Is Mexico's Cabo Pulmo National Park the Most Successful No-Take Marine Reserve in the World?

MPA News

Since 1995 when it was designated as an MPA, Cabo Pulmo National Park in Mexico's Gulf of California has experienced a remarkable resurgence in marine life. Total fish biomass within its boundaries has increased by more than five times. The biomass of top predators has increased by more than 11 times. Both of these trends strongly counter those for fish elsewhere in the Gulf in unprotected areas (where biomass has remained level or decreased).

Although it is normal for no-take marine reserves like Cabo Pulmo to exhibit increases in biomass after designation, the increases at Cabo Pulmo are believed to be the largest recorded by science. The 71-km2 site is featured in an article in the August 12 edition of PLoS ONE journal. The lead author, Octavio Aburto-Oropeza of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, credits the MPA's success to local leadership, effective self-enforcement by local stakeholders, and the general support of the broader community.

MPA News: What is the management like for Cabo Pulmo National Park?

Octavio Aburto-Oropeza: The park is managed by the Mexican government under the Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP). Cabo Pulmo receives its funding from the government, and several NGOs and academic institutions participate in research, education, and social programs.

MPA News: According to the park's official designation, only 35% of its area is supposed to be no-take. But you note that the entire MPA has effectively been treated as a no-take marine reserve for the past 16 years. Why is this the case?

Aburto-Oropeza: It was a decision by the local community - they decided not to fish in the entire park. In the decades preceding the MPA, the local community used to be very fishing-dependent. The founders of the town were pearl oyster divers, and later they exploited sharks and reef fish species such as groupers and snappers. When they overexploited the resources on their reefs, they had to start traveling to other areas in Baja California [Mexico] to fish.

The community still recognized, however, that Cabo Pulmo was an important place due its great coral coverage (7 of the 11 species of hard coral in the Gulf of California are in Cabo Pulmo). So with the help of the local university - Universidad Autonoma de Baja California Sur - the community requested designation of the park to stop the degradation of coral habitats and help the reef ecosystem recover. Now since designation, several locally owned small-scale tourism operators have grown up around the park, benefiting economically from the recovered ecosystem.

MPA News: Following publication of your paper, many magazines and newspapers referred to Cabo Pulmo as "the world's most robust marine reserve." Do you agree with that description?

Aburto-Oropeza: Behind the theory of marine reserves are several hypotheses that have not been tested adequately, mainly because there are insufficient opportunities to study large areas for several years. If we understand that less than 0.1% of the world ocean consists of no-take areas, that the majority of marine reserves that comprise that percentage are less than 1 km2 in size, that very few of these areas are older than 10 years, and that even fewer of them have been adopted by the local communities, we see that Cabo Pulmo is an exceptional case. Furthermore, Cabo Pulmo shows that no-take areas may yield results significantly greater than areas previously studied. From this perspective, I think Cabo Pulmo is the world's most robust marine reserve.

For more information:

Octavio Aburto-Oropeza, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, San Diego, California, US. E-mail: maburto [at] ucsd.edu

The study "Large Recovery of Fish Biomass in a No-Take Marine Reserve" is at http://bit.ly/CaboPulmo. Underwater photos of Cabo Pulmo National Park by Octavio Aburto are at www.octavioaburto.com.