Picture sea lions lounging by the hundreds on rocky beaches. Above them, cormorants and petrels wheel overhead, seeking food for their nesting young. In the waters beyond the breaking surf, the sea pulses with some of the richest marine life on the planet, ranging from spiny lobsters and sea urchins to yellowfin tuna and sardines.
These are the islands of Baja California, which form an arc punctuating some 1,000 kilometers of Northeast Mexico’s Pacific coastline. They shelter a singular wildlife community rivaling that of Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, made famous by Charles Darwin.
Thanks to the support of the Global Conservation Fund (GCF) to Grupo de Ecología y Conservación de Islas (GECI), a sister organization of GCF partner Island Conservation, this far-flung archipelago could soon become a biosphere reserve.
Under the plan, developed by GECI in close collaboration with the National Protected Areas Commission (Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas, or CONANP) and supported by GCF, some 18 islands comprising nearly 121,000 hectares would gain permanent protection, closing the last gap in Mexico’s otherwise protected island territory.
Alfonso Aguirre Muñoz, executive director of GECI, is upbeat as the proposed reserve weathers a final review by Mexico’s Regulatory Impact Commission. He anticipates a decision on the matter in the next few months.
“We expect the regulatory commission will favor the preserve,” said Aguirre in a recent phone interview, adding, “The president has already committed explicitly to protecting the islands.”
If the reserve wins approval this year, as hoped, it will cap a six-year campaign waged by GECI and its allies, from Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas to fishing cooperatives. Aguirre credits coastal fishermen, who have set harvest quotas below those fixed by the government, for their farsighted support of island conservation.
“The fishermen are leading the movement,” Aguirre said. “They see the advantage of preservation.” As far back as March 2003, the local abalone and lobster fishermen’s cooperative went on record backing the biosphere preserve. Two years later, Mexico’s Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources formally announced the intention to create the Reserve, based on a feasibility study conducted by GECI and CONANP. Three public hearings in the region helped mobilize grassroots support for the reserve.
Baja California’s islands mean much to conservationists. Here northern winds whip the nutrient-laden California current southward from Alaska to meet the hot sun of northern Mexico. That marine mix creates one of the richest ecosystems on Earth, what Aguirre calls an “explosion of life.” Local islands are home to more than 61 species of plants and 49 species of vertebrates—from rodents to a small white-tailed deer—found nowhere else on Earth.
“We have a larger number of endemic species per square meter than in the Galapagos,” said Luciana Luna Mendoza, GECI’s project director for nearby Guadalupe Island.
These remote isles also offer nesting areas to 20 kinds of seabirds with some 2,300,000 breeding adults, according to María Félix Lizárraga, GECI’s project director for seabirds restoration. Four species of pinnipeds—aquatic carnivores like sea lions and seals— raise their young there.
Yet invasive mammals menace the survival of this unique community. Biologists point the finger at common domestic animals such as cats, mice, dogs and goats, which threaten seabirds, endemic mammals and plants in the region. In response, GECI is working to rid some islands of the region—including Guadalupe, Cedros and San Benito archipelago and Coronado archipelago—of these introduced species in an effort to save the endemic wildlife. GCF funds are helping them in the effort. Tourism, potential industry and overfishing by fishing “pirates,” or poachers, also pose ecological threats.
A biosphere reserve would offer double benefits: maintaining the livelihood of coastal fishermen while safeguarding the singular habitat of the Baja California Islands. “They’re like natural laboratories,” said biologist Luna. “These islands are among the few corners of the world where we still find pristine ecosystems.”