islas marias
Can species in the area recover and be preserved? (Photo: Courtesy of Octavio Aburto)

Last year, Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced one of his government’s main investment projects: the conversion of the “Islas Marías” Penitentiary Complex to Los Muros de Agua “José Revueltas” Center for Education and Training.

According to the budget proposal sent to the legislature by the Secretariat of Finance –and already approved by the House of Deputies– an initial 17.5 million pesos will be allocated for construction. The objective is to build, equip, and operate the Education Center’s offices.

Although experts interviewed by Tec Review consider it a generous budget –compared to the amount given to other Protected Natural Areas– they see a challenge in the task of recovering the biodiversity that might need much more time and money.

Some of the species you can see in the Islas Marías (Photo: Courtesy of Octavio Aburto)

What are the Islas Marías? How did they become a penitentiary?

According to the organization Ecology and Conservation of Islands Group, this area had different owners throughout the nineteenth century, and it wasn’t until the beginning of the twentieth century, in January 1905, that the federal government took over.

It was also in that same year, through a decree from Porfirio Díaz, that the Mexican government designated it a penal colony.

With the creation of the Secretariat of Public Security in 2000, the complex was deactivated. That same year, it became a Protected Natural Area with the category of biosphere reserve.

On February 18, 2019, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced the closure of the Islas Marías Penitentiary Complex.

A view of Islas Marías (Photo: Courtesy of Octavio Aburto)

The future of the archipelago

Islas Marías is an archipelago nestled in the Mexican dry tropics, a habitat for a set of fragile ecosystems, according to the definition given by the Mexican government.

It contains a great wealth of flora and fauna species of biological, economic, scientific, and cultural importance, whose rich biodiversity is manifested in the jungles that make up its terrestrial landscape and in the reefs, coasts, and pelagic environments located in the sea that surrounds it.

In addition to being a Biosphere Reserve since 2005, Islas Marías has also been recognized as a World Natural Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Octavio Aburto, research professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, says that although the 17.5 million is a considerable amount, it might not be spent on habitat conservation.

“The amount is a lot, if you compare it to the budgets of other Protected Natural Areas… However, it will certainly be used for education and work activities with young people in the area. I don’t think it’ll necessarily be dedicated to conservation,” he explains in an interview for Tec Review.

Last month was the official opening of the new Cultural Center, and the first group of young people entered the area on November 6, 2020, according to a tweet from María Luisa Albores González, current Secretary of Environmental and Natural Resources.

With this first group, Los Muros de Agua begin its transformation from a prison to a camp to promote the environmental education of children and adolescents across the country. But how much progress has been made in conservation of the Protected Natural Area?

According to specialists, the Islas Marías Nature Reserve has the opportunity to regain its natural splendor, since the security that the penitentiary provided also shielded the biodiversity of the islands.

The Islas Marías Federal Penitentiary protected 15 nautical miles (almost 28 kilometers) around the island, allowing underwater biodiversity to be protected.

“Because of the protection from the navy, this is the only coastal archipelago where trawling has never taken place and should never take place. The reefs have also been kept in very good condition,” explains Aburto Oropeza, who has monitored the islands.

Diversity in the archipelago. (Photo: Courtesy of Octavio Aburto)

Like Cabo Pulmo and exploitation

Since 1908, Isla María Madre has been protected, which “is the great feature of this archipelago because the protection still provided to the island is greater than the fishing and destruction of terrestrial ecosystems we see elsewhere,” says Aburto Oropeza.

The archipelago has had a protection program since 2000, but efforts to give it a protected area approach that goes beyond exploiting natural resources through fishing are still lacking.

Aburto has led several scientific expeditions around the islands. “In 2010, our censuses and population data showed that the conservation status was very high, so high that we compared the results with Cabo Pulmo,” he says.

In 2012, due to changes in the penitentiary, the protection that the Navy gave to the archipelago was removed.

“And illegal exploitation began. Overexploitation of Islas Marías is very easy because there are corals, limpets, and species of invertebrates that move very little. This makes them easy to fish,” says the research professor from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Another estimate in 2018, when control over surveillance was moved from the Nay to the Secretariat of the Interior, showed a decline in surveillance, and fishermen began to come in

“We confirmed that this began to cause damage to species such as snails and invertebrates. We estimated a mortality rate for the Caribbean crown conch, and we also learned that tuna fishing had begun fishing 4 or 5 miles from the penitentiary.

Aburto and his team will make another expedition this November in order to support efforts for conservation of the archipelago.

“We’re in time. We can still recover those reefs. But this new cultural center needs to be aligned with the protection and vision of a Protected Natural Area. The islands could become an example for the world of a protected area,” says Octavio Aburto.

Corals in the area (Photo: Courtesy of Octavio Aburto)

Technologies: An ally for the recovery of the islands

The expert says that protection doesn’t necessarily require human resources. It can be done through satellite surveillance. Through monitoring, fishermen can be identified, and security sent to their location.

“Trawling must also be stopped. No one has a fishing permit inside that polygon because there are no permits. It should be kept that way,” he adds.

Constant monitoring is essential for conservation in the area. The Secretariat of the Navy will have a station in the area, and this could be a great ally for the biodiversity of the islands.

There are no people in this area, so any actions taken will have no social impact. “Technology is an indispensable ally. The islands can be monitored perfectly via drones, which would save on human resources for the government,” says Aburto.

Biodiversity research in the area. (Photo: Courtesy of Octavio Aburto)

More than a prison, a natural laboratory

The archipelago is 100 kilometers away from the coast and is located in a triangle where many climatic and oceanographic characteristics converge that have fostered the evolution of species not found in other parts of the planet.

The islands are located right in the middle of the Gulf of California, the Mexican Pacific Zone, and the California Stream.

“The archipelago is on the edge of the continental shelf. There are strong currents on the west side, while the eastern part is on the sandy plateau. These characteristics generate many ecosystems and a huge amount of biodiversity to the extent that these islands have been designated a biosphere reserve,” says Octavio Aburto.

The biodiversity in the archipelago is unique: “The species that have evolved here became isolated points of evolution, which has generated species endemic to these islands. There are characteristic fauna and flora, and they must be preserved to their fullest extent,” Aburto says.

There are endemic species of maguey and parrots on the terrestrial side. In the marine part, for example, there are sea fans and other invertebrate species. “These can only be seen there, which makes the area a natural laboratory,” he says.

The species that inhabit Islas Marías were used by ancient cultures in their dances, songs, and rituals.

“In this archipelago, intact species are still preserved from cultures such as the Huichol. If they’re lost, the meaning of these cultures will also be lost,” he says.

The islands can represent the union between culture and the environment if this new center supports and publicizes the importance of the biosphere reserve to care for these unique ecosystems. Therefore, no fishing within the polygon should be allowed in the biosphere reserve. It should also be preserved as it is, as a reference for research, like a natural laboratory,” concludes the expert.