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July 2000 Vol. 26, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Divers Witness Mexican Carnage

when marine parks are no refuge

from the July, 2000 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Imagine taking a $2,000 liveaboard trip to a world-class dive site in a supposedly protected marine preserve, only to find rogue fishermen decimating the sea life with gill nets, long lines, dynamite, cyanide, or other instruments of mass destruction. Sound like a bad dream? Actually, it’s happening all over the world, despite conservation efforts.

Most recently, the big fish of San Benedicto Island in Mexico’s Revillagigedo Archipelago Marine Park fell victim to poachers. As we reported in our first-hand April, 1998, report, this area 200 miles south of Cabo San Lucas is home to some of the world’s largest and friendliest giant Pacific mantas, not to mention several species of shark, dolphin, tuna, and other marine animals.

In May, the passengers of the Ambar III, a vessel belonging to the Sea of Cortez environmental organization SeaWatch (, awoke to find seven Mexican drift gillnet boats, each carrying 2-4 miles of net, fishing off San Benedicto, the centerpiece of the Revillagigedo Islands. All the gillnetters were well within the 12-mile commercial fishing limit, and some were within a mile of the island. One set its net on top of “The Boiler,” the legendary cleaning station where mantas regularly invite divers to tickle their bellies.

Both the Ambar III and another live-aboard boat, the Solmar V, confronted the crew of the gillnetter and persuaded them to move further offshore, but other boats ignored them and continued to set their nets within the park. The next day divers filmed a couple of the nets, which were filled with dead sharks, a manta, and a turtle.

Author/photographer Terry Maas, an Ambar III passenger, provides photos and a grisly description of the carnage on his website ( “What was very disturbing,” he writes, “was the way in which these animals died. Sometimes the sharks twisted so violently in the nets that they rolled up the entire net from top to bottom… they appeared to be in cocoons, their fins folded over their chests as if in prayer. It was hideous!” Maas also reports that, while on previous visits to San Benedicto he would typically spot dozens of sharks per dive, none were seen alive following the fishing incident. The folks at Solmar report that sharks did return to the area the following week.

SeaWatch contacted the Mexican Navy, which is responsible for policing the marine park, and the owners of the Solmar V flew videos of the incident to authorities and TV stations in Mexico City. The Secretary of SEMARNAP, the government agency in charge of administering the national park, stated that the boats involved would be “prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

While Mexico has never done much to enforce environmental laws, if they now follow through, it’s a step in the right direction. Laws are only as good as the gumption to enforce them, yet what’s needed is prevention, not after-the-fact wrist-slaps or fines that can be paid off in with another day’s catch. Tragically, poachers regularly invade many of the world’s top dive sites. To give you an idea of the magnitude of the problem, we checked with experts in various wellknown diving locales. Their reports represent just a few of the tragedies that are occurring every day in virtually all the waters of the world.

The Galapagos Islands are called “the world’s greatest storehouse of biologically unique species” by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Yet, according to their website (, trawlers routinely fish within the 40-mile protected zone of the Galapagos National Park. One of the prime targets is shark fins, which are hacked off and shipped to Asia for soup. The fin-less sharks are thrown back live, but as you can imagine, they don’t stay that way for long.

Mathias Espinosa, naturalist guide and scuba guide in the national park, confirms the Sea Shepherd observation. “I have seen a lot of poaching in my 13 years as a guide (5,000 dives),” he reports. ”The areas under greatest pressure are the northern islands such as Darwin, Wolf, and Pinta.” International commercial fishermen use long lines and gill nets, locals spearguns. Even tour boats belonging to the Tour Yacht Operators Association sometimes allow passengers to drop lines over the side.

On a recent trip — ironically, with a crew filming an upcoming IMAX feature — Mathias spotted a Costa Rican ship equipped for longline fishing near the stone arch of Darwin Island, other fishing ships working at night three miles north of Pinta Island, a local boat handlining at Punta Espejo, plus purse seiners and tuna clippers three miles east of Floreana Island. He has reported these and other incidents to the Ecuadorian authorities as well as to the fishing cooperatives which had previously agreed that designated Tourist Diving Sites are off limits.

Underwater photographer Marc Bernardi, who takes groups to the Galapagos four times a year through Aquatic Encounters (, has also seen evidence of shark finning and notes a distinct reduction in sea cucumbers off the East side of Isabella Island. According to Zegrahm Expeditions ( fishermen are pressuring the Ecuadorian government for permission to harvest sea cucumbers from within the Galapagos Marine Reserve. These ugly little bottom feeders, which serve as “the livers of the ocean” by cleaning junk off the sea floor, are now being sold to the Asian aphrodisiac market. (Haven’t they heard of Viagra over there?)

Marc Bernardi believes that poaching in the North Islands is under better control today than in the past 3-4 years. He points out that the national park administration has deputized dive guides and naturalists to report poachers to the Darwin Research Station, which can dispatch an Ecuadorian Coast Guard cutter to intercept them. There is also talk of keeping a volunteer-staffed small craft on site, equipped with high-power radios to report violations — a good start, in theory, but in practice Mathias Espinosa has been frustrated when his previous reports resulted in little more than interdepartmental buck-passing. Everyone seems to point the finger of blame at someone else, from the fishing cooperatives to the tour boats, the Subsecretary of fisheries, and corrupt local judges.

Photographer Mark Strickland confirms that similar problems exist in Thailand. Even though large areas have been set aside as marine national parks, enforcement of regulations is often sorely lacking. Laws are also somewhat ambiguous. While animal or reef organisms may not be removed from marine national parks, Strickland notes, “it is not always clear exactly what areas are protected, and what if any type of fishing is allowed.”

In some ways these laws seem to have a positive effect. “Blast fishing, commercial trawling, and cyanide fishing are almost unheard of in park waters,” says Strickland. On the other hand, “there seems to be almost no effort to prevent purse seining, fish trapping, and hook-and-line fishing.” While these methods may not be as destructive, they still take a huge toll on target species, as well as incidental damage to delicate corals and other reef organisms.

To compound problems, commercial fishing boats are allowed to moor in protected areas. Even when not commercial fishing, they are constantly hook-and-line angling, usually at dive sites. Untreated sewage and trash, including used batteries and plastic bags, goes right over the side. Strickland notes that many Thai dive boats, like those elsewhere, allow and even encourage guests and crew to fish for tame reef fish at dive sites.

Steve Colwell, executive director of the Coral Reef Alliance (, reports that poaching is blatant in Indonesia’s supposedly protected Kungkungan Bay. In Lembeh Strait, he watched a member of the local military setting up a fish trap for mantas and whale sharks. Bernardi adds that Malaysian fishermen have declared open season on whale sharks and that in the past two years he’s seen none of the gentle leviathans around Richelieu Rock, once a well-known “whale shark magnet.” In our current Chapbook, reader Leanne Wells reported seeing dynamited reefs on a live-aboard trip from the Indonesian island chain of Alor to the Banda Sea. And Steve Colwell has actually heard underwater explosions while diving in Komodo National Park.

— D.L.

As we said, these are just a sample of the poaching horror stories. If you’ve heard others, send them to Undercurrent, P.O. Box 1658, Sausalito, CA 94966 or e-mail them to

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