Interviews

The Mexican NGO Getting Sharks and Fishermen to Work Together

Pelagic Life is working to reveal the harm shark fishing does to both the ecosystem and the fishing economy of San Carlos. They want to keep the sharks in the water – and bring the tourists in to see them.

by José Luis Martínez Limón
23 May 2016, 12:00am

Left to right: Rodolfo Rodríguez, Jorge Cervera, Eduardo Martínez, Jerónimo Pérez Correa, Ignacio Armida. All photos by the author

"It started with a shark," says Eduardo Martinez, one of the founders of Pelagic Life – a Mexican NGO created to protect biodiversity in our oceans. "We saw a shark trapped in a buoy and decided to help it. We just wanted to set it free without thinking anything beyond that."

Eduardo tells me this as he drinks coffee from his shark cup while he and other Pelagic Life members recall that journey to San Carlos – a fishing port in Magdalena Bay, in the Mexican state of Baja California, on the Pacific coast. Next to him sits Carlos Cervera, member of the directive council and the producer of a documentary titled México Pelágico, which is about Mexico's over fishing of sharks, ecotourism as a solution and Pelagic Life's history.

Pelagic Life's founders are two young men aged 28 and 35 who share something in common: they love both the sea and photography. The project started in 2010 as a group of friends who planned trips to the ocean in order to photograph and document marine life. Today, five years later, Pelagic Life is a NGO that works with fishermen in Magdalena Bay to encourage ecotourism and provide a viable option to reduce shark fishing.

"It started as a hobby, then we started documenting everything to help raise awareness about overfishing and the deterioration of ocean wildlife, and finally we formed a NGO to work with the fishermen," says Eduardo.

The amount of sharks captured is in the 100 millions per year, and the shark fishing industry in Mexico is one of the biggest in the world. In 2007, Mexico was the sixth highest fishing nation, with nearly 34,000 tons caught each year. Sharks are fished mainly for their fins, which are exported primarily to China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. And while in Asia shark fin soup can cost up to £69, fishermen in San Carlos receive only between 200 MXN ( £3.70) to 400 MXN (£15) for each kilogram of fins.

"Fishermen are not to blame; they're just victims of the supply chain," says Carlos. So, after liberating that shark in San Carlos, Pelagic Life members decided to pay the fisherman for the shark they set free. "We filmed the moment that the shark was set free, uploaded the video in Facebook, and everybody went crazy over it. That's when we realised people care about this issue," he added.

Ever since that time, they decided to liberate as many sharks as they could and compensate the fishermen who gave up their catch. For each shark, they paid 300 MXN ( about £11), and thus far have liberated around 25 sharks. In order to be able to continue this financial practice, they started crowdfunding so that people could "buy" a shark and set it free. However, they soon realised that liberating sharks one by one and paying fishermen was not a real solution and wasn't tackling the real problem: the overfishing of sharks as a result of the lack of job opportunities for San Carlos locals.

In San Carlos, workers are not risking their lives to be rich, they're risking their lives to survive. - Ignacio Armida

So, Pelagic Life started looking around for other success stories to model themselves after, like Cabo Pulmo, a beach where development on a hotel complex was suspended and now works as a national park, and Holbox, where swimming with whale sharks has generated great profits for the region. However, they were still facing an obstacle: physical tourists are needed for there to be a bump in the economy, and few people know about the port of San Carlos. "We have the best place to see Great White sharks, but nobody knows about it," says Ignacio Armida, the legal consultant for Pelagic Life.

While recording videos and uploading them to social media was very important to raise awareness about their work, it wasn't until the release of their documentary México Pelágico in 2014 that their little-known NGO became recognised worldwide.

The documentary, which has already won three international film festival awards, shows the diverse marine life in Magdalena Bay, where you can see Blue, Shortfin Mako, and Great White sharks, as well as whales, dolphins, marlins, sea lions and several other species. However, the documentary also depicts the port after the fishing of sharks, where hundreds of finless sharks lie on the sand, drying in the sun.

As Mexican fishermen are not allowed to practice shark finning – a technique where the shark is caught, the fins are cut off, and the body is thrown back into the ocean – they are forced to go bring the dead shark's body back to the coast, turning the harbour into a veritable morgue.

"Our blood froze," recalls Eduardo when I asked him about this specific part of the documentary. "We were out of words. Hundreds of dead bodies, some with unborn baby sharks inside. You feel powerless after seeing such precious creatures being killed for so little."

The fins are usually exported to Asia, however, Mexico actually consumes a great amount of shark meat because of the surplus left over from the fin trade, and the fishermen are thus forced to sell the rest of the shark at lower prices. Shark meat is often sold in the country as codfish or northern red snapper because of the flooded market.

"It's not like capturing crabs in Alaska, where fishermen take risks to earn thousands of dollars," says Ignacio. "In San Carlos, workers are not risking their lives to be rich, they're risking their lives to survive."

Fishermen travel up to 140 miles each day to the areas where they fish sharks. Often, the journeys are made early in the morning on boats that are not fully equipped with safety tools that are then on the water all night without a radio or an emergency engine. In San Carlos, a town with nearly 5,000 residents, an average of five fishermen die while fishing every year.

This is why San Carlos residents are open to the idea of turning swimming with sharks into an ecological and economically viable option for fishermen: "Working with tourism is way safer, less tiring and generates the same profits, specially if it keeps growing as it has so far," says Gabino Zarabia, a fisherman who works in San Carlos, in the documentary México Pelágico .

A boat that leaves and comes back with tourists is a boat that does not comes back with dead sharks. - Jerónimo Pérez

In San Carlos, each dead shark is worth 500 MXN (£19), in Fiji, thanks to the swimming with sharks industry, each shark generates an estimated £1,3 million per year. On the other hand, shark fishing profits in the state of Quintana Roo are £1,2 million per year, while the economic benefit in Playa del Carmen for swimming with sand tiger sharks reaches an estimate of £5,5 million, according to the NGO.

The goal of Pelagic Life is to turn fishing towns into tourist towns. Fishermen already know how to find and catch sharks, they just needed a way to apply that knowledge to attract tourists. "Fisherman must get involved," adds Eduardo. "In a period of no more than three years, we want the people of San Carlos to have full management of tourism in San Carlos. If we succeed, we will look for another community with different species and do the same."

Each founding member of Pelagic Life has a full time job aside from the NGO: Eduardo works at a scales company, Ignacio is a lawyer and Carlos has a production company. "As long as we do it for the love of the sea, we will do it happily and get fully involved. Besides, as money is not involved, we have way more freedom," says Eduardo.

Today, the members of Pelagic Life are organising ecotourism trips to San Carlos, in which they take groups of six to twelve people to swim with sharks and see the Magdalena Bay ecosystem. The goal is to make fishermen realize the economic viability of the sharks, because if tourism is their main source of income, then they are going to protect the sharks at all costs. As Jerónimo Pérez, Managing Director at Pelagic Life, said: "A boat that leaves and comes back with tourists is a boat that does not comes back with dead sharks."