Baja California’s Recipe for Saving Fishing Communities

As fish populations crash elsewhere, towns limit catches to stabilize harvests, boost tourism, and preserve a way of life.

A tourist on a boat in Laguna San Ignacio reaches into the water in the hope of petting one of many gray whales that frequent the bay to mate and care for their young. Once feared by fishermen, the unusually friendly animals are now a crucial part of the economy.

It’s a half hour before sunrise, and the ocean appears inky black as it slaps against the sand. A dozen fishermen are lounging in the boat master’s office in Punta Abreojos, laughing and talking about the party they’ll have that night.

The mood is festive in this hamlet at the midpoint of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula because today is a day the town looks forward to all year long—the opening of abalone season. Actually the season opened four months earlier, but Punta Abreojos observes an unusual self-imposed ban. Rather than fish for abalone as soon as the government allows, in January, the community waits until April, when the shellfish have put on more weight.

I head out into the Pacific Ocean with three fishermen in their 50s who have been working together since they were teenagers. “Horse” runs the engine, “Mole” hauls up the bags of abalones, and “Fish,” naturally, is the diver. (They are Porfirio Zúñiga, Eduardo Liera, and Luis Arce, but no one here calls them that.)

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