A community in southern Sonora created refuge areas to protect the future of fishing

By Kendal Blust
Published: Monday, February 13, 2023 - 4:46am
Updated: Monday, February 13, 2023 - 9:01am

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Gilberto Diaz
Dolphins are spotted in Agiabampo Bay.

Water laps against a dock in Agiabampo, a coastal town on the southern edge of Sonora.

It’s a windy, overcast day, and a few raindrops spatter the waves as we load into Jesus Antonio Reyes’s small blue and white fishing boat and motor out into the choppy water toward a vast mass of green leaves just off the coast — a mangrove forest in the Estero El Sopahui.

Part of a major wetland system off the Gulf of California known as the Sistema Lagunar Agiabampo Bacrehuis Rio Fuerte Antinguo, it provides important habitat for fish and shellfish, marine mammals and migratory birds.

It’s also one of two fishing refuges in the bay, says Gilberto Diaz, a biologist and operations technician with the conservation group Nature and Culture International.

Kendal Blust/KJZZ
Signs demarcate fishing refuge areas where it is prohibited to fish or dive.

Confronting overfishing

As we approach the mangroves, the boat brushes up against the dense foliage and long, woody roots reaching down into the water.

Diaz says they act as a nursery, nurturing new life. It’s why seasoned fishermen chose this site as a refuge.

Everyone in Agiabampo has felt the impacts of overfishing and declining production, Reyes says, and they want to act before things get dire and fish are too depleted to easily rebound.

Fish like red and gray snapper thrive in the mangroves tangled roots, he says. Protecting this area gives them a chance to reproduce before they can be caught, increasing their populations and benefitting local families.

A second refuge was chosen for its deep waters where clams, mollusks and other shellfish can grow undisturbed by divers.

“It’s a beauty of a bay, and quite large,” says fisherman Miguel Zavala.

Agiabampo Bay extends as far as the eye can see beyond the southern border of Sonora and into neighboring Sinaloa. The idea to protect it, he says, started with Chuey.

Zavalas is talking about Jesus Nieblas, a local biologist who first raised the possibility in 2016.

Fishing boats
Jesus Nieblas
Fishing boats float off the shore in Agiabampo Bay.

Creating a refuge

“I grew up in this bay,” Nieblas says, describing the summers he spent there with his grandparents.

Those ties built trust.

Nieblas left the area to study, but after receiving his degree he came back, hoping to make an impact in his own community.

Over the years, he had seen life in the community change — becoming harder and harder to make ends meet as a growing number of fishermen compete for a diminishing supply of seafood. Still, Agiabampo Bay was healthy, and if species were allowed to reproduce undisturbed, he felt confident that their populations would rebound.

The first step was getting fishermen to take ownership of their bay, he says, and the interventions needed to protect it.

“They are the owners, and if they don’t take action, no one is going to,” he says. “We did through meetings. Lots of meetings. Lots and lots of meetings.”

It took months of presentations and conversations with the seven fishing cooperatives working on the Sonoran side of the bay at the time.

But local fishermen were seeing the same things he was, and before long they had agreed to set aside some 300 hectares of protected area where fishing would be banned. They chose the two sites based on their own knowledge of the bay, then put up signs and took turns monitoring.

“They’d come to me and say, ‘Biologist, look, there were some guys over there, but we talked to them, and they cleared out, real friendly,’” Nieblas says.

The project is still only five years old. But within a year, the difference was clear.

Diving with some of the local fishermen, he says, he was shocked by how quickly the number of fish had shot up.

“There were loads of fish,” he says. “And for me to be surprised, for the fishermen and the divers to be surprised — we knew it was working.”

In 2017, they applied for federal protected status, in hopes of opening the door for more resources and greater enforcement in the refuge areas. They’re still waiting for a response.

Jesus Nieblas
Fishermen participate in activities meant to underscore the importance of sustainability during a meeting in 2018.

'We want to keep fishing'

Fishermen gather under a large ramada outside Zavala’s home, filing up one by one to a wooden table where Diaz calls out the names of those who have been monitoring the refuges.

“We pay them a monthly salary for doing their rounds,” says Miguel Ayala, local director of Nature and Culture International, which supports the project by paying fishermen a small sum for their work in the refuge.

They also provide technical support - gathering data to help quantify the impacts the fishing refuge areas are having on the bay. Hard numbers, Ayala says, could strengthen their bid for a federally recognized protected area and help them implement those projects in other areas as well.

It’s slow going, he says, but they understand that’s how things work when you’re going through the government.

“We’re not going to throw in the towel,” he says.

“These are long-term, not immediate results,” says Zavala, who has been working on the project from the start. “That’s the part we have to make sure everyone understands.”

Still, he says people here understand the value of the fishing refuge zones, and they are willing to keep protecting them for as long as it takes.

“Because at some future time, we want to still be fishing,” he says. “And we want to make sure there is something left for our children and our grandchildren.”

That’s what the refuge areas are really about, he says: preserving their community and their way of life for generations to come.

Agiabampo Bay fishing refuges map
Nature and Culture International
This map shows the two sites set aside as fishing refuges in the Agiabampo Bay on the border of the states of Sonora and Sinaloa, Mexico.

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Nature and Culture International
This map shows the two sites set aside as fishing refuges in the Agiabampo Bay on the border of the states of Sonora and Sinaloa, Mexico.
Estero El Sopahui
Kendal Blust / KJZZ
The mangroves in the Estero El Sopahui are part of a fishing refuge area set aside in the Agiabampo Bay.
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
Fisherman sign off that they have been paid for their time monitoring the fishing refuges.
Fisherman signs for payment
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
A fisherman signs off on a payment he is receiving for helping to monitor the fishing refuge areas in Agiabampo Bay.