Partner in Conservation: Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans

CEDO is located in Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point), Sonora, Mexico.

The world celebrates its oceans every year on June 8, World Ocean Day. Meanwhile, here in Tucson, June marks the depth of our “arid foresummer,” the hottest and driest time of the year. We may dream of the beach, the sound of lapping waves, and caress of cool ocean breezes, but the blazing sun and blaring cicadas bring us back to the Arizona desert. So what’s to celebrate?

Even for desert dwellers, the gifts of the oceans are many! Marine plants produce more than 50% of the world’s oxygen, ocean currents regulate our climate, and seafood provides the primary source of protein for about 3 billion people. Covering 70% of our planet, oceans also absorb about 30% of the planet-warming carbon dioxide we emit into the atmosphere and 90% of the excess heat trapped by this global carbon dioxide “blanket”. Some of this carbon (the “blue carbon”) ends up in the muddy ocean bottom, and new research shows that coastal wetlands sequester carbon 10 times faster than an equal area of tropical forest! 

Our nearest slice of ocean, the Gulf of California, plays its role on the global stage, but is even more important regionally. Most of our much-anticipated summer monsoon rain comes from water evaporated from its surface. The Gulf’s exceptionally high biodiversity led the famous ocean explorer, Jacques Cousteau, to dub it “the world’s aquarium.” CEDO, the Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans, in Puerto Peñasco, is dedicated to conserving this great diversity, productivity and blue carbon potential.

According to CEDO, the northern Gulf of California is home to at least 230 fish species, 131 bird species, 13 marine mammal species, and 5 sea turtle species. The area also hosts 2,285 species of marine invertebrates, over 100 of which are endemic to this region (i.e., they live nowhere else in the world). The Gulf’s high productivity makes it one of the most important fisheries areas for Mexico, and fishing and aquaculture are the major source of protein and economic sustainability for many coastal communities.

The area’s great biological and cultural diversity has been recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) with 2 World Heritage Sites and 2 Ramsar sites (recognized for special protection and sustainable use by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands). These coastal wetlands have out-sized impacts on the marine and terrestrial environments they bridge. In the ocean, they serve as breeding and nursery grounds for a multitude of fish, invertebrate, reptile and bird species and are a source of nutrients to the algae that form the base of the marine food web. On the desert-facing side, they provide oases of shelter and food for many desert dwellers, including many resident and migratory birds. They also provide protection from storm surge to coastal communities.

Gulf of California biodiversity is facing the same pressures as marine biodiversity world-wide. Almost all fisheries have been overfished, and bycatch (the accidental capture of marine animals) threatens marine turtles and mammals. The vaquita porpoise, the world’s most endangered marine mammal, is a victim of this bycatch. Its population, estimated at 570 in 1997, has now declined to only about 10 individuals. Additionally, development along Sonora and Baja coastlines is reducing the capacity of these ecosystems to incubate and foster biodiversity and sequester carbon. This development also introduces additional sources of pollution that can threaten ecosystem and human health.

The only effective solutions to these issues are those which are designed with community participation, and combine local knowledge and creativity with the latest science. CEDO is one of several conservation groups practicing community-based conservation in the Gulf. It promotes an ecosystem-based and collaborative approach to regional fisheries management, and trains and certifies fishers in best artisanal fishing practices. CEDO also engages local residents, businesses and authorities in conservation actions, such as data-based beach cleanups. Local residents recently collected and categorized 3 tons (13,115 pieces) of waste at 23 sites. This kind of information is used to design strategies for waste reduction, and was used to develop the management program for Sandy Beach, the first certified “Clean Beach” in Sonora.

Dr. Nélida Barajas Acosta, CEDO’s Executive Director, is enthusiastic about the potential for the region’s blue carbon ecosystems to offer nature- and community-based solutions to combat climate change. Our growing understanding of carbon storage in coastal ecosystems has put renewed focus on the value of Mexico’s mangrove forests and other wetlands. Mexico ranks fourth in the list of countries with the greatest mangrove coverage. “In addition to the natural benefits, blue carbon is capable of attracting economic benefits,” says Nélida. By participating in carbon markets, communities and ecosystems can benefit financially from protecting their coastlines.

Dr. Nélida Barajas Acosta

A few miles east of Puerto Peñasco, in the Morúa Estuary, you can see and taste what sustainability looks like in this region.  There you will find a women’s oyster farming cooperative, and their restaurant, El Barco, which CEDO helps to support. Floating at the surface of the estuary you’ll see clusters of crate-like structures where tiny oyster larvae grow to harvesting size, a process that takes about a year. For nearly 40 years, these women have patiently pulled their livelihood from the sea with virtually no negative impact on the estuary that sustains them. 

Morúa Estuary

Two hundred miles away in Tucson, on World Ocean Day, we may dream of sitting on El Barco’s palapa-shaded patio, sipping a cold one and sampling oysters straight from the sea. We may be comforted to know that these experiences are only a few hours away. We are connected to the northern Gulf by more than dreams, however. Our tourism has benefits and costs for the communities there. If you visit Puerto Peñasco, you can lower any negative impacts by asking where your seafood comes from and buying from small, local operations, instead of big commercial fleets. Do not buy seafood caught by nets; instead go for hook-and-line captured finfish and hand-collected shellfish. Be conscientious with your use of water and air conditioning. Do not leave trash on the beach, and take recyclables home with you if you can’t find recycling containers. You can learn more by visiting CEDO online or in person, or on one of their eco-tours!

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