Nov 30, 2016

Fighting Tinnitus of Vision

When America sneezes,
Mexico catches pneumonia.

Mexican expression

Mural by Gabby Gomez
Indigente or Indigent - First place tied with mural below
Another return to Puerto Peñasco, we are not feeling as much like tourists but, perhaps, a bit more like locals.  We keep finding out more about what it is like to live here rather than visit here.  The longer we travel, the more we question how to keep that sense of fulfillment and awe one experiences traveling but while at ‘home’. 

A return to a place like Puerto Peñasco, Mexico, for a third time is helping to enlighten us as to the reason(s) why it is so difficult.  The longer you live somewhere, the more you care about a place and its people, the more you start getting involved.  The more you get involved, the more you see through the cracks of politics, people in control, etc.  It is much easier to be oblivious to all this when discovering a new place, keeping a sense of wonderment at what you see and experience flows naturally. 

It is much harder to do when you understand the connections, the problems, the missed solutions, etc.  It is easy to get ‘hooked on’ traveling and keep this sense of ‘euphoria’ going from day to day.  It takes a little more digging, a little more time… when returning to a familiar place.  I call it 'Tinnitus of Vision' – like ignoring the constant buzz in your ear (real tinnitus) we tend to ignore what we see when we have been somewhere a long time… 

The Cultural/Art Front:

To our surprise, a little sprucing up occurred in Puerto Peñasco since we were here last.  A mural contest took place to help beautify the worst graffitied areas in town.  Here are a few examples of great murals adorning various spaces.  The winner took home 7,000 pesos or between $350 and $400 US.  A lot of work for so little money but worth the recognition.  Second and third places received 5,000 and 4,000 pesos respectively.

Great mural by Izrael Rios, Sept, 2016.  Near Calle 32. 
Said it took three days to paint (seems short – so intricate),
Part of a contest to help beautify Puerto Peñasco
Seris - Hombres de la Arena, Seris - Men of the sand
By the same artist, Izrael Rios.  By steps near the beach.
Mural by Memuco (Guillermo Munro Colosio)– Environmental Art Warrior.  Near boat yard
Memuco by the beach
Memuco's pimped ride. 

The Sea of Cortez Front:

Excerpts from The Sea of Cortez by David L. Alles, Western Washington University, 2007

The first major survey of the fauna of the Sea of Cortez was done by marine biologist, Ed Ricketts, and Nobel prize winning author, John Steinbeck, who cruised the Sea of Cortez aboard the Western Flyer, a sardine boat from Monterey, California, from March 17 to April 13, 1940. In that very short timeframe, they made extensive collections of marine invertebrates as well as making observations of the sea’s marine life and its human inhabitants. 
Combining science, philosophy and adventure their story was published in the classic book The Sea of Cortez (1941). Even in 1940, they wrote that over fishing was: “destroying the ecological balance of the whole region...”
This to say that since the Sea of Cortez is very prolific, the problems it is facing today have been going on for a long time.
The world's youngest sea, the Sea of Cortez was created when the East Pacific Rise split the Baja Peninsula from Mexico starting ~5 million years ago.
The Gulf of California is classified as a Class I, highly productive ecosystem based on phytoplankton production (see above picture).  Only other area NOAA places in that category is the Gulf of Alaska.  (Class II has moderate productivity, Class III has low productivity).
In his study of the Gulf of California, Callum M. Roberts (2002) ranked 6th in the world’s top ten marine biodiversity hot spots for tropical reefs.  That is behind South Japan, Western Australia, Gulf of Guinea, Great Barrier Reef, and Hawaiian Islands.
American and Japanese ships were the first known to exploit the Sea (as described by Steinbeck). Now fleets of Mexican fishermen, many unlicensed and ungoverned, are taking whatever they can as fast as they can for American and Asian markets.
Of all the people who have worked against overfishing the Sea of Cortez. one is none other than the owner of El Cid Resort in Mazatlán, Don Julio Berdegué Aznar (who passed away in 2007).  He was a biologist originally from Spain who learned that tourism could be another way for locals to make a living since fishing was diminishing each year.  Knowing that gave me a new appreciation for this resort. 
Three interesting ecologically Sea of Cortez related articles:
The shrimp (aka ‘Pink Gold’ even though they fish blue and brown shrimp in this area) season officially began September 20th, before we got back from Australia so the marina is quiet.  We hear the dark news from boat owners that six shrimp boats were impounded by a US NGO (with aid of UAS – Unmanned Aerial System) and Mexican authorities for supposedly fishing illegally in a protected area.  There is much more to the story but the NGO now boasts that it proves we cannot trust the Mexicans to control their own fishing fleets therefore necessitating the involvement of the US.  Many posts in the US are asking to sink these boats and imprison their crew but is the US much different?  Sport fishermen are flocking to catch many of the last large fish in the Sea because there are fewer regulations they must abide by than in the US. 

