By Mónica Franco Ortiz
A grave danger looms over Magdalena Bay and the Gulf of Ulloa, two world-renowned areas located on the Pacific coast of Baja California Sur. Magdalena Bay is famous for being one of the only three gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) breeding lagoons in the world and is the site of the highest fishing productivity in the state.
For its part, the coast of the Gulf of Ulloa (north of Magdalena Bay) is home to lobsters, clams and numerous species of commercial fish; In addition, one of the longest waves on the planet is generated there, making it famous among the surfing community. On the other hand, it is a critical habitat for the development and feeding of the loggerhead or yellow turtle (Caretta caretta), a species in danger of extinction. The local inhabitants of these two wonderful coastal ecosystems depend entirely on fishing and ecotourism attracted by whale watching and spectacular waves.
But a project could destroy not only the natural resources of these two places, but also the way of life of the local communities: Don Diego, promoted by Exploraciones Oceánica S de RL de CV (a subsidiary of the North American company Odyssey Marine Exploration dedicated to the rescue of underwater “treasures”), requested authorization from Semarnat to remove the seabed from an area of 91 thousand hectares in the Gulf of Ulloa to obtain phosphate.
The suction system they intend to use will extract sand up to seven meters deep to separate the phosphorus; the rest will be returned to the sea generating a "sedimentation plume", that is, a cloud of mud and waste with toxic minerals floating in the water. At the end of the project's useful life, Don Diego will have extracted 350 million tons of phosphate sands from this area.
Of course, all the animals that live on the bottom, such as clams, starfish, crabs, among others, will also be absorbed by the dredge. Along with the obvious destruction of the seabed, the main dangers of this activity are: the noise generated by the boats (operating 24 hours a day and all year round) will cause changes in the migratory routes of the humpback and gray whales. Likewise, it will prevent communication and feeding of various species of dolphins. The sediment plume generated by returning non-phosphate materials to the bottom will cause the massive mortality of marine species and, consequently, the disappearance of local fisheries.
In addition, these changes in the ecosystem will also endanger the loggerhead turtles, legally protected by Mexican regulations (NOM-059 SEMARNAT 2010).
The Pacific coast of the Baja California peninsula is the most productive fishing region in Mexico. 70 percent of Baja California Sur's fish products come from Magdalena Bay. This place is the largest coastal wetland on the peninsula, with 24 thousand hectares of mangrove forests, which in part explains the high fishing production. And, as if that were not enough, they are home to thousands of migratory birds.
Costasalvaje began its conservation program at this site in 2011. In the communities of the area we have focused our efforts on working with the youth of the high schools with projects of proper garbage management, pride and care of local natural resources and training workshops for monitoring marine mammals, as well as citizen participation in environmental issues with adults. The presence of civil society organizations is important for the conservation of the natural resources of the place. Indeed, unlike the other two lagoons where the gray whale breeds (San Ignacio and Ojo de Liebre), Magdalena Bay is not a protected natural area.
Puerto Adolfo López Mateos is one of the fishing communities in Magdalena Bay where Costasalvaje works. With just over 2,200 inhabitants, it is the main gray whale watching site in the state, receiving more than 13,000 visitors per year. But even so, fishing continues to be the main livelihood for most families in the area.
Due to the threats that the underwater mine represents to the natural resources of the area, Don Diego has generated concern in the local fishing sector and the conservationist. For this reason, representatives of fishing cooperatives, civil organizations and the general public were actively involved in the public consultation process of the project at the end of 2014. Some civil organizations participated through written communications addressed to the General Directorate of Environmental Impact and Risk. of the Semarnat. The fishermen and inhabitants of the area (including representatives of the fishing sector of Puerto Adolfo López Mateos) participated directly in the public information meeting to listen and comment on the project.
It is common that these remote communities are not very active and do not get involved in political issues. For this reason, Costasalvaje and other civil society organizations working in Magdalena Bay and the Gulf of Ulloa promoted their involvement among local fishing cooperatives during the public consultation process. Some members of the fishing cooperatives were already aware of the project and the fishermen we spoke with were openly concerned about the threat from the Don Diego mine.
In one of the sessions, he highlighted a comment from one of the local fishermen: “It seems illogical to me that, while someone who is from here is not allowed to cut firewood to cook, or to clean a field to keep the panga, that 'because impact studies are needed', to a mine that is going to give us in the tower, they are going to give permits because it can pay for those expensive studies, "he said. "You don't have money to pay for them," he added. A thought that seems to reflect the feelings of thousands of inhabitants of the country who feel small in the face of the large mining projects that are increasing.
Don Diego affirms in the environmental impact manifesto presented to Semarnat, his intention to extract phosphate from the seabed for 50 years, invest a little over 350 million dollars and generate 80 jobs that will require high technical training. According to data from the fishing cooperatives themselves, more than 12 thousand people depend economically on fishing in this area, which puts into perspective the little tangible benefit that the project can bring to the communities.
During the public information meeting, the state and municipal governments, organized civil society organizations, and the more than 350 attendees from different fishing communities in the region rejected this project. The two main observations of the attendees towards Semarnat were: 1) very technical and unclear language from the project representatives; 2) they failed to explain concretely what would be the impact of the mine activity on the fisheries in the area .
In case the great importance that the area has for marine biodiversity was not clear, there is an official federal government proposal to protect loggerhead turtles in the Gulf of Ulloa, whose incidental death has increased dramatically in recent years. The proposal to create there a refuge area for the yellow turtle (Caretta caretta) was presented in December 2014 by the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (Conanp) and covers in its entirety the area where the Don Diego project is to be established.
If approved, it will have to apply a protection program for the loggerhead turtle that would imply regulations in the way of fishing of local cooperatives, but it would also become a legal element that Don Diego will have to face.
Conservation organizations reject the Don Diego project. Not only because of the threat it poses to the marine ecosystem, but because it threatens the way of life of the inhabitants with whom we work in these communities. The sustainable use of fishery resources promoted by the National Commission of Protected Areas has proven to be successful among fishermen from the other two gray whale reproduction lagoons.
The refuge area represents this opportunity for fishermen from the Gulf of Ulloa and Magdalena Bay. Instead, all Don Diego offers is looting, leaving behind the destruction of a highly productive ecosystem and an entire way of life without any local benefit. The decision to reject this mining project should not be so difficult for federal authorities. For obvious and proven reasons.