Today was the first day of abalone season. These mitt-sized snails cling to rocks in water from the high-tide zone down to about 60 feet deep. We accompanied several fishermen who dive among the sea lions and kelp to find them.
They contend with water in the 50s, Fahrenheit, and strong surges from open-ocean rollers. In about 40 minutes, the diver on our boat caught 100, his limit. For that, he said, he’d earned about $500. He does this several times a week for several months.
He explained that the official government opening of the season was two months ago, but that here the cooperative delays the opening so they can spawn, then bulk up in weight, so they kill fewer and get more money.
He also surfaced with an octopus for the pot, and a 10-pound lobster which, after being admired, was released; lobster season is closed. Our underwater cameraman showed us images of lobsters practically stacked on each other.
What do the fishermen think of it all? They think that without their 60-year-old cooperative, none of these creatures would still be here. They’d have been depleted by now.
This cooperative, self-limiting community supported, self-policing, locally patrolled kind of management could never happen in the U.S. There is no way a group of fishermen could patrol an area and keep away outsiders, nor do U.S. fishermen agree on much. And the scale of most U.S. fisheries makes community organizing next to impossible. Nor would current law allow it. But there’s a flip side too. The U.S. does have government laws, management, and enforcement that Mexico lacks.
I wish I could witness a merger of the two approaches—good law and smart government, and even smarter local control with a very strong emphasis on conservation and the future.
Our abalone diver said that his grandfather had settled here, and his father was also a fisherman; he’s third-generation. But unlike others we talked to here, he doesn’t want his children to follow in his footsteps. “Too much work,” he says. His dream is for them to go to university and have more options. Here, because conservation pays, he can afford that dream.
In our country we used to have something similar. We called it, “the American dream.”
I was sorry our eye-opening Baja trip had to end so soon. There was more to learn.
To see what we did learn, look for Saving the Ocean with Carl Safina this fall on PBS and on the Web.