As it turns out, there are three separate agencies and each one has different waypoints describing the protected area(s) in question.  Regardless of these discrepancies, boats and crew had to be held for two weeks while things were being figured out.  They have known of these closed areas for nearly 15 years… 

This is not to say that shrimp fleets don’t wreak havoc. Shrimping throughout the world uses bottom-scraping dragnets that haul up 10 pounds of life for every pound of shrimp, akin to “gathering wild mushrooms with a bulldozer”.  If shrimp didn’t reproduce quickly this method would probably have eliminated them by now.  Others caught in these nets however aren’t so fast at reproducing. 

Yet, a small but successful device has helped saved the lives of turtles and others: The Turtle Excluder Device (TED).  TED is a grid, made of metal bars, that fits into a trawl net.  Small animals, such as shrimp, pass through the grid into the mesh bag and are caught.  When larger animals, such as sea turtles, sharks, and sting rays, enter the trawl net, they are stopped by the TED and can exit through an opening either at the top or bottom of the net.  Slow and small progress is being made.

It is interesting to note that even if a captain (and crew) does something against the rules such as going into a protected area, nothing happens to them in the long term.  The whole burden of dealing with the agencies/authorities, paying fines, being reprimanded, is on the owner of the boat.  You certainly need to trust your crew if you own a fishing boat in Mexico! 
This map shows the current range of the vaquita (yellow hatching), the Biosphere Reserve
(area above the green dashed line, which was enacted in part to protect the vaquita,
but which has been largely ineffective at doing so), the area of the current vaquita
refuge (blue polygon, in which gillnetting is illegal, but is still occurring), and the proposed
gillnet exclusion zone (area delineated by the red solid line).
The latter area needs to be made free of gillnets in the next
couple of months if the vaquita is going to survive.
Impounding six boats made for great headlines but it turned out to be due to bad reference points.  This supports what we had heard about Mexican shrimp fishing, that the large commercial shrimpers are highly monitored, it’s mostly the small pangas who go unnoticed and create so much damage.  A meeting was held in Mazatlán so all agencies should now have comparable data to work from and other meetings have been requested trying to change rules making boat captains more accountable for their actions – like fines or loss of their license, etc.

This is not to say shrimping is not bad for the environment but let’s apply blame where it is due.  In this case, it was an error and things have been done to remedy the issue.

On a side note, a shrimp boat uses approximately 16,000 gallons of fuel a month or 535 gallons a day!  Do the math - - - that is a lot of money just for fuel, not counting crew, food, repairs, upgrades, etc.  The Mexican government does extend a much lower fuel price to fishing fleets but still…

This season the shrimp catch is about medium but the prices are high. 

The Famous Vaquita front:

Vaquita by Frédérique Lucas,
This area is meant to protect the few vaquitas (around 50-60 last count) left in the Sea of Cortez.  Their number was believed to be about 5,000 in 1930. The way commercial shrimp boats operate does not usually lead to by-catch of vaquitas, much smaller vessels do when gillnet-fishing for totoaba (type of drum fish), shark, ray, mackerel, or chano (milkfish). 

