The inhabitants of Cabo Pulmo maintain a tourist industry while keeping its coral ecosystem safe.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) considers the Cabo Pulmo reserve in Baja California Sur a “rare” conservation success story.
On World Oceans Day, celebrated on 8 June, Cabo Pulmo National Park exemplifies the coexistence of a population with the environment in a location that is considered a World Heritage site.
However, the reserve, which was called “the world’s aquarium” by the French researcher Jacques Cousteau, still has to fight against threats to its biodiversity.
According to both UNESCO and Ramsar (the Convention on Wetlands that provides the framework for the conservation and reasonable use of wetlands and their resources), there are risks to the region such as population growth, illegal fishing, and the attraction of tourists to the area.
According to a document issued by the two organizations, the tourism industry has made Los Cabos one of the most important attractions in Mexico on an international level and, therefore, has increased pressure to build near the reef.
Cabo Pulmo has been a National Park since 1995. In 2005, it was registered as a World Heritage Site of the Gulf of California.
In 2006, the Mexican government accepted that tourist attractions in the area had required the building of a large number of structures which modified the habitat of the area: the construction of docks, seawalls, piers, and channels; as well as the use of explosives and the quarrying of sand and stone for the construction industry.
However, in 2011 a greater threat came when a company obtained construction permits for the large tourist complex known as Cabo Cortés.
In order to preserve marine life in the area, residents making a living from sustainable tourist activities and local organizations opposed the complex until the Mexican government officially stopped construction.
Cabo Cortés would have had more than 27,000 rooms, two golf courses and a marina with berths for 490 boats.
In Cabo Pulmo, which covers 7,111 hectares (99% of which is aquatic), commercial fishing is not allowed in any form. However, it is possible, to earn a living from tourism by running activities such as diving and snorkeling which take care of the coral reefs, says Carlos Godínez Reyes, Director of the Cabo Pulmo National Park.
During 2019, this national reserve contributed 1.2 million pesos to the nation from entrance fees.
“Each (tourism) company is monitored: we know which company transports visitors, what type of boats carry them, how many tourists there are, and what activities they did,” explains Godínez.
One of the benefits of controlled tourism and data monitoring, carried out by the National Commission for Natural Protected Areas (CONANP) and the organization Data Mares, is that they have accumulated 10 years of information about its growing fish and invertebrate populations.
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Octavio Aburto, a professor at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, California, USA, explains that statistics play a fundamental role in the development, recovery and conservation of protected natural areas as they provide the necessary evidence for researchers to create reports that show the need to protect certain ecosystems and explain how that can be achieved.
Climatic phenomena such as El Niño (surface warming of the waters of the Pacific) affected the coral coverage of Cabo Pulmo between 1987 and 1997, so the statistics of its recovery are carefully monitored by national park employees.
Since recovery has been slow, human intervention in the area must happen very carefully.
“Natural disturbances are uncontrollable; the only thing that we can do is to decrease the damage inflicted on the corals by users,” says Godínez.