Roughly twenty miles off the coast from the Baja town of La Paz lies a desert island no more than ten miles long and four miles wide. For centuries the locals have fished the bountiful waters surrounding Isla Espiritu Santo, or Island of the Holy Spirit. Scores of grouper, snapper, and a variety of fish in the jack family are snagged by locals and visitors daily. However, in recent years, tourists have been flocking to the island not just to fish but to kayak, snorkel, and photograph the diverse array of wildlife that it contains. Up until 2003, there was little regulation for any of the activities taking place on Espiritu Santo and it’s surrounding islands and islets. The tourists that visit, and those that fish the waters, are still trying to come to grips with the island’s new found fame.
According to The Nature Conservancy the island was purchased from the Ejido Bonfil community and then turned over to Mexico. It was designated as a protected area in 1978; the Mexican government acquired the island in 2003. Although all the islands making up this archipelago are now a national park, management resources are scarce.
Spending a week camped out in a sandy bay, I had the opportunity to meet someone with a passion for what happens to this beautiful place, a local guide named Miguel. According to him, as of last year, only two rangers were patrolling the coastline of this 23,383 acre island. As we paddled together throughout the week, I learned more on why the island is struggling.
Large scale commercial fishing is not allowed. Long netting, a form of dredging, is now strictly prohibited as well. Local fishermen have had a tough time coping with the new regulations being passed down to them. As hard as it may be to believe many of these people have no experience with a fishing pole and are using the arduous method of hand-lining to maintain a living. Hand-lining involves dropping a baited hook overboard and pulling a fish in on the line with no rod or reel. After trying this method I can vouch that hand-lining is a tough chore on the hands to say the least.
According to Miguel, the lack of information from authorities initially led to misunderstandings. The fishing community was not exactly pleased with the changes being made when the island went under the wing of the government. Rules included restrictions on certain popular species such as parrot fish. Although dropping explosives in the water or “dynamiting” is outlawed and a thing of the past, fishermen can still be found pushing the limits of the law. Fish are encircled by boats to create a bait ball which makes them easier targets.
Fishermen are allowed to stay overnight on the island in designated spots called “fisherman shacks.” They can use nets to catch bait fish only. Since most fishing boats are equipped with nets and regulation is slim, it is uncertain how many stick to the strictly “bait only” rule for netting.
Although fishing regulations were the main management issue at first, the new threat to Espirtu’s land and waters is unchecked tourism. On Los Islotes, an islet resting just off the rocky shores of Isla Partida, Espiritu’s northern neighbor, the sea lions sun bathe most of the day, awaiting their nocturnal hunt. Snorkeling with these graceful swimmers is a treat for visitors. These dog-like sea mammals dart in and out of underwater grottos, play with starfish and shells, and encircle the odd looking human insurgents to get a better look. While visiting this islet, our snorkel group was not alone. Another tourist boat anchored nearby and within minutes a few of the passengers were on the shore, ignoring the rule that tourists must stay 50 feet away at all times.
In summer, when La Paz receives its annual influx of Mexican and European tourists, the island’s shores become overrun. “There have been times when it was so crowded we couldn’t find a place to anchor when we pulled up to see the sea lions,” Miguel told me. Despite these growing pains park attendance continues to soar, and for good reason. The island’s shores are home to one of the most biologically diverse bodies of water on our planet.
Next: Darwin would be proud (Part 2)