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s it was established that vaquita live solely in the northernmost part of the Gulf of California, thus having the most limited distribution of any cetacean.  The vaquita is unique among the porpoises as it is the only species of that family found in warm waters, and the size of the dorsal fin is believed to be an adaptation to that, allowing for extra body heat to dissipate. 
Since then many new rules and regulations have come up, been followed for a short while, disregarded, come up again, etc.  It seems like the whole history of fishing/overfishing moves ahead one foot, and backwards two.  We are never going to the real source of the problem: the buyers who are willing to pay exorbitant prices, an allure few poor and mostly uneducated people can resist.

For five years, the Government invested more than $30M US in efforts to stop gillnets from being used.  It slowed, but did not stop, the decline of the species. Scientists have warned for almost twenty years that anything short of eliminating gillnets would be insufficient to prevent the extinction of the vaquita.  Now many believe that vaquita will become extinct regardless because the genetic pool is too small for effective reproduction.

There are only seven species of porpoise; the most popular being the widely-distributed harbor porpoise.  With the disappearance of the vaquita 14% (one in seven) of porpoise species disappear.

The drying up of the Colorado river due to damming and distribution of water to farmers and towns is also blamed for part of the demise of the vaquita.  Everything I read states that the vaquitas that are caught (they are very shy so usually people only see them dead), are not skinny or in poor health. If the lack of water coming down from the Colorado had anything to do with a lackluster nutrition as it is often portrayed, they would show sign of starvation and they do not.  They have quite a varied diet.  However, there may be a link between salinity and reproduction or salinity and nursing ground for juveniles.  So much we don’t know.

Totoaba dehydrated swim bladders aka ‘Aquatic Cocaine’.  The sad part is that the remainder of the fish is left to rot on the beach! Fishermen receive up to $8,500 for each kilogram of totoaba swim bladder, equivalent to half a year’s income from legal fishing activities.  For more information click here.

Not that the lack of sediment and nutrient-rich freshwater flow doesn’t bring a slew of problems to the Sea of Cortez.  Invasive plants (salt cedar and cattails) now dominate a mostly desiccated delta, where forests used to stand.  Shellfish, shrimp and waterfowl have declined dramatically as freshwater has dried up.

Solely putting the blame on easy target like poor Mexican fishermen rather than also working with the flow of the Colorado river won’t make much difference in the end.  This must be approached by both countries, US and MX, in order to be successful even if for other species that may soon follow the fate of the vaquita (little cow).

Interesting article about a last ditch effort at saving the vaquitas

The Potable Water front:

Last time we were here I mentioned the lack of water affecting the whole town as well as the town of the Bay of Los Angeles on the Baja side.  We couldn’t even wash our boat or make water through our RO for lack of pressure.  Trucks with empty water tanks were sneakily circling the streets at night looking for hoses that could lead them to water… 

We have learned since that a government change was mostly the culprit, not just mother nature.  The new appointees did not have a clue how to run the water system.  They didn’t have the tribal knowledge that the previous team had accumulated over time.  As any good ‘takeover’ they didn’t enlist their support to keep the water system ‘afloat’…  Pipes were bursting in many places, some had too much water, some none…  Chaos affecting everyone, rich and poor.  The new government invited the old timers back to help but as soon as the authority thought they had things under control they let them go again.  They felt used and vowed not to come back.  It has been months and evidence of pipes bursting and systems not working properly are still abundant but things seem to have smoothed a bit. Thankfully resorts are only at 10-30% capacity or it could have been much worse.

All this to say that it’s not much different than in most other parts of the world.  Politics!

Mexico’s Large Problems Front:

Per Mexican evening news (in Spanish) the three big problems Mexico face currently are (in order of billions of dollars in cost!):

1.      Human trafficking
2.      Drug cartel
3.      People illegally siphoning fuel from Pemex gas underground pipelines

Around the world, human trafficking is valued at about $32B, for the first-time surpassing drug money in Mexico per the local news.  Not sure I can substantiate this but it still causes us to think/ponder, in my words, a type of slavery.

