narrow strip of water tucked nicely between mainland Mexico’s Sonoran Desert and the Baja’s beckoning finger is in fact the setting of your vagabond daydreams, then you are not alone. Afterall, isn’t this the place that inspired Steinbeck novels and was famously dubbed the “aquarium of the world” by renowned marine biologist Jaque Cousteau?

It is.

Sadly, it is also a different Sea than it was 50 years ago, before overfishing and the spread of invasive species began taking its toll on the area, nearly driving certain species of marine life to exctinction and putting many fisheries at risk of imminent collapse.

Over the seven months I have spent exploring the Sea of Cortez, I have noticed a divide between the amount of visible life, and the constant grumblings of seasoned cruisers who claim the Sea is running out of fish. Everywhere I go, conversations about fishing and snorkeling quickly turn to conversations about the increasing rarity of certain species and the overfishing that is wreaking havoc on the Sea’s biodiversity. But it’s hard for me, an 18 year old with no possible understanding of what the Sea used to look like 50 or even 20 years ago, to believe that such a seemingly life-abundant ecosystem is actually in peril.
Realizing how skewed my own perception of the Sea of Cortez was by my general unfamiliarity with the area, I began wondering how much it has truly changed just in the span of my cruising companions’ lifetimes.
So I began researching…
It quickly became clear that, like most waterways across the globe, the Sea of Cortez is a victim of rapidly declining populations of sealife, due in large part to irresponsible fishing practices. Perhaps the most shocking of these practices can be found on the decks of shrimp boats, where an estimated ninety percent of a season’s total haul can be by-catch. That means that nearly NINETY PERCENT of the fish caught in these shrimper’s trawl nets is captured unintentionally, killed, and dumped back into the sea. Many of the animals frequently found tangled in these nets are endangered species, such as the 4 foot long porpoise, found only in the northern Sea of Cortez: the Vaquita. Trawl nets have played a large role in decreasing the already low population of Vaquitas from 200 in 2012 to a miniscule 30 remaining porpioses in 2017. Although the plight of the Vaquita is arguably the most heartbreaking example of the damage caused by trawl nets, these rare cetaceans are not the only animals whose numbers have dropped substantially over the last decade. In fact, most species of fish are steadily declining, many are endangered and some, like the Vaquita, are on the verge of extinction.
Many fishermen in the Sea of Cortez continue using trawl nets illegally, despite stricter regulations being placed on them (including a temporary ban) due to the extensive damage they cause to ecosystems. It has proven extremely difficult for governments and organizations the world over to regulate fishing practices. Afterall, the ocean is a communal resource, and one that many people depend on for their livelihood. For communities with limited fiscal opportunities, the high prices placed on certain sea animals by overseas markets can be virtually irresistible. For example, the swim bladder from a single Totoaba- a large, endangered fish native to the Sea of Cortez- can sell for as much as $10,000 a piece in China, where they are believed to have health and beauty benefits. Equally tempting for local fishermen are sea cucumbers, cannonball jellyfish, and hammerhead sharks- all of which are considered delicacies in Asia, and all of which have been slowly disappearing from the Sea of Cortez.
The poaching and overfishing that are rampant throughout the Sea of Cortez are not the only things draining the water of it’s once plentiful marine life.

Invasive species also take their toll, often in ways that are complex and unexpected. For example, invasive rodents and cats who have been introduced by humans to some islands in the Sea of Cortez have proven harmful to sea birds. When I first heard this, I expected the effect to be an increase in the populations of fish that these birds prey on, but it turns out, the opposite is true. Seabird feces is high in nutrients that are vital for many types of fish. This feces, or guano, accumulates on the shore (that’s the white stuff you often see covering rocky islands and headlands) and gets washed into the sea, where fish feed on it. As invasive species kill off seabirds, they can no longer supply fish with their nutrient rich waste, and fish populations decline as a result. In addition to rodents, invasive plants crowd out native flora, making it impossible for food that certain animals rely on to grow and flourish; while other introduced animals prey on organisms who have not yet adapted to the presence of these foreign predators, tipping the delicate balance of the food chain in favor of invasives. By threatening a single native animal, invasive species put entire ecosystems at risk of deceased biodiversity.

Organisms within any ecosystem are all interconnected and reliant on one another. Although our fast-paced lifestyles may create the illusion of our being removed from this codependency; in truth we are as much a part of the ocean’s web of life as any seabird or fish. Just as the relationship between these animals is more complex than meets the eye, our dependence on the sea goes far beyond simple recreational enjoyment. If every single living organism on the planet were to die tomorrow, the effect on human lives would be tremendous. Fisheries, along with economies dependent on them, would collapse. Millions of people in developing countries would lose their main source of protein. Even those who have spent their lives completely landlocked, and those with the ability to isolate themselves from the effects of collapsing fisheries would feel the impact of this loss of life. Roughly seventy percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere- oxygen we all breath- is produced by marine plants. These plants also absorb about one fourth of the CO2 humans pump into the air. Without the sea as a major carbon sink, the effects of global warming would be worsened in the form of more extreme weather patterns, reduced crop yields, increased desertification and rising sea levels, which will displace hundreds of thousands of people in coastal areas, potentially creating the worst refugee crisis in human history.

Of course, none of this will happen overnight. It is a long, drawn out process that is already in its early stages, as evident in the current deterioration of the Sea of Cortez. Unfortunately, the fluctuating nature of these changes means that very close attention must be paid in order to identify them before it’s too late. This is one of the reasons governments are often reluctant to accept environmental scientists’ predictions and adopt policies that are in the Earth’s best interest.
All the problems plaguing the Sea are happening on a global scale, and all are perpetuated by the human habit of adapting to a changing world, while underestimating or ignoring the consequences of those changes. But it can’t go on forever. One way or another, we will have to alter our lifestyles if we want to survive and provide the next generation with a planet that is still in-tact and inspiring enough to spark that globe-gazing, finger-tracing wanderlust we have the privilege of experiencing today.

Let’s not take the health of our magnificent home for granted. The Sea of Cortez should serve as a heart wrenching reminder that our oceans are not invincible. Luckily, there is an endless list of things we can do to help the state of our oceans. The first of which is educating ourselves on the health of our local waterways as well as our sources of ocean-drawn resources, like seafood.

But perhaps the most effective way to make a difference is to go outside. Go outside and see a place like the Sea of Cortez for yourself. Marvel at it. Fall in love with it. Make the problems facing that place deeply personal, as they should be. And see if you can come back unchanged.

Watch this space for a full list of ALL the measures you can take to live a more ocean friendly life!!!

Sources and further reading:

Saving the wonders of the Sea of Cortez

Sea of Cortez: the world’s aquarium

A primer on the species of the Sea of Cortez

On the brink of extinction: saving the totoaba

Vaquita pushed to the edge of extinction

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