People are also finding ingenious ways of stealing fuel from Pemex and reselling it on the black market.  It is so common; the army doesn’t even have time to get involved…

On the Critter Front:
When stray female animals (cats and dogs) get neutered, one of their ears gets cut a little shorter to show that they have had the operation.  This way if they become stray again, vets know if they have had the surgery or not.  Clever.  Later we found out they do the same thing in the US, something we were never aware of before.

On the Fake News Front:

A story is making the rounds in Gringolandia visiting Puerto Peñasco, that the Mexican Flag and the Virgin of Guadalupe have been registered or trademarked by China.  Please don’t be fooled, neither of these stories are true. 

1.     There are laws against any flag of any nation being registered or trademarked by anyone (this also applies to coat of arms, certain emblems, etc.).  A likeliness of a flag, as long as there are many changes to it, may be registered or trademarked.  Color combinations of a certain flag could be registered or trademarked but again, only if they are not the exact replica of that flag.

2.     As for the Virgin of Guadalupe, there is a tiny kernel of truth to this story.  Back in 2002, a Mexican businessman of Chinese origin named Wu You Lin (there are many Mexican of Chinese origin if you know your Mexican history) did apply for the registration and got it but only for a very short while.  He never renewed it and the question later came up if he should have had it in the first place since the Virgin of Guadalupe has been around since 1531…  The issue today is whether the miraculous image, honored by the hundreds of millions in the Americas can or should belong to anyone.  For now, she is freed. 

Anyhow folks - - - not fact based…  Traveling shouldn’t stop people from using common sense or critical thinking and question what they hear.  Simply repeating stories unquestionably doesn’t lead to anything fruitful.  As travelers, we should be good ambassadors of what we see, experience, share with new worlds, new people. 

On the Gift Front:

Sweet Corn Tamales
Thank you, Carlos, for sharing your wife Juanita’s delicious warm homemade flour tortillas and red salsa.  An extra thank you for sharing homemade chorizo, bean, egg or potato burritos and for helping us discover ‘avena’, a simple warm oat drink with cinnamon, excellent on a cold morning before a run, a swim or a bike ride.  Your enthusiasm for Mexican food and your friendliness were unparalleled.

Thank you El Calin for the hot sweet corn tamales.  We had, for decades, only tasted savory tamales.  These were like eating creamy corn pudding.  Oh so good!  Good thing we exercise daily or we would be quite large by now.

Thank you, Manuel, for giving us beautiful sea shells and thinking of bringing us a local newspaper.  Very nice gesture. 

As always, we are humbled by your generosity, you who have so little.  And it tastes so much better than any restaurant food.  Yum.

On History’s Front:

On the outskirt of Puerto Peñasco, Choya where there are so many resorts now, didn’t get electricity until 2000!  Hard to believe.

On Wedding Front:

Beautiful Leah and Clifford
Two years spending some time in Puerto Peñasco, two weddings…  This time the youngest daughter married (and the last kid)…  A much larger and fancy type of wedding.  We felt extremely privileged to attend both.  Their message: Thank you for illuminating our dance. 

We learned that you tip the servers and that the men take care of that.  We didn’t know that when we attended the last wedding…  

We also learned from a blond hair, fair skin lady who has been married with a Mexican for 43 years, had 4 children with him, and speaks perfect Spanish that she is still considered an outsider and gets charged more for everything than her husband would.  How can we possibly ‘blend-in’ with our poor Spanish and only 4-5 years here!!!

Cloudy sunset over pool

Dinner by the Sea

...and by the pool
On Déjàlà’s Front:

Two suitcases...

Become this folding origami-like dinghy with side floats as stabilizers when needed.
New origami like folding dinghy with side floats to help stabilize it in rough water as well as a new inflatable stand up paddle-board (not pictured).  Now we have to find room for these new ‘toys’.  The dinghy fits in two ‘suitcases’, the SUP fits in a small backpack. 

Time to play.

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